(CN) – The Supreme Court agreed Friday to hear two cases to clarify whether federal sentencing law allows a prisoner’s sentence to be reduced if the guidelines for the crime’s sentencing range were lowered after they were first sentenced.
Both cases, Koons v. U.S. and Hughes v. U.S., require a clarification of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 5-4 ruling in the 2011 decision Freeman v. U.S.
In Freeman, the court’s liberal wing, joined by Justice Anthony Kennedy, held that a defendant who enters into a plea agreement may be eligible for a sentence reduction if the sentencing guidelines are later reduced.
That ruling is complicated by Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s separate opinion concurring in the judgment, which states that a plea agreement must be expressly tied to the guidelines’ recommended range for a prisoner to later seek a sentence reduction.
In June 2014, the U.S. Sentencing Commission announced Amendment 782 to the sentencing guidelines, which reduced the offense level for specific drug offenses by two levels, to be applied retroactively.
The defendants in Koons v. U.S. were sentenced to between seven and 12 years in prison for conspiracy to manufacture and distribute meth.
They were denied a sentence reduction, however, because their initial sentences were below guidelines due to their having provided substantial assistance to the government.
Defendant Erik Hughes in Hughes v. U.S. pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 15 years in prison for conspiracy to distribute meth and being a felon in possession of a firearm.
He was denied a sentencing reduction based on a finding that his plea agreement was not tied to a sentencing guidelines range.
The Supreme Court agreed Friday to take up both cases. In Koons, it will decide whether an inmate who helped the government and was sentenced to a term below the mandatory minimum is eligible for an even lower sentence, when the Sentencing Commission retroactively reduces the sentencing guidelines range for the applicable crimes.
In Hughes, the justices will answer the question of whether a defendant who enters into a criminal plea agreement is eligible for a sentence reduction if the sentencing guidelines range is later retroactively amended.
Per its custom, the high court did not comment on its decision to hear the cases.