United States District Court, W.D. North Carolina, Charlotte Division
Cogburn, Jr. United States District Judge
MATTER is before the Court on Defendant’s
Motion for Reduced Sentence Under The First Step Act of 2018
(Doc. No. 76) and the United States’ Motion to Hold
Case in Abeyance (Doc. No. 79). After reviewing the motions,
the Court enters the following Order.
23, 2009, Defendant Chris Ford was charged by a federal grand
jury through a superseding indictment with seven offenses
related to drug trafficking and firearms possession. (Doc.
No. 14). Plaintiff entered into a plea agreement with the
Government, pursuant to which he pleaded guilty to three
offenses: (1) one count of conspiring to distribute at least
50 grams of crack cocaine, in violation of 21 U.S.C.
§§ 846 and 841(b)(1)(A); (2) one count of
possessing with intent to distribute at least 50 grams of
crack cocaine, in violation of 21 U.S.C. §§
841(a)(1) and 841(b)(1)(A); and (3) one count of possessing a
firearm in furtherance of a drug trafficking crime, in
violation of 18 U.S.C. § 924(c). (Doc. No. 26 ¶ 1).
In exchange, the Government dismissed all remaining counts
and agreed not to seek enhanced penalties for
Defendant’s prior convictions, pursuant to 21 U.S.C.
§ 851. (Id. ¶¶ 2–3). The
parties also agreed that, “[w]ith regard to the United
States Sentencing Guidelines, ” they would
“jointly recommend that the court” find
“[t]he amount of cocaine base/crack cocaine that was
known to or reasonably foreseeable by the Defendant was 304.4
grams.” (Id. ¶ 8).
United States Probation Office prepared a presentence
investigation report to assist the Court with sentencing. As
to Defendant’s drug offenses, the Office found him
responsible for 291.96 grams of crack cocaine and 148 grams
of power cocaine. (Doc. No. 34 ¶ 22). Factoring in
Defendant’s acceptance of responsibility, the Office
concluded that his total offense level was 29. (Id.
¶ 33). Next, the Office cross-referenced that offense
level with Defendant’s criminal history category of II,
producing a recommended Guidelines range of 97 to 121
months’ imprisonment. (Id. ¶ 59).
Nevertheless, because Defendant’s drug offenses
involved at least 50 grams of crack cocaine, a statutory
mandatory minimum required at least ten years’
imprisonment. (Doc. No. 38). Adopting the presentence report
in relevant part, the Court concurrently sentenced Defendant
to ten years’ imprisonment on each drug offense.
(Id. at 2).
Defendant’s conviction, Congress enacted the Fair
Sentencing Act, Pub. L. 111-220, § 2 (2010), which
“reduced the statutory penalties for cocaine base
offenses” to “alleviate the severe sentencing
disparity between crack and power cocaine.” United
States v. Peters, 843 F.3d 572, 575 (4th Cir. 2016).
Relevant here, the Fair Sentencing Act “increased the
drug amounts triggering [the 10-year] mandatory minimum for
crack trafficking offenses . . . from 50 grams to 280
grams[.]” Dorsey v. United States, 567 U.S.
260, 269 (2012). Next, in December 2018, Congress enacted the
First Step Act, which provides that a “court that
imposed a sentence for a covered offense may, on motion of
the defendant . . . impose a reduced sentence as if . . . the
Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 . . . were in effect at the time
the covered offense was committed.” Pub. L. 115-391,
§ 404 (2018).
August 2019, Defendant moved for a reduction in his sentence
pursuant to The First Step Act. (Doc. No. 76). The Government
opposes that motion and requests that the Court hold this
case in abeyance pending two pertinent Fourth Circuit
decisions: United States v. Johnson, No. 19-7028,
and United States v. Washington, No. 19-7042. (Doc
Court has “broad discretion” to stay its
proceedings pending the resolution of independent proceedings
occurring elsewhere. Clinton v. Jones, 520 U.S. 681,
706 (1997); see Rice v. Astrue, No. 4:06cv2770, 2010
WL 3607474, at *2 (D.S.C. Sept. 9, 2010) (same). Indeed,
“the power to stay proceedings is incidental to the
power inherent in every court to control the disposition of
the causes on its docket with economy of time and effort for
itself, for counsel, and for litigants.” Landis v.
N. Am. Co., 299 U.S. 248, 254 (1936); United States
v. Oliver, 878 F.3d 120, 124 (4th Cir. 2017).
the non-movant objects to a stay, this Court must
“ascertain” whether a stay should issue by
“balanc[ing]” its “benefit[s]” of a
stay with any resultant “hardship.”
