A cross-office team of Sidley lawyers achieved a significant pro bono victory on behalf of an individual detained at a federal medical penitentiary amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. As a double amputee with myriad medical conditions, including hypertension and type 2 diabetes, the individual was at a severely increased risk of illness from COVID-19. To date, 20 inmates have died and more than 360 have been infected at the Missouri-based penitentiary. As COVID-19 raged through the federal prison system, the individual became increasingly concerned for his safety, filing a motion for compassionate release in federal court. The individual argued that his susceptibility to COVID-19 and the failure of prison officials to curb the disease’s rapid spread constituted “extraordinary and compelling” reasons for a sentence reduction. However, a federal district court in the District of Columbia believed itself bound by an outdated policy statement, United States Sentencing Guidelines (“U.S.S.G.”) § 1B1.13, which bars compassionate release unless the court first finds that the defendant “is not a danger to the safety of any other person or to the community,” and therefore denied the motion.
Following the denial of relief, Sidley was appointed as pro bono appellate counsel for the individual. On May 18, 2021, the D.C. Circuit ruled in favor of our client. After briefing and oral argument by the Sidley team, the D.C. Circuit vacated the district court’s order and remanded for further proceedings. The Court clarified the legal standard for compassionate release motions after the First Step Act, holding that U.S.S.G. § 1B1.13 is not applicable to compassionate release motions filed in federal court by defendants — as opposed to the Bureau of Prisons. The Second, Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Seventh, Ninth, and Tenth Circuits have likewise held that the policy statement does not apply to defendant-filed motions, with only the Eleventh Circuit reaching a contrary conclusion. The D.C. Circuit further explained that the district court’s interpretation of the relevant provision was plainly erroneous, that our client suffered prejudice as a result of the sentencing error, and that a failure to correct this error would seriously affect the fairness, integrity, or public reputation of judicial proceedings. On remand, the individual will be afforded another opportunity to receive compassionate release.
The appeal was led by Jeffrey T. Green (Washington, D.C.) and Andrew B. Talai (Los Angeles), who worked alongside Farrah Vazquez (Los Angeles), Scott Schlafer (Los Angeles), and Matt Simpson (Washington, D.C.). Due to pandemic-related restrictions on travel and court access, Andrew (an associate at Sidley) argued the matter virtually before the D.C. Circuit.