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United States of America v. Antonio Soul Gonzalez
Case Number: 19-14381
Judge: Adalberto Jordan
Court: IN THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS
FOR THE ELEVENTH CIRCUIT
Plaintiff's Attorney: Not Listed
Atlanta, Georgia - Criminal defense lawyer represented defendant with a possessing 50 grams or more of cocaine base (i.e., crack cocaine) with intent to distribute charge.
Puursuant to a plea agreement, Mr. Gonzalez pled guilty in 2005 to possessing
50 grams or more of cocaine base (i.e., crack cocaine) with intent to distribute, in
violation of 21 U.S.C. §§ 841(a)(1) and (b)(1)(A)(iii). The district court sentenced
him to 240 months in prison and 120 months of supervised release.
In 2014, the district court reduced Mr. Gonzalez’s term of imprisonment to
151 months pursuant to the government’s substantial assistance motion. In 2015,
the district court reduced Mr. Gonzalez’s term of imprisonment to 76 months under
18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(2).
Mr. Gonzalez began his term of supervised release in 2015. When he tested
positive for cocaine and marijuana, provided false information to probation, and
failed to obtain employment, his probation officer filed a petition for revocation of
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supervised release, and the district court issued a warrant for his arrest. The
probation officer later filed a superseding petition adding new alleged criminal
conduct: (1) possession of 500 grams or more of cocaine with intent to distribute;
(2) possession of 28 grams or more of cocaine base; and (3) possession of a firearm
in furtherance of a drug trafficking crime. Mr. Gonzalez admitted to nine violations,
and the district court revoked his supervised release and sentenced him to 57 months
in prison, to be served consecutively to a separate sentence imposed for the new
In April of 2019, Mr. Gonzalez, proceeding pro se, sought to modify his 57-
month sentence under § 404(b) of the First Step Act. He argued that his original
narcotics conviction was now classified as a Class B felony instead of a Class A
felony, and as a result his maximum prison term for a violation of supervised release
was three years rather than five. The government opposed a reduction under the
First Step Act. It argued that Mr. Gonzalez’s current sentence was for revocation of
supervised release under 18 U.S.C. § 3583(e)(3), and not for a covered offense under
the First Step Act. It also alternatively asserted that, even if Mr. Gonzalez were
eligible, the district court should not reduce his sentence because his new criminal
conduct and his prison disciplinary record (which included 18 violations, some
involving drugs) demonstrated “a continued disrespect for authority” and “raise[d]
legitimate concerns about recidivism.”
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The district court denied Mr. Gonzalez’s motion on alternative grounds. First,
the district court concluded that Mr. Gonzalez was ineligible under the First Step
Act because his current sentence was for a violation of supervised release, and not
for a covered offense. Second, even if Mr. Gonzalez were eligible, the district court
expressly adopted the government’s alternative arguments. It explained that it would
not reduce his sentence due to his “unwillingness or inability to abide by the law”
and his “continued lawless behavior,” including the recent drug and firearm
offenses. Mr. Gonzalez’s appeal followed.
Mr. Gonzalez argues that his current sentence, imposed upon revocation of
supervised release, makes him eligible for a reduction under § 404(b) of the First
Step Act. He asserts that the revocation of supervised release relates back to the
initial offense for which he was imprisoned, and thus that initial offense should be
the focus of the eligibility determination under the First Step Act. Because the Fair
Sentencing Act of 2010, Pub. L. No. 111-20, §§ 2-3, 124 Stat. 2372, reclassified his
initial narcotics offense from a Class A to a Class B felony, he contends that his
supervised release revocation allows him to obtain a reduction under the First Step
We exercise plenary review in determining whether a district court has
authority to reduce a sentence under the First Step Act. See United States v. Russell,
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994 F.3d 1230, 1236 (11th Cir. 2021); United States v. Jones, 962 F.3d 1290, 1296
(11th Cir. 2020). On appeal, the government has changed its position on the matter
of eligibility. It now concedes that Mr. Gonzalez’s revocation sentence is eligible
for a reduction under the First Step Act because the underlying offense was a covered
offense under § 404(b). We are “not bound to accept” a party’s concession on a
“question of law,” but based upon our independent analysis we think the
government’s U-turn on eligibility is “well advised.” Orloff v. Willoughby, 345 U.S.
83, 87 (1953).
For a defendant to be eligible for a sentence reduction under the First Step
Act, “the district court must have imposed a sentence . . . for a covered offense.”
