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U.S Supreme Court Vacates Convictions & Applies First Step Act

USA v. Verne Merrell Docket: 20-30183, Opinion Date: June 10, 2022. In three defendants’ consolidated appeals, the Ninth Circuit (1) vacated the sentences imposed at resentencing on two 18 U.S.C. Section 924(c) counts that remained after the district court—in light of United States v. Davis, 139 S. Ct. 2319 (2019)—had granted 28 U.S.C. Section 2255 relief and vacated the defendants’ convictions on two other Section 924(c) counts; and (2) remanded for resentencing. The court held that the version of 18 U.S.C. Section 924(c)(1) that was amended by the First Step Act of 2018, and not the original version of Section 924(c)(1), applies at post-Act resentencing of Defendants whose sentences were imposed before the Act’s passage and vacated. In so holding, the court interpreted Section 403(b) of the Act, which provides that the statute applies to “any offense that was committed before the date of enactment of this Act, if a sentence for the offense has not been imposed as of such date of enactment.” The court held that because vacatur of the prior sentences here wiped the slate clean, a sentence had not been imposed for purposes of Section 403(b) at the time of resentencing. The court wrote that the most reasonable reading of Section 403(b) is that “a sentence” means an existing valid sentence, not a prior valid one; and that the vacated sentence—a legal nullity—cannot form the legal predicate for the exclusion from the application of the First Step Act, which Congress expressly made retroactive under Section 403(b).

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