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United States v. Williams

United States District Court, W.D. Virginia, Harrisonburg Division

November 13, 2019

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
v.
KAMAL NIGEL WILLIAMS, Defendant

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          MICHAEL F. URBANSKI, CHIEF UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Kamal Nigel Williams, represented by counsel, filed motions to reduce his sentence pursuant to Section 404(b) of the First Step Act of 2018. ECF Nos. 235, 245. He asks the court to reduce his current sentence of 322 months to 160 months, which would result in a sentence of time served. The government asserts that Williams is ineligible for consideration of a reduction in his sentence, and in the alternative, that if he is eligible for consideration, a further reduction of his sentence is not warranted. For the reasons set forth below, the court will GRANT Williams's request in part and MODIFY his sentence to a total of 216 months, to be followed by a 4-year term of supervised release.

         BACKGROUND

         On October 4, 2006, Williams entered into a plea agreement in which he pleaded guilty to one count of conspiring to distribute 50 grams or more of cocaine base and 500 grams or more of powder cocaine in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 846, and one count of possession of a firearm in furtherance of a drug trafficking violation. ECF Nos. 3, 95. In exchange, the government agreed to dismiss the remaining counts. ECF No. 95. On the same day, Williams pleaded guilty in accordance with the plea agreement. ECF Nos. 94-96.

         On the drug charge, Williams faced a statutory sentencing range of 10 years to life. 21 U.S.C. § 841(b)(1)(A) (2002); ECF No. 236. On the possession-of-a-firearm charge, he faced a statutory sentencing range of 5 years to life, to be imposed consecutively to the first sentence. 18 U.S.C. § 924(c)(1)(A)® (2003). According to the Presentence Investigation Report ("PSR"), Williams was responsible for 889 grams of cocaine base. ECF No. 236. Under the sentencing guidelines, that drug quantity resulted in a base offense level of 36. He received a 3-point decrease for acceptance of responsibility for a subtotal offense level of 33. ECF No. 236 at 8.

         The PSR also states, mistakenly, as discussed below, that Williams's offense of conviction was a violation of 18 U.S.C. § 922(g) and that he had three previous convictions for a violent felony or a serious drug offense, or both. Therefore, according to the PSR, he was subject to an enhanced sentence under 18 U.S.C. § 924(e) and was considered an Armed Career Criminal. U.S.S.G. § 4B1.4(a). ECF 236 at 8. The prior felony convictions that qualified him as an armed career criminal were possession with intent to distribute cocaine, distribution of cocaine base, and possession with intent to distribute marijuana. ECF No. 236 at 8. His offense level as an armed career criminal was 37, decreased by 3 points for acceptance of responsibility to 34. U.S.S.G. § 4B1.4(b)(2); ECF No. 236 at 8. With his total offense level of 34 and his criminal history of VI, his guideline range was 262 to 327 months. U.S.S.G. Ch. 5, Part A; ECF No. 236 at 19.

         On December 19, 2006, Williams was sentenced to 262 months on the drug count and a mandatory consecutive 60-month term on the firearm count, for a total of 322 months. In addition, he was assessed a 5-year term of supervised release. ECF No. 116. He has served approximately 146 months and his projected release date is October 22, 2030. ECF No. 237.

         Williams seeks relief under the First Step Act. He argues that he is eligible for relief and that this court has discretion to reduce his sentence to 160 months, which will result in his immediate release. The government counters argues that because the offense involved a drug quantity over the revised threshold, Williams is not eligible for relief under the First Step Act. Next, the government concedes that it was error to classify Williams as an armed career criminal, but asserts that the error cannot be addressed in a motion for relief under the First Step Act and that in any event, the correct guideline was applied to Williams. Finally, the government urges that if the court finds that Williams is entitled to a reduced sentence, any sentence below the career offender guideline range of 188 to 235 months on the drug charge and a 4-year period of supervised release is not warranted.

         ANALYSIS

         I. Mistake in PSR

         Turning first to the mistake in the PSR, the parties agree that the probation officer incorrectly stated in the PSR that Williams qualified as an Armed Career Criminal subject to an enhanced sentence under 18 U.S.C. § 924(e). ECF No. 236 at 8. Under the guidelines, an "Armed Career Criminal" is a defendant who is subject to an enhanced sentence under 18 U.S.C. § 924(e) and that statute applies to a person who violated 18 U.S.C. § 922(g) and has three previous convictions for a violent felony, serious drug offense, or both. Williams was not convicted of violating § 922(g) so he could not have been designated an Armed Career Criminal.

