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United States v. Havens

United States District Court, E.D. Kentucky, Southern Division, London

April 17, 2019



          Robert E. Wier United States District Judge.

         The narrow question before the Court is whether the First Step Act of 2018's broadening of 18 U.S.C. § 3553(f) (i.e., the statutory “safety valve”) applies to a defendant who pleaded guilty before the Act became law but was sentenced after that date. The answer turns on the meaning of “conviction entered” in § 402(b) of the Act. Because the Court concludes that conviction entry, in context, corresponds with pronouncement of guilt rather than date of judgment, it finds the § 402 changes inapplicable in this pre-Act plea scenario.


         Timothy Havens pleaded guilty to one count of possession with intent to distribute 50 grams or more of methamphetamine, in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 841(a)(1). On October 4, 2018, United States Magistrate Judge Ingram conducted the Rule 11 hearing. See DE #21 (Plea Agreement); DE #22 (Rearraignment Minutes). Judge Ingram recommended acceptance of Havens's plea, see DE #23 (R&R), and neither Havens nor the United States objected. Judge Van Tatenhove, then the district judge on the case, [1] adopted Judge Ingram's R&R, accepted Havens's guilty plea, and formally adjudged Havens guilty of the offense on October 23, 2018. See DE #24 ¶ 2 (“Defendant Timothy Havens is ADJUDGED guilty of Count 1 of the Indictment[.]”).

         On December 21, 2018, President Trump signed into law the First Step Act of 2018 (Pub. L. No. 115-391, 132 Stat. 5194 (2018)). Title IV of the Act, labeled “Sentencing Reform, ” did just that. It reduced certain mandatory minimum penalties in § 841, diminished the severity of offense “stacking” under 18 U.S.C. § 924(c), retroactively applied the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, and- relevant here-broadened the existing § 3553(f) safety valve, offering more offenders relief from specific mandatory minimum incarceration terms. Because Havens has more than one criminal history point, he fails to qualify for the statutory safety valve under the pre-First Step Act version of § 3553(f). Given the Act's changes to § 3553(f)'s requirements, however, Havens objected to the Presentence Investigation Report's failure to apply the new statutory safety valve. See DE #31. Consistent with Department of Justice policy, the United States agreed with Havens and argued that the modified safety valve should apply. See DE #32. Both parties, and the Court, acknowledge that Havens satisfies all qualifications of § 3553(f) as amended. Thus, the sole issue is whether Congress intended amended § 3553(f) to extend to defendants adjudged guilty (via plea or verdict) prior to December 21, 2018, though not yet sentenced by First Step Act passage.


         Section 402 of the First Step Act, titled and effecting a “Broadening of Existing Safety Valve, ” provides: “APPLICABILITY.-The amendments made by this section shall apply only to a conviction entered on or after the date of enactment of this Act.” § 402(b), 132 Stat. at 5221. The Act does not define or further describe the phrase “conviction entered.” If the date that a “conviction [is] entered” refers to the entry[2] of a guilt finding, then, by its terms, the First Step Act's § 3553(f) changes do not apply to defendants who pleaded guilty before December 21, 2018. However, if conviction entry equates to entry of judgment (which encompasses both the guilt finding or verdict and the sentence, see Fed. R. Crim. P. 32(k)(1))-as Havens and the United States argue-then the December 21 safety valve amendment applies to defendants already adjudged guilty but awaiting sentencing as of that date.

