Debevoise Successfully Argues First Step Act for Federal Prisoner’s Reduction of Sentences

9 April 2021

In a published opinion issued on April 1, 2021, the Tenth Circuit adopted Debevoise & Plimpton LLP’s argument that, after the First Step Act, judges are free to reduce a final sentence for “extraordinary and compelling” reasons, including the excessive length of a sentence and that the same conduct would result in a far lesser sentence today.

Debevoise pro bono client Kepa Maumau participated in three robberies in Utah when he was 20 years old. No one was physically hurt and very little was stolen during the offenses, and the government offered a 10-year plea deal before trial. But because Mr. Maumau instead exercised his right to trial by jury, and the government invoked mandatory sentencing provisions that, in 2008, forced the district judge to impose a 55-year sentence.

In October 2019, Debevoise filed a motion for a sentence reduction on behalf of Mr. Maumau, arguing that his sentence was grossly excessive and that, because of the change in the law, if he were convicted of the same charges today, his sentence would be much shorter. Judge Tena Campbell granted the motion in February 2020, and following a May 2020 hearing, reduced Mr. Maumau’s sentence to time served. The government obtained a stay of Mr. Maumau’s release pending appeal, in which it argued that the district court lacked the statutory authority to reduce the sentence.

The Tenth Circuit, in its recent 3-0 decision, rejected that argument, holding that the district court had the authority to grant Mr. Maumau’s motion and that the relief was warranted for “extraordinary and compelling reasons,” including Mr. Maumau’s young age at the time of his crimes, the unusual length of his sentence, and the First Step Act’s prospective reduction of the sentences mandated by the firearm statute in question. The opinion is available here.

The government is still considering whether to seek en banc review of the decision but its motion for a further stay in the district court was denied and Mr. Maumau was released from prison on April 1.

Debevoise represents Mr. Maumau as part of The Holloway Project, the firm’s pro bono effort, led by litigation partner Judge John Gleeson, to address sentencing disparities that disproportionately affected Black and Latino men. Judge Gleeson argued the appeal, and the Debevoise team also included associates Farhana Choudhury, Marisa Taney, Lauren Dolecki Kober, Matt Specht and Steve Tegrar, and legal assistants Melanie Audy, Deepti Sahrawat, Yeabsira Asrat and Heather Mehler.