United States District Court, N.D. Illinois, Eastern Division
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
E. Chang, United States District Judge.
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. 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.
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.
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.
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. 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.
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).
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. 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.”).
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.
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.
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. §
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).
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