Landis, 299 U.S. at 259; see Jones, 520
U.S. at 706. For a stay to issue, “[t]he party seeking
a stay must justify it by clear and convincing circumstances
outweighing potential harm to the party against whom it is
operative.” Williford v. Armstrong World, 715
F.2d 124, 127 (4th Cir. 1983); see Jones, 520 U.S.
at 708 (“The proponent of a stay bears the burden of
establishing its need.”).
the merits of Defendant’s motion, the parties’
disagreement is twofold. To begin, the parties diverge on
whether the First Step Act statutorily authorizes the Court
to reduce Defendant’s sentence. Second, assuming it
does, the parties dispute whether a reduction is warranted
here. As explained below, pending Fourth Circuit cases are
likely to address both of these issues, so a stay will
greatly further judicial economy. Moreover, any potential
harm to Defendant from a stay will be minimal-and in fact,
Defendant may actually benefit from a stay. As such, this
Court will stay its proceedings pending relevant Fourth
the parties disagree whether Defendant’s conviction is
a “covered offense” under the First Step Act. The
Government argues that Defendant’s offense is not
“covered” because this Court found him
responsible for 291.96 grams of crack cocaine-an amount that
still would have subjected Defendant to a ten-year statutory
minimum, despite the new thresholds established by The Fair
Sentencing Act. (Doc. No. 78). By contrast, Defendant
contends that his offense is “covered” because
the First Step Act modified the statutory penalties for the
offenses. Put simply, the parties disagree whether the
“statute of conviction” or a defendant’s
“actual conduct” “controls eligibility [for
relief] under the First Step Act.” United States v.
Springs, No. 3:05-CR-00042-FDW-1, 2019 WL 3310092, at *3
(W.D. N.C. July 23, 2019) (quoting United States v.
Laguerre, No. 5:02-CR-30098-3, 2019 WL 861417 (W.D. Va.
Feb. 22, 2019)); see United States v. Robinson, No.
CR PJM 02-0227, 2019 WL 3867042, at *3 (D. Md. Aug. 15, 2019)
question is squarely before the Fourth Circuit in
Johnson and Washington, which have been
consolidated for appeal. Indeed, the facts in
Washington’s case are almost identical to
Defendant’s. Pursuant to an agreement with the
Government, Washington pleaded guilty of conspiring to
distribute at least 50 grams of crack cocaine. See
Joint Appendix at 226, United States v. Washington,
No. 19-7042 (Doc. No. 13). In the agreement, Washington
admitted he was responsible for distributing, or reasonably
foresaw that his co-conspirators distributed, between 50
grams and 1.5 kilograms. Id. at 226–27.
Because Washington admitted to at least 50 grams, he was
subjected to a ten-year mandatory minimum. Id. at
231. Defendant later moved for a sentence reduction pursuant
to the First Step Act. Despite Defendant’s actual
conduct, the district court granted that motion. Id.
at 195. On appeal, the Government presents the exact issue in
this case: whether “Section 404 of the First Step Act .
. . directs a [district] court to consider solely the drug
quantity alleged in the indictment in determining
eligibility for a sentence reduction [or] instead requires
[the] court to consider a defendant’s
conduct.” Br. of United States at i,
United States v. Washington, No. 19-7042 (Doc. No.
12) (emphases added).
and Washington may also provide guidance on other
pertinent issues for Defendant’s motion. If the Court
were to hold that Defendant is statutorily eligible for
relief, it would next need to determine what relief, if any,
to award. See Springs, 2019 WL 3310092, at *3.
Defendant requests a reduction in part because he has
rehabilitated himself since his sentencing, completing
several education programs and work assignments while
incurring only one minor infraction six years ago. (Doc. No.
76). Whether the First Step Act allows the Court to
“consider post-sentencing rehabilitation” when
reducing a sentence is highly disputed. United States v.
Rose, 379 F.Supp. 3d 223');">379 F.Supp. 3d 223, 231 (S.D.N.Y. 2019)
(discussing cases); see, e.g., United States v.
Black, 388 F.Supp. 3d 682, 686 (E.D. Va. 2019);
United States v. Robinson, No. CR PJM 02-0227, 2019
WL 3867042, at *3 (D. Md. Aug. 15, 2019). Again, the Fourth
Circuit is likely to provide guidance on this issue in
Johnson and Washington. In its brief, the
Government has argued that First Step Act motions should be
construed as motions to reduce a sentence under 18 U.S.C.
§ 3582(c), which is a narrow avenue for relief and
“not a do-over of an original sentencing
proceeding.” Br. of United States at 22, United
States v. Washington, No. 19-7042 (Doc. No. 12); see
United States ...