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United States v. McDonald

United States Court of Appeals, Eighth Circuit

December 11, 2019

United States of America Plaintiff- Appellee
v.
Maurice Jerome McDonald Defendant-Appellant

          Submitted: September 27, 2019

          Appeal from United States District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas - Little Rock

          Before KELLY, MELLOY, and STRAS, Circuit Judges.

          KELLY, CIRCUIT JUDGE.

         Maurice Jerome McDonald appeals from the district court's denial of his motion for a sentence reduction under the First Step Act of 2018. Because the district court erred by finding McDonald ineligible for relief, we reverse and remand.

         I.

         On February 3, 1999, a jury convicted McDonald on four counts of a superseding indictment, including Count 39 for distributing two ounces of cocaine base in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 841. He received a sentence of life imprisonment for Count 39, which we affirmed on appeal. United States v. Nicholson, 231 F.3d 445, 453 (8th Cir. 2000).

         McDonald later filed a series of motions to reduce his sentence. In May 2015, he moved for a sentence reduction under 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(2), based on Amendment 782 to the United States Sentencing Guidelines. See USSG supp. app. C. amend. 782 (2014). The government acknowledged that, under this amendment, McDonald's base offense level on Count 39 would decrease from 38 to 36, resulting in a Guidelines range of 360 months to life. In April 2016, the district court granted McDonald's motion and reduced his sentence to 360 months in prison.

         On January 11, 2019, McDonald filed a pro se motion for a reduced sentence under the newly enacted First Step Act, which made retroactive the lower penalties for cocaine base offenses established by the Fair Sentencing Act. The district court denied the motion without a hearing, finding McDonald ineligible for relief because his sentence was based on 150 kilograms of powder cocaine rather than cocaine base.

         McDonald appeals. He argues he is eligible for a reduced sentence under the First Step Act because his conviction on Count 39 was for distributing cocaine base, not powder cocaine. The government contends the district court did not abuse its discretion by denying McDonald's motion because he had already received a reduced sentence in 2016, and that sentence is within the statutory limits set by the Fair Sentencing Act.

         II.

         We review de novo the applicability of the First Step Act to a defendant's case, including whether a defendant is eligible for a sentence reduction. Cf. United States v. Gamble, 683 F.3d 932, 933 (8th Cir. 2012) (reviewing "de novo the applicability of the [Fair Sentencing Act] to a defendant's case"). We review for an abuse of discretion the district court's decision to grant or deny an authorized sentence reduction. See First Step Act of 2018, Pub. L. No. 115-391, 132 Stat. 5194, 5222 § 404(c) ("Nothing in this section shall be construed to require a court to reduce any sentence pursuant to this section.").

         Congress enacted the Fair Sentencing Act in 2010, which reduced the sentencing disparity between cocaine base and powder cocaine from 100-to-1 to 18-to-1. Dorsey v. United States, 567 U.S. 260, 269 (2012); see Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, Pub. L. No. 111-220, 124 Stat. 2372. Section 2 of the Fair Sentencing Act increased the quantity of cocaine base required to trigger mandatory minimum sentences. It raised the threshold for the 5-year minimum from 5 grams to 28 grams, and raised the threshold for the 10-year minimum from 50 grams to 280 grams. Dorsey, 567 U.S. at 269. Section 3 eliminated the 5-year mandatory minimum for simple possession of cocaine base. Id. These changes did not apply to defendants sentenced before August 3, 2010. Id. at 263.

         In 2018, Congress enacted the First Step Act, which makes certain provisions of the Fair Sentencing Act retroactive. As relevant here, section 404(b) of the First Step Act allows a district court to "impose a reduced sentence as if sections 2 and 3 of the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 . . . were in effect at the time the covered offense was committed." First Step Act § 404(b). A "covered offense" is defined as "a violation of a Federal criminal statute, the statutory penalties for which were modified ...


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