June McLaughlin: Securities and Exchange Commission v. Andrew Fassari, Slip Opinion 2021 WL 2290576 (05/05/2021)

The case of United States v. Vigneau, 473 F.Supp. 3d 31 highlights one of the ways in which the federal government is slowly accepting the change in policy around marijuana and the sentences imposed by a marijuana conviction.

Issue

In 1998 Mr. Vigneau was sentenced to 365 months in prison for engaging in a continuing criminal enterprise, possessing marijuana with intent to distribute, attempting to possess with intent to distribute, conspiring to distribute marijuana, and conspiring to commit money laundering.  The issues this case addresses are whether the Court may independently evaluate extraordinary and compelling reasons and whether those reasons exist in the case of Mr. Vigneau.

Ruling

Courts are generally prohibited from modifying a term of imprisonment after it has been imposed, but there are certain exceptions.  One of these is, in the case of a defendant who has been sentenced to a term of imprisonment based on a sentencing range that has subsequently been lowered by the Sentencing Commission, the court may reduce the term of imprisonment.[1] The court held that the change in the statutes concerning the charges brought against Vigneau for imposition of a sentence supported his petition for compassionate release.

Analysis

Mr. Vigneau was originally sentenced to 365 months of incarceration followed by five years of supervised release when he was convicted in 1998.  This appeal came in 2021 after Vigneau had served twenty-three years of his over thirty-year sentence.  Upon reviewing his case the court looked at the minimum sentence for his offenses at the time he was convicted, the new minimum sentence under modern statutes, and the time served by those convicted with him.

The Court first had to determine if it had the authority to determine whether extraordinary and compelling reasons call for compassionate release.  The Court looked at the First Step Act which now allows for inmates seeking early release to file motions directly with the court[2]. The Court found that this Act was meant as a way to decrease the over population in prisons and was meant as a way for defendants to now petition on their own behalf rather than waiting for the Director of the Bureau of Prisons to file the petition.  For this reason, Mr. Vigneau’s request for compassionate release can be determined by the court despite the Director of the Bureau of Prisons not filing the petition.

After determining that they had the authority to rule on this case the court then looked at the facts of the case to determine if there were extraordinary and compelling reasons that call for compassionate release.  Looking at a Senate Report from when the Comprehensive Crime Control Act of 1984 was passed, the court found that sentence modifications are allowed when, extraordinary and compelling circumstances justify a reduction of an unusually long sentence, and in cases where the Sentencing Guidelines for the offense have been later amended to provide a shorter term of imprisonment[3].

Lastly, the court looked at the sentence that Mr. Vigneau received and compared it to what that offense would receive as a sentence today.  The court found that in 2017 the average sentence for marijuana trafficking was twenty-seven months and 86% of offenders received less than five years imprisonment[4].  If Mr. Vigneau was sentenced today the only statutory restraint on his sentence would be the twenty-year mandatory minimum sentence for a continuing criminal enterprise.  Thus he would likely not receive the same sentence of over thirty-years as he received in 1998.  The court also looked at how the legal landscape of marijuana has changed from 1998, when it was illicit for all states, and now where eleven states have legalized recreational use.

Conclusion

The Court held that after spending more than twenty-three years in prison, the factors for extraordinary and compelling circumstances weigh in favor of Mr. Vigneau’s compassionate release and a reduction in his sentence.

Takeaways

  1. This case highlights a shift in federal policy to the slow acceptance of states that have legalized recreational marijuana and how this legalization can be used to release those held in prison.
  2. Although Rhode Island has not legalized recreational marijuana possession the fact that it has been decriminalized and the change in public opinion about marijuana was enough to be considered an extraordinary circumstance.
  3. This case is especially useful for those that are serving unusually long prison sentences for marijuana offenses.  As marijuana is legalized and decriminalized across the United States hopefully we will be able to see more people released from prisons for these types of offenses.

[1] 18 USCS § 3582 (2)

[2] 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(A)

[3] S. Rep. No. 98-225, at 55-56 (1983)

[4] U.S. Sentencing Comm’n, 2017 Datafiles (Quick Facts), available at https://www.ussc.gov/sites/default/files/pdf/research-and-publications/quick-facts/Marijuana_FYl7.pdf

June McLaughlin
Professor & Paralegal Studies Program Director at Irvine Valley College | + posts

June McLaughlin is Professor & Paralegal Studies Program Director at Irvine Valley College in Orange County, CA. She teaches business law and paralegal studies courses.

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