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Federal Motion for Compassionate Release Changes

From 1976 to 1984, the federal Bureau of Prisons (“BOP”) could file a motion seeking compassionate release of a federal inmate pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 4205(g), also called the Sentencing Reform Act (SRA), Pub. L. No. 98-473, 98 Stat. 1937 (1984).  Only the BOP could seek such relief on behalf of an inmate.  The inmate, himself or herself, could not do so. 

However, in 1984, section 4205(g) was repealed and replaced by 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1), giving federal prisoners themselves the right to file a motion with the district court seeking a compassionate-release modification to their prison sentence.  This provision is also called the First Step Act (FSA), Pub. L. No. 115-391, 132 Stat. 5194 (2018).
The Gist of this Article: In considering compassionate release for a person in federal prison, it is important to understand the changes in the law concerning compassionate release limiting who can request this, particularly if the person was convicted before October 31, 1987.  To read more about this, please read the following article.         
Section 3582(c)(1) did not go into effect into November 1, 1987, and by the express terms of the statute, prisoners who were convicted of offenses committed before October 31, 1987, remained subject to the more restrictive § 4205(g) terms which did not allow the prisoners themselves to file for compassionate release, but instead such prisoners had to have the BOP request this.

This framework in federal compassionate release law is important to understanding the following facts and the federal compassionate release sought by the inmate.

Darrel King ran a heroin distribution ring focusing on the San Francisco housing project between 1976 and 1980. 

California law enforcement authorities arrested King in 1980 and charged him with first-degree murder and firearms crimes.  He was then convicted of these crimes in California state court in 1981 and was sentenced to twenty-seven years to life in prison.

Later that same year, King was convicted of federal drug trafficking crimes for offenses taking place between 1976 and 1980 and was sentenced to forty-five years in federal prison in 1982. 

King began serving his federal sentence in 2019 after completing his state sentence. 

Shortly thereafter, King filed a motion under the FSA for compassionate release under 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1).  His motion argued that his own release was appropriate because he, at that time, was seventy-seven years old, highly vulnerable to COVID-19 while incarcerated in federal prison and has a wife struggling with cancer.

The U.S. District Court denied his motion as procedurally improper because it had been filed by King and his offenses were committed before October 31, 1987.  Therefore, only the BOP could request this, not King himself. 

In response, King appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in San Francisco.

In response to the district court’s ruling, King argued that the phrasing “in any case” in the FSA meant the FSA should apply to inmates in any case, including those who conviction predate November 1, 1987.  Alternatively, he submitted extrinsic evidence including reports by the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) and the Sentencing Commission, letters from senators on this issue, and draft legislation proposed after the FSA was enacted.  King contended these materials show the SRA’s November 1, 1987, cut-off date is such that § 3582(c)(1) is now universally applicable.

The Ninth Circuit rejected these arguments by King and then affirmed the district court, citing to a Seventh Circuit opinion in United States v. Jackson (7th Cir., 2021) 991 F.3d 851, wherein the FSA was interpreted as barring inmates who committed crimes before November 1, 1987, from personally moving for compassionate release under 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1), as amended by the FSA.  Such prisoners are instead subject to the SRA, meaning only the BOP can request this.

The Ninth Circuit acknowledged that this “dual regime” system seems awkward, but noted that Congress affirmed this system in October 2020, extending it at least through 2022.

Moreover, it noted that since the statutory scheme is “unmistakably clear,” the Ninth Circuit could not consider King’s extrinsic evidence at all.  Food Mktg. Inst. V. Argus Leader Media (2019) 139 S. Ct. 2356, at 2364.

We bring this short summary to the reader’s attention because compassionate release is often contemplated by older prisoners or the families of such prisoners.  We receive a steady stream of calls on this topic, both concerning state court and federal prisoners.

The citation for the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruling discussed above is United States v. Darrel King  (9th Cir., 2022) 24 F. 4th 1226.

For more information about federal and state prison compassionate release issues, please click on the following articles:
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