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United States v. Taylor

United States District Court, N.D. Ohio

August 16, 2019

EDDIE TAYLOR, Defendant.



         On April 10, 1996, a federal grand jury indicted Defendant Eddie Taylor of one count of possessing with intent to distribute fifty grams or more of cocaine base (or “crack cocaine”), in violation of 21 U.S.C. sections 841(a)(1) and (b)(1)(A).[1]

         In June 1996, Taylor went to trial. District Judge John Dowd, who presided over Taylor's trial, gave the jury the following charge describing the crime's elements:

First, that the defendant possessed the narcotic drug controlled substance described in the indictment. Second, that the defendant did -- that the defendant did so possess with the specific intent to distribute the narcotic drug controlled substance described in the indictment; and Third, that the defendant did so knowingly and intentionally.[2]

         The jury returned a guilty verdict. The verdict form read that “[w]e the jury, having been duly impanelled and sworn, do find the defendant Eddie Taylor guilty of possession of cocaine base (crack) with intent to distribute as charged in the indictment.”[3]

         The statutory penalty for Taylor's offense was ten years to life. But because the Government sought a sentencing enhancement under 21 U.S.C. sections 841(b)(1)(A) and 851, the trial court imposed a statutorily mandatory life because of Taylor's previous drug offenses.[4]

         Taylor now asks the Court to reduce his sentence under the 2018 First Step Act.[5]

         I. Discussion

         In 2010, Congress passed the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010.[6] It reduced the statutory penalties for certain offenses, including violations of 21 U.S.C. § 841(a) involving crack cocaine. However, these 2010 changes were not retroactive.[7]

         Section 404 of the First of Step Act of 2018[8] made these changes retroactive, providing that a court may “impose a reduced sentence as if sections 2 and 3 of the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 . . . were in effect at the time the covered offense was committed.”[9]

         The parties do not dispute that Defendant's offense was a “covered offense” under § 404 (a)[10] and that Taylor is not subject to any of the limitations set out in § 404(c).[11]

         A. Drug Quantity

         Because the Fair Sentencing Act's statutory minimums and maximums depend upon the drug quantity Defendant possessed and distributed, Taylor's First Step Act eligibility turns on a threshold drug quantity issue.

         In its 2000 decision Apprendi v. New Jersey, the Supreme Court held that a jury must determine any fact that would expose a criminal defendant to a penalty beyond the statutory maximum.[12] And in 2013's Allyne v. United States, the Supreme Court held that the same logic applies to statutory minimums: any fact that increases a mandatory minimum is an “element” of the crime that must be submitted to the jury and proved beyond a reasonable doubt.[13]

         Here, the parties chiefly dispute whether these intervening changes in constitutional sentencing law apply when considering Taylor's motion to reduce his sentence. Defendant argues that because the jury was not instructed that it needed to find a drug quantity as an element of the offense, the Court should find him responsible for only fifty grams of crack cocaine (the minimum quantity under the then-applicable statute of conviction).[14] The Government, though conceding that “the jury's verdict did not establish a drug quantity for the offense, ”[15] argues that Allyne and Apprendi do not apply on First Step Act resentencing. Instead, the Government contends that the Court should hold Taylor responsible for 329.7 grams of crack cocaine, as charged in the indictment.

         While the Sixth Circuit has not addressed this question, many district courts have considered whether Apprendi and Allyne apply on First Step Act resentencing. Adopting the majority approach, [16] the Court holds that they do.

         The Government argues that the Court should focus on the drug quantity charged in the indictment and the offered trial evidence-rather than the jury-found quantity (or lack of jury determined quantity)-because the Sixth Circuit has declined to apply Apprendi and Allyne retroactively on collateral review.[17]

         This argument misconstrues retroactivity. Retroactivity doctrine merely circumscribes courts' power to grant relief on collateral review, not the temporal scope of the constitutional right itself. The constitutional rights announced in Allyne and Apprendi are not new court rules. Rather, these decisions interpret Constitutional rights that the Constitution has always guaranteed since its adoption.[18]

         Thus, when the Court considers what Taylor's sentence would have been “as if” the Fair Sentencing Act applied, the Court must consider the constitutional rights belatedly recognized in Apprendi and Allyne, to which Taylor was always entitled. As Judge Nugent persuasively argued in a recent decision, nothing in the First Step Act indicates that Congress intended courts to “perpetuate the application of an unconstitutional practice when determining a new sentence that complies with the [First Step Act's] directives.”[19]

         Further, the Government's focus on offense conduct is inconsistent with the First Step Act's text. The Act directs the court to consider the sentence as if the Fair Sentencing Act had applied when “the covered offense was committed.” And a “covered offense” is the “violation of [the] Federal criminal statute, the penalties for which were modified by . . . the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010.”[20] This language directs the Court to consider the statute of conviction, not the offense ...

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