7th Circuit chastises Northern Indiana District Court for plain error in sentencing

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Finding the error in sentencing affected the “fairness, integrity, and public reputation of the proceedings,” the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals has vacated a judgment and remanded an Indiana man’s sentence on federal drug charges because the district court failed to properly calculate the incarceration time under the First Step Act.

Adam Williams was convicted in 2001 of conspiring to sell more than 50 grams of crack cocaine, distributing more than 50 grams of crack and distributing more than five grams of crack. The late Judge Rudy Lozano of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Indiana sentenced Williams under federal guidelines to life imprisonment for the first two convictions and to the statutory maximum 40-year term for the third conviction.

Lozano explained his sentence by pointing to Williams’ participation in a sizeable drug operation, firearm possession, repeated perjury and efforts to help others evade arrest for an unrelated homicide.

After two unsuccessful attempts to have his sentence reduced, Williams filed a third motion in 2014. By then, the guideline range for sentencing had dropped, so Lozano lowered Williams’ sentence from life to 30 years. The judge explained a “small reduction” was warranted because of Williams’ youth, lack of prior contact with the criminal justice system and efforts for self-improvement while incarcerated.

In 2019, Williams filed his fourth sentence-reduction motion, this time under the First Step Act, which made retroactive the lower statutory penalties for crack offenses. The new statutory range was 60 to 480 months for Williams’ first two convictions and 240 months for his third conviction.

However, Senior Judge James Moody, who had been reassigned the case, declined to disturb the sentence. Rather than recalculating the new statutory ranges for the three convictions, Moody “apparently assumed” that Williams’ 2014 sentence conformed to the statutory maximums in the First Step Act.

The 7th Circuit found plain error in Moody’s sentencing in United States of America v. Adam T. Williams, Jr., 21-2401. In vacating the judgment, the appellate panel remanded for reconsideration of Williams’ motion.

Not only did the judge fail to recalculate the new statutory range for Williams’ three convictions as he was required to do, the 7th Circuit found Moody misstated the new statutory penalty for Williams’ third conviction.

“The error here was plain. It affected Williams’s substantial rights because Williams was deprived of the benefit of any anchoring effect that the new statutory ranges could have had on Judge Moody’s decision. This effect plays a ‘central role in sentencing,’ and its absence can be ‘particularly serious,’” Judge Diane Wood wrote, citing Molina-Martinez v. United States, 578 U.S. 189 (2016), and United States v. Blake, 22 F.4th at 643 (7th Cir. 2022). “Indeed, without the benchmark of the new sentencing framework, Judge Moody — despite saying he was giving the facts a ‘fresh look’ — ended up balancing the same factors in the same way as Judge Lozano.”

But the 7th Circuit declined Williams’ invitation to adopt the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals’ reasoning in United States v. Collington, 995 F.3d 347 (4th Cir. 2021), and reduce his sentence for his third conviction to no more than the new statutory maximum of 20 years.

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