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United States v. Williams

United States District Court, N.D. Illinois, Eastern Division

August 25, 2019



          Edmond E. Chang, United States District Judge.

         Ahmad Williams has filed a motion for a reduced sentence under the First Step Act, Pub. L. No. 115-391, § 404, 132 Stat. 5194, 5222 (2018). R. 1803, Def.'s Mot.[1] The government opposes the motion, arguing that Williams is not eligible because the crack-cocaine quantity for which he was held responsible at sentencing would still exceed the threshold needed to apply the 10-year mandatory minimum under 21 U.S.C. § 841(b)(1)(A). R. 1811, Gov.'s Resp. The parties' arguments require an interpretation of the First Step Act, as well as the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, Pub. L. 111-220, 124 Stat. 2372, 2372 (2010), and how those two laws interact with the unique circumstances of Williams' case. As explained below, the Court concludes that Williams' actual conviction was for an offense exceeding 50 grams of crack cocaine, and that amount is now lower than the updated threshold for the 10-year minimum at 21 U.S.C. § 841(b)(1)(A). So Williams is eligible for relief under the First Step Act. A full explanation is set out below.

         Having said that, the Court reserves a decision on whether-and if so, by how much-to reduce Williams's sentence under 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a) until the parties file position papers on whether the Court must hold an in-person resentencing. The parties' submissions are due on September 9, 2019.

         I. Background

         In August 2008, Ahmad Williams and his co-defendants were charged with various drug crimes arising from a large drug-trafficking operation on the South Side of Chicago. United States v. Long, 748 F.3d 322, 325 (7th Cir. 2014). On Williams specifically, the indictment charged a conspiracy to distribute and to possess with intent to distribute 50 grams or more of crack cocaine and 5 kilograms or more of cocaine under 21 U.S.C. § 846 (Count 1), and a substantive possession with intent to distribute of 50 grams of more of crack cocaine, 21 U.S.C. § 841(a)(1) (Count 22). R. 230, Indictment at 1-5, 26.

         In December 2009, Williams entered a blind plea of guilty (no written agreement with the government) to Count 1. R. 523, 12/18/09 Minute Entry; R. 1368, Plea Colloquy Tr. at 3:10-4:9, 14:16-16:9.[2] Five of Williams's co-defendants then went to trial and were convicted of conspiracy with intent to distribute 50-plus grams of crack cocaine, as well as other offenses. Long, 78 F.3d at 325.

         Williams was sentenced in February 2012. At sentencing, the government argued that Williams was responsible for 44 kilograms of crack cocaine, that is, “all the foreseeable dealing of his coconspirators in furtherance of the conspiracy.” Long, 748 F.3d at 331; R. 1163, Gov.'s Sentencing Memo at 5. Between the time of the alleged conduct and Williams's sentencing, however, the sentencing regime for crack cocaine offenses had changed. In 2010, Congress enacted the Fair Sentencing Act, which changed the threshold for the 10-year mandatory minimum from 50 grams to 280 grams of crack cocaine. R. 1160, Williams Sentencing Memo at 6-7. So Williams argued in his sentencing memo that, as a legal matter, he should be sentenced under the new regime, even though his conduct occurred under the old one. Id. Williams's sentencing memo also argued that, as a factual matter, the government could prove only two 63-gram transactions (126 grams in total), short of the full 280 grams triggering the 10-year mandatory minimum under the Fair Sentencing Act. Id. at 4 n.4. The sentencing court decided that that argument failed, however, because Seventh Circuit case law at the time instructed district courts that the Fair Sentencing Act did not apply retroactively to conduct that took place before the Act was enacted. See United States v. Fisher, 635 F.3d 336, 338 (7th Cir. 2011), overruled by Dorsey v. United States, 567 U.S. 260, 264 (2012).

