In United States v. Smith, No. 19-13056 (Apr. 19, 2022) (William Pryor, Jordan, Brown (N.D. Ga.)), the Court reversed the district court’s denial of Mr. Smith’s First Step Act motion and remanded for further proceedings.

Mr. Smith was convicted of possession of 5 grams or more of crack cocaine with intent to distribute, in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 841(b)(1)(B), and the brandishing of a firearm in the commission of a drug trafficking crime, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 924(c)(1)(A)(ii).  He was sentenced to a term of imprisonment of 210 months on the crack cocaine conviction, and a consecutive term of imprisonment of 84 months on the firearm conviction.  Based on Amendments 706 and 782 to the Sentencing Guidelines, his sentence on the crack cocaine conviction was reduced to 168 months’ imprisonment, and then to 135 months’ imprisonment.

After passage of the First Step Act, Mr. Smith wrote a letter to the district court asking whether he was eligible for a sentence reduction, and requesting the appointment of counsel to file a motion.  The district court appointed the Federal Public Defender’s Office to represent Mr. Smith.  The probation office then prepared a memorandum advising the court that Mr. Smith was ineligible for a sentence reduction.  The district court then, without the benefit of briefing, construed Mr. Smith’s pro se letter as a motion for relief under the First Step Act and denied it, concluding that Mr. Smith was not eligible for a reduction.  Mr. Smith moved for reconsideration, to which the government was ordered to respond and “includ[e] all substantive arguments.”  The parties then filed a joint motion for reconsideration requesting a briefing schedule to allow litigation of all arguments for relief, which the court denied.  The court also denied Mr. Smith’s request for leave to file a reply to the government’s response to address the government’s substantive arguments.  The court then denied Mr. Smith’s motion for reconsideration, finding Mr. Smith ineligible for relief under the First Step Act, and alternatively, even if he were eligible, that any further reduction was unwarranted.

The Court reversed and remanded to afford Mr. Smith an opportunity to be heard as to why he merited a sentence reduction.  The Court first determined that, under Jones, Mr. Smith is eligible for relief.  The Court then addressed the district court’s alternative ruling, and found that it could not stand because Mr. Smith was not given an opportunity to be heard on the issue.  The Court reasoned that although the district court provided reasons as to why Mr. Smith did not merit a sentence reduction, it rendered its alternative ruling without hearing from him and without considering the factual and legal bases that might support a favorable exercise of discretion. The wide berth given to district courts by the First Step Act requires deferential review with respect to the ultimate exercise of discretion, but it does not speak to the process which must be provided to the parties.