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United States v. Peters

United States Court of Appeals, Fourth Circuit

December 12, 2016

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Plaintiff - Appellee,
v.
SPENCER PETERS, a/k/a Smoke, Defendant-Appellant.

          Argued: September 23, 2016

         Appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, at Richmond. Robert E. Payne, Senior District Judge. (3:08-cr-00186-REP-RCY-2)

         Affirmed by published opinion. Judge Wilkinson wrote the majority opinion, in which Judge Diaz joined. Chief Judge Gregory wrote a dissenting opinion.

         ARGUED:

          Caroline Swift Platt, OFFICE OF THE FEDERAL PUBLIC DEFENDER, Alexandria, Virginia, for Appellant.

          Peter Sinclair Duffey, OFFICE OF THE UNITED STATES ATTORNEY, Richmond, Virginia, for Appellee.

         ON BRIEF:

          Geremy C. Kamens, Federal Public Defender, Alexandria, Virginia, Robert J. Wagner, Assistant Federal Public Defender, OFFICE OF THE FEDERAL PUBLIC DEFENDER, Richmond, Virginia, for Appellant.

          Dana J. Boente, United States Attorney, OFFICE OF THE UNITED STATES ATTORNEY, Alexandria, Virginia, for Appellee.

          Before GREGORY, Chief Judge, and WILKINSON and DIAZ, Circuit Judges.

          WILKINSON, Circuit Judge

         Spencer Peters appeals the district court's denial of his motion for a sentence reduction under 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(2). A jury convicted Peters of both conspiracy to distribute 50 grams or more of cocaine base, or "crack, " and a related firearms conspiracy. Given the quantity of cocaine base attributable to Peters, the district court applied the maximum base offense level for drug-trafficking crimes under the Sentencing Guidelines. Peters ultimately received 480 months of imprisonment.

         After Guidelines Amendment 782 increased the minimum quantity of cocaine base associated with the maximum base offense level to 25.2 kilograms, Peters moved for a sentence reduction under § 3582(c)(2). The district court denied the motion, concluding that "the quantity of controlled substance in the offense of conviction renders the defendant ineligible for a reduction of sentence." J.A. 748. On appeal, Peters argues that the district court erred by failing to explain its eligibility determination in sufficient detail and by finding him responsible for at least 25.2 kilograms of cocaine base. For the reasons that follow, we affirm.

         I.

         A.

         We first set forth the general statutory framework for deciding sentence reductions. Ordinarily, of course, a sentence is final. 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c) (2012). Recognizing a discrete exception to the general rule of sentencing finality, section 3582(c)(2) allows reductions to a defendant's term of imprisonment to give the defendant "the benefit of later enacted adjustments to the judgments reflected in the Guidelines." Dillon v. United States, 560 U.S. 817, 828 (2010); see § 3582(c)(2). Section 3582(c)(2), the Supreme Court has explained, permits "only a limited adjustment to an otherwise final sentence and not a plenary resentencing proceeding." Dillon, 560 U.S. at 826. This court has noted that § 3582(c)(2) does not allow "a do-over of an original sentencing proceeding, " in which the defendant is "cloaked in rights mandated by statutory law and the Constitution." United States v. Legree, 205 F.3d 724, 730 (4th Cir. 2000) (quoting United States v. Tidwell, 178 F.3d 946, 949 (7th Cir. 1999)).

         To decide whether to reduce a defendant's sentence under § 3582(c)(2), courts conduct a "two-step inquiry." Dillon, 560 U.S. at 826; United States v. Williams, 808 F.3d 253, 257 (4th Cir. 2015). First, a court must determine the defendant's eligibility. Section 3582(c)(2) permits a reduction only if (1) the defendant's "term of imprisonment [was] based on a sentencing range that has subsequently been lowered by the Sentencing Commission, " and (2) the reduction "is consistent with applicable policy statements issued by the Sentencing Commission." § 3582(c)(2). Second, the court may grant the authorized reduction "after considering the factors set forth in section 3553(a) to the extent that they are applicable." Id.; see 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a) (2012). The ultimate decision of "[w]hether to reduce a sentence and to what extent" is committed to the district court's discretion. United States v. Smalls, 720 F.3d 193, 195 (4th Cir. 2013); see Legree, 205 F.3d at 727.

         The Guidelines policy statement implementing the statute, Guidelines § 1B1.10, spells out the process for determining whether an amendment lowers a defendant's sentencing range. See U.S. Sentencing Guidelines Manual ("U.S.S.G.") § 1B1.10 (2014). Courts "shall substitute . . . the amendments . . . for the corresponding guideline provisions that were applied when the defendant was sentenced and shall leave all other guideline application decisions unaffected." Id. § 1B1.10(b)(1). Section 1B1.10 also functions as a gatekeeper, specifying which Guidelines amendments apply retroactively and thus may give rise to a sentence reduction under § 3582(c)(2). Id. § 1B1.10(a)(2)(A), (d).

         B.

         Motions under § 3582(c)(2) must be based on an amendment to the Guidelines. See id. § 1B1.10(a)(1). Following the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, the Sentencing Commission amended the Guidelines with respect to cocaine base offenses.

         For drug-trafficking crimes in general, a defendant's base offense level depends on the type of drug and the amount attributable to the defendant. See U.S.S.G. § 2D1.1(a)(5), (c) (2015). The Drug Quantity Table specifies particular base offense levels for quantity ranges of various drugs, with a maximum of 38 levels. Id. § 2D1.1(c).

         The Sentencing Commission revised the Drug Quantity Table after Congress enacted the Fair Sentencing Act. To alleviate the severe sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine, the Act reduced the statutory penalties for cocaine base offenses. Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 § 2, Pub. L. No. 111-220, 124 Stat. 2372, 2372 (codified at 21 U.S.C. § 841 (2012)). Accordingly, Guidelines Amendments 750 and 782 lowered the base offense levels assigned to different amounts of cocaine base. The Commission made both amendments retroactive. See U.S.S.G. § 1B1.10(d).

         Amendment 750 increased the minimum quantity of cocaine base necessary to trigger the maximum base offense level from 4.5 to 8.4 kilograms. U.S.S.G. app. C, amend. 750 (effective Nov. 1, 2011). Amendment 782 again raised the requisite amount of cocaine base from 8.4 to 25.2 kilograms. U.S.S.G. supp. app. C, amend. 782 (effective Nov. 1, 2014).

         For defendants responsible for at least 25.2 kilograms of cocaine base, Amendment 782 has no effect; the maximum base offense level (38 levels) still applies. Defendants accountable for more than 8.4 but less than 25.2 kilograms of the drug, however, will receive a base offense level of 36 levels.

         II.

         The appellant Spencer Peters was indicted in 2008 along with his brother Terrence Peters and their associate Clifford Noel.[1] The two-count superseding indictment charged them with conspiring to distribute 50 grams or more of cocaine base (Count One) as well as conspiring to possess firearms in furtherance of a drug-trafficking offense (Count Two). The indictment alleged ...


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