Jones, 962 F.3d at 1298 (internal quotation marks omitted). The First Step Act
defines a covered offense as “a violation of a Federal criminal statute, the statutory
penalties for which were modified by section 2 or 3 of the Fair Sentencing Act . . .
that was committed before August 3, 2010.” First Step Act, § 404(a). See generally
Terry v. United States, 141 S. Ct. 1858, 1862–63 (2021) (explaining eligibility under
the First Step Act). There is no dispute that Mr. Gonzalez’s underlying narcotics
crime, which involved the possession of crack cocaine, is a covered offense under
the Act. The remaining question, then, is whether a sentence imposed upon the
revocation of supervised release qualifies for a sentence reduction under § 404(b) of
the Act when the underlying crime is a covered offense.
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The Supreme Court has explained that “post[-]revocation penalties relate to
the original offense.” Johnson v. United States, 529 U.S. 694, 701 (2000). See also
United States v. Haymond, 139 S. Ct. 2369, 2379–80 (2019) (plurality opinion) (“an
accused’s final sentence includes any supervised release sentence he may receive”).
We have similarly stated that as a “general principle . . . post-revocation penalties
are contemplated in relation to the original offense.” United States v. Williams, 790
F.3d 1240, 1251 (11th Cir. 2015).1
Because a “period of supervised release is simply a part of the sentence for
the underlying conviction,” id., we join the Fourth and Sixth Circuits in holding that
a sentence imposed upon revocation of supervised release is eligible for a sentence
reduction under § 404(b) of the First Step Act when the underlying crime is a covered
offense within the meaning of the Act. See United States v. Woods, 949 F.3d 934,
937 (6th Cir. 2020) (“Given that Woods’ current 37-month sentence relates to his
original offense under 21 U.S.C. § 841(a)(1)—a First Step Act ‘covered offense’—
Woods is eligible for resentencing[.]”); United States v. Venable, 943 F.3d 187, 194
(4th Cir. 2019) (“[G]iven that Venable’s revocation sentence is part of the penalty
for his initial offense, he is still serving his sentence for a ‘covered offense’ for
1 Our sister circuits are in agreement. See, e.g., United States v. Salazar, 987 F.3d 1248, 1256–57
(10th Cir. 2021); United States v. Reyes-Santiago, 804 F.3d 453, 477 (1st Cir. 2015); United States
v. Turlington, 696 F.3d 425, 427 (3d Cir. 2012); United States v. Johnson, 640 F.3d 195, 203 (6th
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purposes of the First Step Act. Thus, the district court had the authority to consider
his motion for a sentence reduction just as if he were serving the original custodial
sentence.”). So Mr. Gonzalez is eligible for a sentence reduction under the First Step
Eligibility, of course, is not the end of the matter. As its statutory text
indicates, and as we have explained, § 404(b) of the First Step Act authorizes district
courts to reduce the sentences of defendants with covered offenses but does not
require them to do so. See United States v. Taylor, 982 F.3d 1295, 1298 (11th Cir.
2020); Jones, 962 F.3d at 1304. That means we review for abuse of discretion a
district court’s decision as to whether to reduce a sentence for an eligible defendant.
See Jones, 962 F.3d at 1296. And that standard generally provides a district court
with a “range of choice” as long as the choice does not constitute a “clear error of
judgment.” United States v. Irey, 612 F.3d 1160, 1188–89 (11th Cir. 2010) (en
banc). See also Koon v. United States, 518 U.S. 81, 100 (1996) (“A district court by
definition abuses its discretion when it makes a mistake of law.”).
A district court must adequately explain its decision under the First Step Act,
and that usually requires providing a reasoned basis for the exercise of discretion.
See United States v. Stevens, 997 F.3d 1307, 1317 (11th Cir. 2021). In exercising
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its discretion, a district court may consider the sentencing factors set forth in 18
U.S.C. §3553(a), but it is not required to do so. See id. at 1316; United States v.
Potts, 997 F.3d 1142, 1145–46 (11th Cir. 2021). And as long as it is not ambiguous,
a district court’s alternative exercise of discretion in denying a First Step Act motion
can suffice for affirmance. See Potts, 997 F.3d at 1147. As explained below, we
conclude that the district court here did not abuse its discretion in denying Mr.
Gonzalez’s First Step Act motion.
The district court stated that Mr. Gonzalez was ineligible for a reduction under
the First Step Act, but alternatively assumed his eligibility and denied a sentence
reduction in the exercise of its discretion. The district court based its denial on Mr.
Gonzalez’s “unwillingness or inability to abide by the law” and his “continued
lawless behavior”—as demonstrated by his prison disciplinary record and most
recent drug and firearm offenses—and a concern about recidivism.
