United States v. Jeremy Rodriguez

451 F.Supp.3d 392 (E.D.Pa. 2020)
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The defendant, Jeremy Rodriguez, was an inmate at FCI Elkton, a federal detention centre in Elkton, Ohio. Rodriguez was serving the seventeenth year of a twenty-one year mandatory minimum sentence for drug distribution and unlawful firearm possession, and was one year away from becoming eligible for home confinement, when the COVID-19 pandemic erupted in the beginning of 2020. His predicate offences were non-violent, and he exhibited no violence and significant rehabilitation throughout his imprisonment. Rodriguez had several pre-existing health conditions, including type 2 diabetes, hypertension, obesity, and liver abnormalities.

By March 31st, 2020, the Bureau of Prisons (“BOP”) reported that two prisoners at FCI Elkton, which was filled to capacity, had tested positive for COVID-19. In accordance with reports of conditions of federal prisons including FCI Elkton, Rodriguez stated that the prisoners, who were responsible for cleaning and sanitation, were not given “adequate soap or disinfectant, [were] still housed together in large groups, and share[d] a thermometer without sanitization, against critical public health recommendations” that social distancing, frequent disinfection of surfaces, and frequent hand washing were necessary measures to effectively control the spread of the virus. The COVID-19 outbreak occurred—and these conditions persisted—at FCI Elkton, even after the government told the Court that “the BOP was taking aggressive action to contain the disease.”

Rodriguez, whose health conditions put him at a significantly higher risk of morality should he contract COVID-19, filed a motion for a reduction of his sentence and immediate release under the compassionate release statute 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(A) on the ground that “extraordinary and compelling reasons warrant such a reduction.”

Congress never defined what constituted “extraordinary and compelling reasons”, but the Sentencing Commission (“Commission”) issued a policy statement delineating three categories of extraordinary and compelling reasons as well as a fourth “catchall” provision. The BOP was given the exclusive jurisdiction to use its discretion in determining whether any additional extraordinary and compelling reasons existed that would justify granting a prisoner’s application for compassionate release. From 1984 to 2018, only the BOP could file motions for compassionate release to the courts, so prisoners were at the mercy of its discretion.

In 2018, Congress passed the First Step Act (“FSA”), a piece of criminal-reform legislation that amended the U.S. Code, including § 3582, to increase the use and transparency of compassionate release. Under the amendment to § 3582(c)(1)(A), prisoners no longer had to rely exclusively on the BOP to grant their application for compassionate release, but could go directly to district courts. The Commission had not updated its policy statement to account for the FSA’s amendments when Rodriguez’s motion came before the Court.

Rodriguez argued that the FSA rendered the Commission’s policy statement obsolete and thus, non-binding, thereby terminating the BOP’s exclusive jurisdiction over making determinations concerning the fourth catchall provision, and authorizing district courts to use their discretion to independently determine whether any such additional “extraordinary and compelling reasons” existed for compassionate release.

The United States government argued that the Commission’s policy statement remained binding despite the FSA’s amendments, and that the BOP maintained exclusive jurisdiction over incorporating the fourth catchall provision into its determination regarding the granting of motions for compassionate release. The government argued that the Court may only consider the first three provisions in its assessment, none of which applied to Rodriguez.

The Court held that, under the FSA’s amendment to 18 U.S.C § 3582(c)(1)(A)(i), it had the discretion to assess “extraordinary and compelling reasons” outside the first three listed in the Commission’s old policy statement. The Court found that, since the BOP was first authorized to file compassionate release motions in 1984, it had poorly managed the program and inconsistently applied vague standards, which resulted in many eligible inmates not being considered for release or dying before their applications were decided. The Court noted that the FSA’s amendments were intended to make the compassionate release program more efficient, transparent, and effective, by enabling inmates to “directly petition” federal courts, and thus “removing the BOP’s exclusive ‘gatekeeper’ role.” By including a fourth catchall provision, the Commission had implicitly recognized that it was impossible to encapsulate all “extraordinary and compelling reasons” into three rigid categories, and had advocated for a flexible approach in making such determinations in deciding motions compassionate release. Further, the majority of district courts had concluded as much, and were exercising their own discretion in considering additional extraordinary and compelling reasons under the fourth catchall provision for prison-filed motions. Congress’ intention in passing the FSA was to create a more direct route that would circumvent an unresponsive, inconsistent BOP.

