District Court May Deny Crack Sentence Reduction Based on False Statements, Seventh Circuit Holds

The U.S. Sentencing Commission wisely made its 2011 reductions to the crack sentencing guidelines retroactive, but this decision left district judges with discretion to deny sentence-reduction requests based on, among other things, a defendant’s post-sentencing misconduct.

Larry Purnell has learned the scope of this discretion the hard way.  Purnell pled guilty to crack and firearms offenses in 2007.  In his plea colloquy, Purnell admitted to the gun allegations under oath.  Based on various concessions from the government in return for his guilty plea, Purnell’s guidelines range for the crack offense was 78-97 months, and he received a sentence at the bottom of this range.  Despite the relative lenience of this treatment, Purnell later mounted collateral attacks on the gun conviction, claiming that his alleged weapon was really only a BB gun — in contradiction to his own statements at the plea colloquy.

These collateral attacks failed, but Purnell was given a fresh opportunity for a sentence reduction thanks to the Commission’s retroactive changes to the crack guidelines.  

The district court denied his petition, however, based on (1) the fact that his sentence of 78 months still fell within his adjusted guidelines range (albeit now at the top of the range, instead of the bottom), and (2) Purnell’s false statements in contesting his weapons conviction.

There is something at least mildly troubling about the latter ground.  Defendants must have access to the courts for potentially meritorious post-conviction challenges without fear of judicial retaliation.  Yet, penalizing a defendant for something that happens during a post-conviction challenge may have at least the appearance of just this sort of improper retaliation.

The Seventh Circuit nonetheless affirmed earlier today in United States v. Purnell (No. 12-1283) (Hamilton, J.).  In doing so, the court emphasized the significance of Purnell’s affirmative false statements in the collateral attack, as opposed to the mere fact that he had challenged his conviction after pleading guilty.  Indeed, the court seemed sufficiently troubled by the risks of judicial retaliation in these sorts of cases as to close its opinion this way:

Our decision today should not be read as endorsing denials of section 3582(c)(2) motions based solely on vexatious litigation or post-conviction filings that skirt or challenge the appellate and section 2255 waivers in plea bargains. The repeated filing of frivolous motions is undoubtedly aggravating for judges with busy dockets. Frustration in the face of repeated post-conviction filings is understandable, but it is not a consideration contemplated by section 3582(c)(2) or the Sentencing Commission. Federal courts recognize that prison officials may not retaliate against a prisoner for filing lawsuits against those officials. It would not be appropriate or permissible for federal courts to retaliate for similar reasons. While there is language in the district court’s decision that expresses understandable frustration with Purnell’s litigation, we think it is clear that the district court did not base its denial of the section 3582(c)(2) motion on annoyance with his post-conviction filings. Rather, the district court concluded that Purnell made repeated false statements to the court and that this post-conviction conduct was contrary to the award of a discretionary sentence reduction.  (10-11, citations omitted)