June 17, 2010

Supreme Court Decides Dillon v. United States

On June 17, 2010, the Supreme Court decided Dillon v. United States, No. 09-6338, holding that district courts must follow the Sentencing Commission's policy statement making the Sentencing Guidelines mandatory in proceedings held under 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(2) to modify a sentence, and that the rule announced in United States v. Booker, 543 U.S. 220 (2005), does not apply in those proceedings.

In 1993, Percy Dillon was convicted of charges related to conspiracy, possession, and firearm use based on powder cocaine and crack cocaine found in his possession. Dillon was sentenced to 322 months in prison under the Sentencing Guidelines in effect at the time. The length of the sentence was based, in part, on the Guideline's imposition of longer sentences for crack cocaine offenses than for other cocaine offenses. In 2007, the United States Sentencing Commission recommended lowering sentences for crack cocaine offenses, and that amendment was made retroactive in 2008. Dillon then moved to reduce his sentence under 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(2). That section establishes a narrow exception to the general rule that sentences may not be modified after they are final, and allows proceedings for modification. Dillon also argued that the District Court had authority under Booker to impose a sentence lower than the minimum established by the Guidelines, despite the Sentencing Commission's policy statement to the contrary. In Booker, the Supreme Court had held that when judges apply the sentencing guidelines in the first instance and find facts by a preponderance of the evidence that increase a criminal sentence greater than the sentence supported by a jury's findings, treating the Guidelines as mandatory violates the Sixth Amendment.

The district court granted Dillon's motion and reduced his sentence but declined to impose a sentence below the Guidelines, concluding that the discretion afforded by Booker to depart from the Guidelines did not apply to section 3582(c)(2) modification proceedings. The Third Circuit affirmed, noting that section 3582 was not one of the statutory provisions invalidated by Booker and holding that the Sentencing Commission's policy statement preventing district courts from imposing sentences below the Sentencing Guidelines except in limited circumstances was binding.

The Supreme Court affirmed. It concluded that Booker left intact provisions of the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984, including 18 U.S.C. § 3582 and also the provisions giving the Sentencing Commission the authority to revise the Guidelines and to determine when and to what extent a revision will be retroactive. The Court held that the Commission's policy statement was binding on district courts, and it rejected Dillon's claim that modification proceedings under section 3582(c)(2) were "resentencing" proceedings subject to Booker.

Justice Sotomayor delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas, Ginsburg, and Breyer joined. Justice Stevens filed a dissenting opinion. Justice Alito took no part in the decision of the case.

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