         “When a term goes undefined in a statute, we give the term its ordinary meaning[, ]” Taniguchi v. Kan.Pac. Saipan, Ltd., 132 S.Ct. 1997, 2002 (2012), as commonly understood at the time of enactment, see Keeley v. Whitaker, 910 F.3d 878, 882 (6th Cir. 2018). The word “conviction” is defined as either “[t]he act or process of judicially finding someone guilty of a crime; the state of having been proved guilty[, ]” or “[t]he judgment (as by a jury verdict) that a person is guilty of a crime.” Conviction, Black's Law Dictionary (10th ed. 2014), available at Westlaw.[3] In case law, “[t]he word ‘conviction' is a chameleon[, ]” lacking one “settled meaning[.]” Davis v. Prof'l Representatives Org., 666 Fed.Appx. 433, 439 (6th Cir. 2016) (quoting Harmon v. Teamsters, Chauffeurs & Helpers Local Union 371, 832 F.2d 976, 978 (7th Cir. 1987)). At the time Congress enacted the First Step Act, the Supreme Court had recognized “that the word ‘conviction' can mean either the finding of guilt or the entry of a final judgment on that finding.” Deal v. United States, 113 S.Ct. 1993, 1996 (1993).[4] Given the “fundamental principle of statutory construction (and, indeed, of language itself) that the meaning of a word cannot be determined in isolation, [it] must be drawn from the context in which it is used.” Id. The Court thus looks first to the language of the First Step Act for contextual insight into the meaning of the word “conviction” in § 402(b), bearing in mind relevant overarching principles of statutory interpretation.

         The Supreme Court undertook a like analysis in the context of the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, deciding whether the 2010 Act's provisions reducing the crack-to-powder cocaine sentencing ratio applied to crimes committed pre-enactment: “The underlying question before us is one of congressional intent as revealed in the Fair Sentencing Act's language, structure, and basic objectives. Did Congress intend the Act's more lenient penalties to apply to pre-Act offenders sentenced after the Act took effect?” Dorsey v. United States, 132 S.Ct. 2321, 2326 (2012). Acknowledging the influence of the general federal saving statute, see 1 U.S.C. § 109 (1871), the Court “recognize[d] that, because of important background principles of interpretation, we must assume that Congress did not intend those penalties to apply unless it clearly indicated to the contrary.” Dorsey, 132 S.Ct. at 2326 (emphasis in original). Accordingly, a later statute's more lenient penalties[5] apply to conduct predating the statute's enactment only where “the will of Congress as manifested either expressly or by necessary implication in [the] subsequent enactment[]” so provides. Id. at 2331 (quoting Great Northern Ry. Co. v. United States, 28 S.Ct. 313, 316 (1908)). “[T]he Court has described the necessary indicia of congressional intent by the terms ‘necessary implication,' ‘clear implication,' and ‘fair implication,' phrases it has used interchangeably.” Id. at 2332 (citations omitted).

         Dorsey dealt with a statute utterly silent on the timing of its applicability. The Court carefully noted that it worked by probing the text for the intent of Congress; Dorsey insisted on assurance that ordinary interpretive considerations “point clearly” to the conclusion that Congress intended to apply “new penalties to a set of pre-Act offenders.” Id. at 2332. Ultimately, the Court identified six considerations in finding new-law applicability. Those included thorough review of the Sentencing Reform Act (which required that a sentencing court apply Guidelines in effect at the time of sentencing) and the Fair Sentencing Act's emergency Guidelines amendment authorization (showing that Congress knew the Guidelines timing issue and intended to assure concurrent leniency for newly sentenced offenders). Id. at 2332-33.

         Unlike the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, the First Step Act lacks clear or even “fair implication” of an intent to apply the more lenient safety valve to those pronounced guilty pre-Act; rather, the language and structure of the First Step Act strongly suggest the opposite conclusion. Within the Sentencing Reform Title of the First Step Act, Congress included three express “applicability” provisions. In both §§ 401 and 403 (the provisions governing § 841 mandatory minima and § 924(c) stacking, respectively), Congress used the following language: “APPLICABILITY TO PENDING CASES.-This section, and the amendments made by this section, shall apply to any offense that was committed before the date of enactment of this Act, if a sentence for the offense has not been imposed as of such date of enactment.” §§ 401(c) & 403(b), 132 Stat. at 5221, 5222. This describes the precise timeline in Havens's case-offense commission (and Havens's guilty plea) occurred pre-Act, but “a sentence for the offense ha[d] not been imposed as of” December 21, 2018.[6] The applicability provision of the new safety valve is dramatically different: “The amendments . . . shall apply only to a conviction entered on or after the date of enactment of this Act.” Id. at § 402(b).[7]

