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United States v. Heaton

United States District Court, D. Minnesota

September 13, 2017

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Plaintiff,
v.
STIRLING MICHAEL HEATON, Defendant.

          Michael L. Cheever, Assistant United States Attorney, UNITED STATES ATTORNEY'S OFFICE, for plaintiff.

          Stirling Michael Heaton, Reg. No. 16286-041, Phoenix Federal Correctional Institution, pro se defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER GRANTING MOTION TO REDUCE SENTENCE

          JOHN R. TUNHEIM CHIEF JUDGE.

         Defendant Stirling Michael Heaton was originally sentenced to a term of imprisonment of 115 months pursuant to a binding plea agreement under Fed. R. Crim. P. 11(c)(1)(C) entered into by the parties and accepted by the Court. Heaton now moves for a sentence reduction under 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(2) based on Amendment 782 to the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines Manual (“the Guidelines”), which retroactively lowers his advisory Guidelines range from 130-162 months to 110-137 months, before factoring in an 18-month adjustment for an undischarged state term under § 5G1.3(b)(1) of the Guidelines. For the reasons discussed below, the Court will grant Heaton's motion and reduce his sentence to 98 months.

         BACKGROUND

         In 2012, Heaton was indicted for charges of conspiracy to commit racketeering, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1962(d), in connection with his membership in the “Native Mob” gang. (Indictment ¶¶ 3, 14, 22(v)-(x), Jan. 19, 2012, Docket No. 18.) On March 30, 2013, the parties attempted to enter a plea agreement pursuant to Fed. R. Crim. P. 11(c)(1)(C), binding the Court to sentence Heaton to 124 months' imprisonment, premised on a total offense level of 27, with credit for time served in state custody. (Tr. of Sentencing Hr'g at 8-11, 15, June 8, 2016, Docket No. 1620.) The Court refused to accept the plea agreement, finding that the plea agreement improperly applied the Guidelines because Heaton in fact had a “total offense level of 28.” (Id. at 6, 14-15.) The Court then determined the proper sentence for Heaton based on his Guidelines range: the Court “start[ed] at the bottom of the guideline range” with 130 months, then increased the sentence by 6 months for a “witness tampering issue, ” then reduced by 18 months to credit Heaton for the time served on an undischarged state sentence under § 5G1.3(b)(1), and finally imposed a 3-month downward variance for good time Heaton would not receive on the state term. (Id. at 14-15.) Based on these calculations, the Court found 115 months to be the “fair and reasonable sentence” and directed the parties change the plea agreement to 115 months or to “withdraw [the plea] and go to trial.” (Id. at 15.)

         Following a recess, the parties presented an edited Rule 11(c)(1)(C) agreement, which the government said, “corrected [the Guidelines] computations throughout” the agreement. (Id. at 16.) As part of the process of accepting the agreement, Heaton affirmed that he understood the total offense level in the plea agreement increased from 27 to 28, and the change resulted in a Guidelines range of 130 to 162 months, without the § 5G1.3 adjustment. (Id. at 18.) Thereafter, the Court accepted the plea agreement and imposed a sentence of 115 months after an adjustment for Heaton's related, undischarged state term pursuant to § 5G1.3. (Id. at 21; see also Final Approved Plea Agreement at 8 n.1, May 30, 2013, Docket No. 1236 (discussing Heaton's adjustment under § 5G1.3).)

         18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(2) provides that a criminal sentence may be retroactively reduced “in the case of a defendant who has been sentenced to a term of imprisonment based on a sentencing range that has subsequently been lowered by the Sentencing Commission.” In 2014, the Sentencing Commission approved Amendment 782 to the Guidelines. U.S.S.G. Suppl. to App. C, Amend. 782 (U.S. Sentencing Comm'n 2014). The amended Guidelines retroactively reduced the base offense level for Heaton's drug quantity from 26 to 24 and reduced his total offense level from 28 to 26.[1] On October 17, 2016, Heaton filed a motion to reduce his term of imprisonment based on Amendment 782 and 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(2).

         DISCUSSION

         I. ELIGIBILITY UNDER 18 U.S.C. § 3582(C)(2)

         Fed. R. Crim. P. 11(c)(1)(C) provides that a “plea agreement may specify that an attorney for the government will . . . agree that a specific sentence . . . is the appropriate disposition of the case.” If the Court accepts that plea agreement, the agreed upon sentence “binds the court.” Id. When a defendant is sentenced pursuant to a binding Rule 11(c)(1)(C) plea agreement, the court retains discretion to reduce the sentence under § 3582(c)(2) only if the “agreement expressly uses a Guidelines sentencing range to establish the term of imprisonment, and that range is subsequently lowered by the [United States Sentencing] Commission.” Freeman v. United States, 564 U.S. 522, 539 (2011) (Sotomayor, J., concurring).[2] For Freeman to apply, “[t]he plea agreement must do more than opaquely refer to concepts usually embodied in the Guidelines calculations.” United States v. Renfrow, No. 15-3792, 2017 WL 781516, at *1 (8th Cir. Feb. 28, 2017). It must be “evident from the agreement itself, for purposes of § 3852(c)(2) the term of imprisonment imposed by the court in accordance with that agreement is ‘based on'” the applicable sentencing range. Freeman, 564 U.S. at 539.

         The Court finds Heaton's amended plea agreement meets this standard. The initial agreement included a Guidelines calculation and an advisory Guidelines range, and selected a sentence within that range. (Final Approved Plea Agreement at 6-9.) The Court refused to accept the agreement, finding it incorrectly applied the Guidelines. The parties were then given an option to revise the plea agreement to reflect the correct Guidelines range and the sentence that the Court found was appropriate based on that range. Accordingly, the Court finds that the amended agreement was “based on” the applicable Guidelines and that Heaton is eligible for reduction of his term of imprisonment under 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(2).

         II. AMENDED GUIDELINES RANGE AND U.S.S.G. § 5G1.3 ADJUSTMENT

         Section 3582(c)(2) provides for sentence reductions “consistent with applicable policy statements issued by the Sentencing Commission.” The policy statement applicable to reductions under § 3582(c)(2) is found in U.S.S.G. § 1B1.10. That policy statement directs the court to “determine the amended guideline range that would have been applicable” if the amendment had been in effect and “leave all other guideline application decisions unaffected.” U.S.S.G. § 1B1.10(b)(1). The policy statement also states “the court shall not reduce the defendant's term of imprisonment under [§] 3582(c)(2) . . . to a term that is less than the minimum of the amended guideline range determined under subdivision (1) of this subsection, ” unless the court previously imposed a term less than the Guidelines range “pursuant to a government motion to reflect the defendant's substantial assistance to authorities.” Id. § 1B1.10(b)(2)(A)-(B). Accordingly, in many cases, the Court may not reimpose a downward departure or variance to below the amended Guidelines range when considering a § 3582(c)(2) sentence reduction, even if it had done so at the initial sentencing. See, e.g., ...


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