United States v. Koons

A case before the Supreme Court, United States v. Koons, No. 17-5716, brings together our interest in strictly limiting mandatory minimums with our work to ensure every individual eligible for a lower sentence gets the chance to ask for one. FAMM filed an amicus (friend of the court) brief with the court on Jan. 29.

The case involves a federal law, 18 U.S.C. sec. 3553(e), that allows a judge to avoid imposing a mandatory minimum when a defendant has provided what is known as “substantial assistance” in the investigation or prosecution of a crime. The judge can waive the mandatory minimum if asked by the prosecutor to do so. This substantial assistance departure is used to lower the sentence as a reward for the defendant’s cooperation.

Once the judge decides to grant the motion, the federal law further directs the judge to impose a sentence according to guidelines crafted by the Sentencing Commission.

The Sentencing Commission reduced drug sentences in 2014, and then made those reductions retroactive. At the same time, the commission made special retroactivity rules for prisoners who had received substantial assistance departures. The commission instructed courts to use the new, lower guideline range when considering how much to further reduce the sentences of prisoners who had received substantial assistance departures.

The petitioners in Koons, who received substantial assistance departures, argued that they are entitled to retroactivity and should receive a reduced sentence proportionally below the new guideline range. In other words, because the mandatory minimum was removed in their cases, they argued that the sentence they received for cooperation should now be lower in light of the new, lower guideline.

The government argued that they are not entitled to have a sentence reduced based on the lower guideline range. Instead, it argues that the commission was wrong and that people who cooperated and thus avoided receiving a mandatory minimum were not sentenced under the guidelines and thus are not eligible for retroactivity. Instead, the government would have the court tether these prisoners to mandatory minimums that were eliminated based on the government’s own motion.

The FAMM brief discusses why the government is wrong based on our interpretation of federal law. But besides arguing that the government’s position runs counter to what Congress intended, we also bring to the Supreme Court our case for why the government’s position would, if upheld, lead to unjust sentencing policy.

We argue that mandatory minimums interfere with discretionary, flexible sentencing; give prosecutors the power to determine a sentence, which sometimes results in tremendous injustice; and fail to deter offenders, reduce crime, or induce cooperation. And, referring to our many members in prison and their loved ones, we tell the court how detrimental mandatory minimums are to the community and our trust in the criminal justice system.

We also make our case by citing to research and empirical evidence that the so-called benefits of mandatory minimums are not only illusions, they cause extreme harm.

Koons will be argued before the Supreme Court on March 27. The court should decide the case before July 2018. We will report to you on the oral argument and the final decision.