Criminal Law

Houston v. United States

In Houston v. United States, the Supreme Court was asked to consider whether the First Step Act of 2018 requires courts to consider certain sentencing factors, such as the need to avoid sentencing disparities and defendants’ efforts at rehabilitation, when considering petitions for resentencing.

Case Summary

The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 created a sentencing regime that treated every gram of crack cocaine as the equivalent of 100 grams of powder cocaine for purposes of criminal punishment.  Over the next two decades, research and experience demonstrated that the 100-to-1 crack-to-powder-cocaine ratio was unwarranted, undermining Congress’s goals of uniformity and proportionality in sentencing, and perpetuating unjustified race-based differences.

To ameliorate those injustices, Congress passed the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, which reduced the crack-to-powder sentencing disparity to 18-to-1.  That law, however, applied only to individuals who were sentenced after the Act’s effective date of August 3, 2010.  Recognizing that a large number of crack-cocaine offenders sentenced prior to the Fair Sentencing Act were still serving sentences imposed under the 100-to-1 regime, Congress passed the First Step Act of 2018.  Among other things, the First Step Act applied the reforms of the Fair Sentencing Act retroactively.

The petitioner in this case, Eddie Houston, Jr., was convicted of a crack-cocaine offense and sentenced in 2008.  In 2019, after the passage of the First Step Act, Houston moved for a reduced sentence.  In his motion, he cited 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a), which requires judges to consider a number of factors, including “the nature and circumstances of the offense,” the defendant’s “history and characteristics,” the Sentencing Guidelines range, and the “need to avoid unwarranted sentence disparities” when imposing a sentence under “any federal statute.”  But the district court denied his motion without considering the § 3553(a) factors or Houston’s efforts at rehabilitation.  On appeal, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed, holding that that the district court was not required to consider the § 3553(a) factors.  Houston asked the Supreme Court to hear his case, and CAC filed an amicus curiae brief in support of Houston’s petition for a writ of certiorari.

Our brief argued that the text and history of the First Step Act, as well as Congress’s plan in passing it, make clear that judges are required to consider the § 3553(a) factors in resentencing proceedings.

First, our brief explained that the text of the First Step Act instructs courts considering motions for reduced sentences to do so “as if sections 2 and 3 of the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 . . . were in effect at the time the covered offense was committed.”  That text requires courts to take account of the § 3553(a) factors, which district courts have been required to consider during sentencing proceedings subsequent to the Fair Sentencing Act’s passage.  Indeed, consideration of those factors has been mandatory in all federal sentencing proceedings since Congress passed the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984, which sought to prevent sentencing disparities and ensure that courts uniformly consider the history and circumstances of each individual defendant before sentencing them.  Further, Congress’s use of the word “impose” in the First Step Act to describe both sentencing and resentencing procedures reinforces the conclusion that the § 3553(a) factors must be considered in resentencing proceedings just as they must be considered in initial sentencing proceedings.

Second, our brief addressed the Ninth Circuit’s conclusion that § 3582(c)(1)(B) authorizes resentencing under the First Step Act, and because § 3582(c)(1)(B) does not expressly mention the § 3553(a) factors, courts need not consider them.  Our brief explains that even if § 3582(c)(1)(B) authorizes resentencing, it does not provide the substantive authority for a sentence modification; rather, it simply allows for modification of a sentence when some other statute provides that authority, and courts should look to that statute to determine whether the § 3553(a) factors must be considered.  Here, § 404(b) of the First Step Act is the statute that expressly permits sentencing modifications, and § 404(b) makes clear that consideration of the § 3553(a) factors is required.

Finally, our brief argued that the history of the First Step Act reinforces what the plain text of the statute makes clear: judges imposing sentences pursuant to § 404(b) must consider the § 3553(a) factors.  In passing the First Step Act, Congress sought to reduce sentencing disparities between like offenders and facilitate individualized review of potentially unjust sentences.  The legislative record repeatedly affirms these aims.  If allowed to stand, the decision of the court below, allowing district courts to ignore the § 3553(a) sentencing factors, would directly contravene Congress’s plan.

In light of the Supreme Court’s ruling in Concepcion v. United States, which held that sentencing judges must consider all of a defendant’s arguments for a reduced sentence, including those that involve legal or factual developments that occurred after the initial sentencing, when imposing a reduced sentence under the First Step Act, the Court vacated the judgment of the Ninth Circuit and remanded the case for further consideration. 

Case Timeline

  • May 21, 2021

    CAC files amicus curiae brief in support of petition for a writ of certiorari

    Sup. Ct. Amicus Br.
  • June 30, 2022

    Supreme Court grants petition of certiorari and vacates judgment