Although the district court did not refer to the § 3553(a) factors by name, its
reasons touched on two of them—the need to “afford adequate deterrence” and the
need to “protect the public from further crimes of the defendant.” See §
3553(a)(2)(B)–(C). Where, as here, a defendant has engaged in criminal conduct
while on supervised release, recidivism and deterrence are appropriate
considerations in deciding whether to reduce a sentence under the First Step Act.
The district court’s reasons were clear, supported by the record, and did not
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constitute an abuse of discretion. See Woods, 949 F.3d at 938 (affirming denial of a
First Step Act motion for reduction of a revocation sentence because the defendant’s
crimes while on supervised release, pattern of drug involvement, and possession of
weapons indicated that the original sentence was not sufficient to promote respect
for the law, protect the public, or afford adequate deterrence). Cf. Potts, 997 F.3d at
1146–47 (affirming district court’s alternative denial of First Step Act motion, after
consideration of the § 3553(a) factors, given the defendant’s extensive criminal
history and the seriousness of the offenses).
In a supplemental filing, Mr. Gonzalez urges us to follow the Seventh
Circuit’s decision in United States v. Corner, 967 F.3d 662, 666 (7th Cir. 2020), and
hold that district courts must always calculate and consider a defendant’s new range
under the Sentencing Guidelines before exercising their discretion under § 404(b) of
the First Step Act. The Seventh Circuit relied on language in § 404(c) of the Act
stating that a defendant cannot file a second motion for reduction if the first motion
was “denied after a complete review of the motion on the merits.” Id. at 665. In its
view, the failure to properly calculate the new range results in an uninformed
exercise of discretion and “amounts to a reversible procedural error.” Id.
In some instances, it may be that the better practice is for a district court to
calculate the new sentencing range before deciding whether to grant or deny a First
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Step Act motion. In other instances, perhaps not. Cf. Pearson v. Callahan, 555 U.S.
223, 236–37 (2009) (discouraging “[s]ubstantial expenditure[s] of scarce judicial
resources on difficult questions that have no effect on the outcome of the case”). In
any event, we decline to follow Corner by fashioning a hard-and-fast rule of
First, the Seventh Circuit’s analysis of the text of the First Step Act is incorrect
and takes the “complete review” language—which it called a “requirement”—out of
context. The “complete review” mentioned in § 404(c) of the Act only relates to a
court’s ability to consider successive First Step Act motions: “No court shall
entertain a motion made under this section to reduce a sentence if . . . a previous
motion made under this section to reduce the sentence was, after the date of
enactment of this Act, denied after a complete review of the motion on the merits.”
As we have suggested, this “complete review” language is relevant only with respect
to successive motions. See United States v. Denson, 963 F.3d 1080, 1087 (11th Cir.
2020). Indeed, the language appears nowhere else in the Act.2
2 To the extent the Fourth and Sixth Circuits have issued decisions based on the same reading of §
404(c), we respectfully disagree with them as well. See United States v. Collington, 995 F.3d 347,
359 (4th Cir. 2021) (asserting that “[§] 404(c) of the First Step Act requires district courts to
undertake ‘a complete review of the motion on the merits’”) (quoting First Step Act, § 404(c));
United States v. Boulding, 960 F.3d 774, 784 (6th Cir. 2020) (“Though coming from the provision
that governs repeat resentencing motions, this language shows the dimensions of the resentencing
inquiry Congress intended district courts to conduct: complete review of the resentencing motion
on the merits.”).
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Second, Rule 52(a) of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure instructs that
“[a]ny error, defect, irregularity, or variance that does not affect substantial rights
must be disregarded,” and the Supreme Court has held that “a federal court may not
invoke supervisory power to circumvent the harmless-error inquiry prescribed by . .
. Rule 52(a).” Bank of Nova Scotia v. United States, 487 U.S. 250, 254 (1987). We
have held, therefore, that a “Sentencing Guidelines miscalculation is harmless if the
district court would have imposed the same sentence without the error.” United
States v. Barner, 572 F.3d 1239, 1248 (11th Cir. 2009) (also explaining that “where
the district [court] chooses to sentence within the range prescribed by the Sentencing
Guidelines, an error in their calculation cannot be harmless”). An automatic reversal
rule would be in tension, if not in conflict, with Rule 52(a) and our precedent. We
are confident that we can decide, on a case-by-case basis, whether a district court’s
failure to properly calculate the new range constitutes reversible procedural error
under the First Step Act
Outcome: We affirm the district court’s denial of Mr. Gonzalez’s motion under § 404(b)
of the First Step Act.