A district court ruled correctly when it declined to impose a reduced sentence for a convicted drug trafficker’s gun-related offenses, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed Monday.
The appellate court agreed with appellant William G. Curtis that the United States District Court for the Northern District of Indiana does have authority under the First Step Act to reduce an aggregate sentence, even if part of that sentence deals with offenses not covered by the act nor grouped with a covered offense.
But the 7th Circuit ruled the district court’s error was harmless.
The case involved Curtis, a Gary man serving several consecutive sentences for his connection to a crack cocaine distribution enterprise and his role in two linked homicides.
Curtis was convicted in 2000 for three drug conspiracy counts that included conspiracy to possess crack cocaine with the intent to distribute, employing juveniles in furtherance of the conspiracy and possession of crack cocaine with intent to distribute.
His two firearms counts, according to court records, were for causing the death of another with a firearm in furtherance of the conspiracy.
He was also charged under 18 U.S.C. § 924(c) with carrying a firearm in relation to a drug trafficking crime.
Curtis was sentenced to life imprisonment on the conspiracy-with-intent count and a term of 40 years on the other two drug conspiracy counts, to be served concurrently.
He was also sentenced to two consecutive life sentences on the two counts for causing the death of another with a firearm, plus another 60 consecutive months on the firearm conviction.
Curtis moved for resentencing under the First Step Act, which was signed into law in December 2018 and allows for retroactive sentencing for certain drug offenders.
The district court agreed on some respects of resentencing for Curtis’ drug-related offenses and reduced his term of imprisonment for the drug conspiracy counts to 293 months on each count, to be served concurrently.
But the court ruled that resentencing was not authorized for the firearms counts or the Section 924(c) count because they weren’t defined as covered offenses by the First Step Act and couldn’t be grouped with a covered offense.
Curtis appealed and contended the district court should have treated his whole sentence as “a single sentencing package” subject to adjustment under the First Step Act.
The 7th Circuit affirmed the district court’s ruling and rejected Curtis’ appeal.
Writing for the appellate court, Senior Judge Diane Wood said district courts must be able to consider both offenses covered and not covered by the First Step Act if they are grouped, because there is no way to untangle the aggregate term of imprisonment.
Wood wrote that the key question in Curtis’ case was whether his sentence could be characterized as an aggregate sentence.
The appellate court rejected the argument that Curtis’ firearms offenses were “inextricably linked” to the drug-related offenses and noted that his sentencing record didn’t demonstrate any connection between the two sets of offenses.
“The record is devoid of any of the indicia of interdependence that might support the idea that the court imposed one global, blended sentence on Curtis,” Wood wrote.
Instead, Wood said the record showed his three consecutive sentences on the firearms counts and the Section 924 (c) conviction were distinct from his drug-related counts, which had the only sentence aggregated with a conviction covered by the First Step Act.
“Though the district court erred in assuming that it lacked authority to impose a reduced sentence simply because the firearms offenses could not be grouped with the drug offenses, that error was harmless,” Wood concluded.
Chief Judge Diane Sykes and Judge Michael Scudder concurred.
The case is United States of America v. William G. Curtis, 21-2615.