         It is counterintuitive-and contrary to statutory interpretation directives-to assume that Congress intended the applicability provisions of §§ 401, 402, and 403 to convey the same meaning despite their very different phrasing. See, e.g., Keeley, 910 F.3d at 884 (“Under accepted canons of statutory interpretation, we must interpret statutes as a whole, giving effect to each word and making every effort not to interpret a provision in a manner that renders other provisions of the same statute inconsistent, meaningless or superfluous.”). Within Title IV's applicability provisions, Congress references three events in the criminal process-offense commission, conviction entry, and sentence imposition. As a matter of common understanding, judgment entry generally immediately follows sentence imposition, and the two are conceptually tethered. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 32, governing “Sentencing and Judgment, ” within Title VII titled “Post-Conviction Procedures”; Sasser v. United States, 352 F.2d 796, 797 (6th Cir. 1965) (“[I]t is true that the pronouncement of sentence represents the judgment of the court and that the order of judgment is merely evidence of the sentence[.]”); Jenkins v. United States, 555 F.2d 1188, 1189 (4th Cir. 1977) (citations omitted) (recognizing the general rule that “in a criminal case the sentence is the judgment[, ]” but nevertheless distinguishing the word “conviction” in the at-issue statute (defined as “the judgment on a verdict or a finding of guilty . . .”) from “sentence” based on the statute's legislative history); Yeloushan v. United States, 313 F.2d 303, 304 (5th Cir. 1963) (quoting Parr v. United States, 76 S.Ct. 912, 916 (1956)) (noting that, for appeal purposes, “‘[f]inal judgment in a criminal case means sentence'” and “‘[t]he sentence is the judgment[]'”). To equate conviction with judgment would collapse any timing distinction between entry of conviction and imposition of sentence and thus fail to give deliberate effect to the differing contemporaneous articulations Congress chose to use. Construing “conviction” as pronouncement of guilt within the meaning of § 402(b) best preserves the apparent textual differences between Title IV's applicability provisions.

         The Court also finds the First Step Act's § 924(c) fix instructive. Deal had interpreted § 924(c)(1)(C) to require penalty stacking when a jury made sequential, cascading guilt findings on multiple § 924(c) counts within one Indictment. See 113 S.Ct. at 1996. The Court treated each guilt finding as a “conviction” for purposes of the phrase “second or subsequent conviction.” See Id. (“In the context of § 924(c)(1), we think it unambiguous that ‘conviction' refers to the finding of guilt by a judge or jury that necessarily precedes the entry of a final judgment of conviction.”). The First Step Act reversed Deal. The Act now allows the stacked enhancement only as to a § 924(c) “violation . . . that occurs after a prior conviction under this subsection has become final.” See § 403(a), 132 Stat. at 5222. Thus, Congress, within the First Step Act, and within the same Title addressing “Sentencing Reform, ” contemporaneously dealt with the term “conviction” in a context that clearly meant only finding of guilt (the jury's verdict, as used in Deal). Congress fixed Deal by requiring conviction finality. However, in the neighboring § 402 of the First Step Act, Congress used no like qualifier as to the term “conviction, ” a term it knew in § 403 had the meaning used by Deal. This signifies that the word “conviction, ” without adornment, means guilt finding.

         Equally important is the language Congress omitted in Title IV of the First Step Act. In finding the requisite indicia of Congressional intent in the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, the Dorsey Court heavily relied on the 2010 Act's inclusion of Guidelines “emergency amendment” authority, “allowing ‘the Commission to incorporate the statutory changes' in the Guidelines while ‘minimiz[ing] the lag between any statutory and guideline modifications for cocaine offenders.'” 132 S.Ct. at 2329 (citation omitted).[8] Against the backdrop of the Sentencing Reform Act's command to apply the Guidelines in effect at the time of sentencing, the Dorsey Court viewed this inclusion of emergency amendment authority as an indicator of Congress's intent to broadly apply the 2010 Act's more lenient penalties. Id. at 2332-33. The First Step Act provides no such emergency amendment authority. Moreover, the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 lacked any instruction concerning its applicability, whereas the First Step Act contains the varying applicability ...

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