         The government argues that the First Step Act does not authorize courts to address errors in PSRs, does not open the door to habeas claims, and does not give authorization for the court to reconsider the guidelines calculations. In United States v. Hegwood, 934 F.3d 414 (5th Cir. 2019), the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals held that when a court determines that a defendant was convicted of an offense covered by the First Step Act and thus is eligible for consideration of a sentence modification under the First Step Act, the court should consider only the changes mandated by the Fair Sentencing Act and not other changes that have been made since the defendant was convicted. Id. at 418. In Hegwood, if new caselaw had been applied to the defendant's previous conviction, he no longer would have been considered a career offender. Id. at 416. See also United States v. Drake, No. 1:07-CR-53-1, 2019 WL 5213923 at *5 (N.D. W.Va. October 16, 2019) ("Section 404 [of the first Step Act], by its own terms, does not authorize courts to reduce sentences based on subsequent changes of law other than the retroactive application of sections 2 and 3 of the Fair Sentencing Act")

         However, courts have distinguished between situations where a defendant seeking a modification of his sentence based on the First Step Act also seeks modification based on a change in caselaw, such as in Hegwood, and situations where a mistake was made in the original sentence. In United States v. Black, 388 F.Supp.3d 682 (E.D. Va., June 7, 2019), a defendant sought relief under the First Step Act and the parties agreed that the defendant was wrongfully labeled a career offender when he was sentenced originally. Black, 388 F.Supp.3d at 688-689. The defendant had objected to the classification prior to sentencing and the court had overruled the objection. Id. The United States argued that 18 U.S.C. § 3582 proceedings were limited in scope and that the court had no occasion to address the issue of whether the defendant had been erroneously categorized as a career offender in his original sentencing, where he had the opportunity on appeal and via two 28 U.S.C. § 2255 motions to address the issue. Id. at 689. The defendant countered that the First Step Act directed the court to conduct a "complete review on the merits" and that doing so would allow the court to consider its prior sentencing error by recalculating the guidelines. Id. (citing the First Step Act, § 404; Pub. L. No. 115-391, 132 Stat. 5194, 5222).

         The court concluded that it could not "ignore an error of this magnitude," particularly where the defendant had objected to the career offender enhancement before sentencing and appealed a related challenge to his career offender status. Id. "Allowing the procedural posture of this case to overrun an individual's liberty undermines the integrity of the Court system and the value society places on judges to get things right." Id. The court further found that the Sentencing Guidelines and the First Step Act do not require a court to continue applying an erroneous guidelines range based on a miscalculated criminal history, especially when a defendant objected to the sentencing enhancement before the initial sentencing. Id. at 690.

         In the instant case, at the sentencing hearing Williams's counsel stated that she had reviewed the PSR and did not object to it. When the court made its findings, it did not make an explicit finding that Williams was an Armed Career Criminal under the statute, but recited that his total offense level was 34, he had a criminal history category of VI, and his guidelines range was 262 to 327 months, plus a consecutive 60-month term on the firearm charge. ECF No. 220 at pp. 5-6. The finding that he had a total offense level of 34 was consistent with the PSR designation of him as an Armed Career Criminal, but also was consistent with a finding that he was a career offender under the guidelines. In the judgment, there was no finding that Williams violated § 922(g), although in the statement of reasons, the court adopted the PSR without change, presumably with its mistaken assertion that Williams had violated § 922(g). ECF No. 117 at 1.

         This case differs from Black in that no objection was made to the PSR and Williams did not file a direct appeal or seek collateral review. Nevertheless, the parties agree that it was a mistake to find that his conviction was a violation of § 922 (g) and designate him as an Armed Career Criminal for purposes of U.S.S.G. § 4Bl.4(a), and the same considerations at issue in Black apply here. It serves no purpose to perpetuate a mistake in the name of consistency. Indeed, doing so would only mean that the court was consistently wrong. Williams did not violate § 922(g) and for a court to make a second finding that he did would not only be incorrect, but unjust. Therefore, the court will not consider Williams to be an Armed Career Criminal for purposes of examining his previous sentence under the First Step Act.

         II. ...


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