The Court held that there were extraordinary and compelling reasons under the fourth catchall provision for granting Rodriguez’s motion for compassionate release. The Court found that the COVID-19 pandemic, Rodriguez’s condition, and the prison conditions constituted extraordinary and unprecedented circumstances. Rodriguez’s pre-existing conditions made him particularly vulnerable to severe illness or death from COVID-19. The Court cited testimony from a doctor who reviewed Rodriguez’s medical records from 2018-2020 and determined that, due to his pre-existing condition, he would be at a higher risk of needing ventilation or oxygenation should he contract the virus, and would therefore be at higher risk of death. The Court also cited an early report on COVID-19 from the World Health Organization, which showed that those with diabetes and hypertension who contracted COVID-19 had a fatality rate two to three times higher than the overall fatality rate. 

 The Court held that, in the midst of an active COVID-19 outbreak, prison was an especially dangerous environment for Rodriguez to remain. Given the undersupply of testing, the prevalence of asymptomatic transmission between inmates, and the fact that most of the recommended virus containment measures were impossible to maintain in the close quarters of prisons, the likelihood that Rodriguez would eventually contract COVID-19 was extremely high. Multiple rapidly growing COVID-19 outbreaks in federal prisons across the U.S. had already shown BOP measures were generally insufficient. The Court pointed out that Congress, through the passage of the COVID-19 relief bill on March 27th, and the Department of Justice, through memos sent by the Attorney General, had both advocated that the BOP exercise its statutory authority to release some prisoners to home confinement, in recognition of the heightened danger in prisons and in an attempt to protect at-risk inmates who “are non-violent and pose minimal risk of recidivism.”

The Court held that, while none of the above reasons would be extraordinary and compelling in and of themselves, when considered together in the context of COVID-19, they justified releasing Rodriguez at a time earlier than what is usual in order to prevent irreparable harm or injustice if he were to contract the virus. Since Rodriguez served the vast majority of his sentence, had improved himself considerably in that time, was one year away from being eligible for home confinement, and his sentence reduction was consistent with the applicable factors in section 3553(a), keeping him in prison posed a risk to his health that outweighed any appreciable difference regarding his punishment should he remain in prison during the outbreak.

“The government argues that Mr. Rodriguez's ‘conditions are not unusual’ and notes that the BOP classifies him in its lowest medical care level, for ‘inmates who are generally healthy with limited needs for clinician evaluation and monitoring.’ … In the absence of a deadly pandemic that is deadlier to those with Mr. Rodriguez's underlying conditions, these conditions would not constitute ‘extraordinary and compelling reasons.’ It is the confluence of COVID-19 and Mr. Rodriguez's health conditions that makes this circumstance extraordinary and compelling” (para 402).

“Detention facilities have even greater risk of infectious spread because of conditions of crowding, the proportion of vulnerable people detained, and often scant medical care. People live in close quarters and are also subject to security measures which prohibit successful ‘social distancing' that is needed to effectively prevent the spread of COVID-19. Toilets, sinks, and showers are shared, without disinfection between use. Food preparation and food service is communal, with little opportunity for surface disinfection. The crowded conditions, in both sleeping areas and social areas, and the shared objects (bathrooms, sinks, etc.) will facilitate transmission” (para 403).

“Testing is also scarce throughout the country. Within the BOP, not all inmates with symptoms are being tested or quarantined. Further, the BOP's protocols for screening inmates and staff depend on documented risk of exposure. Preliminary research indicates that undocumented cases of coronavirus, including those of people who have not yet begun to show symptoms, are responsible for a significant portion of the virus's transmission” (paras 403-404).

“Recognizing the risk of COVID-19 outbreaks in prisons, Congress, the President, and the Department of Justice have begun encouraging steps to release some prisoners to safer home environments. The coronavirus relief bill enacted on March 27 allows the Attorney General to expand the BOP's ability to move prisoners to home confinement. See Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, Pub. L. No. 116-136, § 12003(b)(2) (2020). This congressional action came after Attorney General William Barr sent a memo to the Director of the BOP recognizing that ‘there are some at-risk inmates who are non-violent and pose minimal likelihood of recidivism and who might be safer serving their sentences in home confinement rather than in BOP facilities.’ Attorney General Barr accordingly requested that the BOP use its statutory authority to release certain inmates to home confinement. While he also expressed confidence in the BOP's “ability to keep inmates in our prisons as safe as possible from the pandemic sweeping across the globe,” the situation has changed swiftly since he wrote the memo and the BOP's reported COVID-19 cases have since tripled” (paras 404-405).