         At sentencing, the previously assigned judge found that Williams was responsible for the full 44-kilogram amount of crack cocaine advocated by the government. R. 1406, Sentencing Tr. at 10:25-11:1; 12:9-14. The district court then sentenced Williams to a term of 10 years of imprisonment, plus five years of supervised release. Id. at 23:6-23. During sentencing, the district court noted that it might have have sentenced Williams to a modestly shorter term were it not for the 10-year mandatory minimum.[3] Id. at 21:22-22:15 (“[I]t's possible that if it weren't for the mandatory minimum, I might give you a sentence that was a little lower, but it wouldn't be much lower.”).

         Then, in 2014, Williams and his co-defendants appealed their sentences to the Seventh Circuit. The Seventh Circuit explained that Dorsey had overruled Fisher. Long, 748 F.3d at 328. So Williams and his co-defendants should have been sentenced under the Fair Sentencing Act, because it was already in effect when they were sentenced. Id. Although Long stated that the sentences would have to be vacated for that reason “unless the failure to apply the [Fair Sentencing Act] was harmless, ” id., the opinion does not appear to have conducted a harmless-error analysis specific to Williams. Instead, the Seventh Circuit addressed another argument raised by Williams. Specifically, Williams argued that, under Alleyne v. United States, 570 U.S. 99, 103 (2013)-another case that had been decided after Williams' February 2012 sentencing-the mandatory-minimum quantity and drug type had to be proven to a jury beyond a reasonable doubt. On plain error review, the Seventh Circuit held that any Alleyne error was harmless, because the jury could not possibly have held Williams responsible for less than 280 grams of crack cocaine. Long, 748 F.3d at 330-32. The Seventh Circuit affirmed Williams's 10-year sentence. Id.

         In 2018, Congress passed the First Step Act. Among other things, this law allows district courts to reduce sentences for defendants who were sentenced before the Fair Sentencing Act was enacted, so long as the offense is a “covered offense.” First Step Act § 404(a), (b). Williams seeks relief under this Act.

         II. Analysis

         Whether Williams is eligible under the First Step Act is a question of statutory interpretation. Section 404(a) of the Act sets out the offenses that it covers, defining a “covered offense” as “a violation of a Federal criminal statute, the statutory penalties for which were modified by section 2 or 3 of the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 ... that was committed before August 3, 2010.” First Step Act § 404(a). The question is whether Williams's “offense” for this purpose is defined by the crack-cocaine amount charged in the indictment (50 grams or more, see supra n.2) or the quantity found by the sentencing judge (44 kilograms). If “covered offense” is defined by the facts found by the sentencing court, then Williams cannot possibly be eligible for First Step Act relief-even post-2010 (and maybe forever), 44 kilograms of crack cocaine is far above the Fair Sentencing Act's 280-gram threshold for application of the 10-year mandatory minimum at 21 U.S.C. § 841(b)(1)(A).

         District courts have come out both ways on this issue, and no appellate court has reached it yet. See Gov.'s Resp. at 16-21; Def.'s Reply at 3. There have been four decisions in this District, and they all come out in Williams' favor. United States v. Wright, 2019 WL 3231383, at *3 (N.D. Ill. July 18, 2019) (Castillo, J.); United States v. Johnson, 2019 WL 2590951, at *3 (N.D. Ill. June 24, 2019) (Leinenweber, J.); United States v. Booker, 2019 WL 2544247, at *2-3 (N.D. Ill. June 20, 2019) (Lefkow, J.); United States v. Edwards, 95-cr-00508-5, Dkt. 1210, First Step Act Op. at 4-5 (N.D. Ill. Aug. 9, 2019) (Leinenweber, J).

         The government makes a two-step argument that “covered offenses” are defined by the defendant's actual conduct as decided at sentencing. First, the government argues that the phrase “statutory penalties for which” refers back to the word “violation, ” instead of referring back to the term, “Federal criminal statute.” Gov.'s Resp. at 8-10. And second, it argues that the term “violation” should be read to refer to actual conduct, not to the offense of conviction as defined by statute. Id. Under the government's framework, if “statutory penalties for which” refers to “violation” (and not “Federal criminal statute”), and if “violation” must mean “underlying factual ...

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