On appeal from The United States District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee at Nashville ">

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Date: 01-06-2022

Case Style:

United States v. Homero Quintanilla Navarro

Case Number: 20-5640

Judge: John Nalbandian

Court:

UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE SIXTH CIRCUIT
On appeal from The United States District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee at Nashville

Plaintiff's Attorney: Amanda J. Klopf, UNITED STATES ATTORNEY’S OFFICE

Defendant's Attorney:


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Cincinnati, Ohio - Criminal defense lawyer represented defendant charged with conspiring to distribute drugs.




In 2017, defendant pleaded guilty with the benefit of a plea agreement reached under
Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 11(c)(1)(C) to conspiring to distribute and possess with
intent to distribute and possessing with intent to distribute five kilograms or more of cocaine, see
21 U.S.C. §§ 841(a)(1) and 846, and illegally reentering the United States after having been
removed subsequent to a felony conviction, see 8 U.S.C. § 1326(a), (b)(1). The district court
accepted the plea and sentenced him to 120 months of imprisonment, and he did not appeal.
In April 2020, Quintanilla filed a pro se motion referring to the COVID-19 pandemic,
which the district court construed as a request for compassionate release under 18 U.S.C.
§ 3582(c)(1)(A). The district court appointed counsel for Quintanilla, and counsel filed a
supplemental motion on Quintanilla’s behalf, asserting that he has underlying medical conditions
that put him at high risk of severe illness from COVID-19, including diabetes, obesity, and
hypertension; that his facility, FCI Oakdale, was among those hardest hit by the pandemic; and
that the 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a) factors weighed in favor of release. The government responded in
opposition, arguing that defendant had not demonstrated sufficiently extraordinary and
compelling reasons and that, even if he had, his motion should be denied because he is a danger
to the community and his release would be inconsistent with the § 3553(a) factors. The district
court denied the motion in a form order, stating that it had considered the applicable § 3553(a)
factors and policy statements and conducted a “complete review” of the merits. Quintanilla
timely appealed from the district court’s order.
II.
Since the district court’s denial of Quintanilla’s motion, we have in a trio of cases
provided more guidance on how to evaluate compassionate release motions brought by prisoners.
See United States v. Ruffin, 978 F.3d 1000 (6th Cir. 2020); United States v. Jones, 980 F.3d 1098
No. 20-5640 United States v. Quintanilla Navarro Page 3
(6th Cir. 2020); United States v. Elias, — F.3d —, 2021 WL 50169 (6th Cir. 2021). Each case
warrants further discussion.
Ruffin set forth the three substantive requirements that must be met before a district court
may grant compassionate release under 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(A). 978 F.3d at 1004–05. First,
“the court initially must ‘find’ that ‘extraordinary and compelling reasons warrant such a
reduction.’” Id. at 1004 (quoting § 3582(c)(1)(A)(i) (brackets omitted)). Second, “the court next
must ‘find’ ‘that such a reduction is consistent with applicable policy statements issued by the
Sentencing Commission.’” Id. at 1005 (quoting § 3582(c)(1)(A)(ii) (brackets omitted)). Third,
“[e]ven if a district court finds that extraordinary and compelling reasons exist and that a
sentence reduction comports with [the applicable policy statements], the court may not grant the
reduction before ‘considering the factors set forth in section 3553(a) to the extent that they are
applicable.’” Id. (quoting § 3582(c)(1)(A) (brackets omitted)).
Next, in Jones, we elaborated in detail on what is required to “strike the proper balance”
between “accord[ing] due deference to district judges” while still “correct[ing] their factual and
legal errors” in the context of a motion for compassionate release. 980 F.3d at 1112. In so
doing, we acknowledged that district courts are not required to “pen a ‘full opinion’ in every
sentencing or sentencing-modification decision.” Id. (quoting Chavez-Meza v. United States,
138 S. Ct. 1959, 1964 (2018)). So, where “a matter is [ ] conceptually simple . . . and the record
makes clear that the sentencing judge considered the evidence and arguments,” a district court is
not required to render an extensive decision. Id. (alteration in original) (quoting Rita v. United
States, 551 U.S 338, 359 (2007)). But on the other hand, Jones also opined that “[i]n most
circumstances, ‘[a] district court’s use of a barebones form order . . . would be
inadequate.’” Jones, 980 F.3d at 1114 (emphasis added and second alteration in original)
(quoting Chavez-Meza, 138 S. Ct. at 1967). According to Jones, a district court’s use of a form
order is reserved only for cases involving “thorough record evidence of the judge’s factual
decisions.” Id.
Finally and most recently, Elias clarified that “district courts may deny compassionaterelease motions when any of the three prerequisites listed in § 3582(c)(1)(A) is lacking and do
No. 20-5640 United States v. Quintanilla Navarro Page 4
not need to address the others.” 2021 WL 50169, at *2. But where the district court grants a
motion for compassionate release, it must of course address all three steps. Id.
III.
With the benefit of these three decisions, we turn to the issue presented by Quintanilla’s
appeal: whether the district court abused its discretion by denying his motion for compassionate
release. See Ruffin, 978 F.3d at 1005.
A.
Two preliminary observations are in order.
First, we observe that the district court did not err by skipping right to the § 3553(a)
factors and denying defendant’s motion. Elias settles that matter. 2021 WL 50169, at *2.
Second, to the extent that one might conclude Jones’s broad assertions about barebones
orders favor reversal here, we disagree.
The discussion in Jones regarding the insufficiency of so-called barebones orders was not
necessary to the court’s judgment and is accordingly not binding on later panels. See Jones, 980
F.3d at 1116–17 (Cook, J., concurring). The Jones decision contains an erudite discussion of the
scope of a district court’s obligation to explain its weighing of the 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a) factors, a
discussion that provides an overview of the relevant law, and provides thoughtful advice to
district judges. The Jones court held that the explanation in that case was sufficient, and also
opined regarding what would not be sufficient. The former was a basis for upholding the lower
court judgment, while the latter would be a basis for reversing some different judgment. The
former analysis is binding on later panels, but the latter is not.
Taken in isolation, Jones’s statements about the propriety of barebones orders are in
tension with the Supreme Court’s own observations about their use in Chavez-Meza. There, the
Court explained that a “judge need not provide a lengthy explanation” for reducing a defendant’s
sentence “if the ‘context and the record’ make clear that the judge had ‘a reasoned basis’ for
reducing the defendant’s sentence.” 138 S. Ct. at 1966 (quoting Rita, 551 U.S. at 356, 359). It
then condoned the district court’s use of a barebones form order to resolve a sentencing-
No. 20-5640 United States v. Quintanilla Navarro Page 5
modification motion brought under § 3582(c)(2) because it was satisfied that the district court
had met that standard. Id. at 1967–68. In particular, the Court looked through to the original
sentencing proceeding and observed that the district court rejected the defendant’s request for a
downward variance by emphasizing that the defendant had distributed a “significant quantity” of
methamphetamine and that methamphetamine had particularly deleterious effects on that specific
community. Id. at 1967. Therefore, when the district court later granted defendant’s motion for
a sentence reduction in a form order, but did not impose the exact sentence the defendant had
requested, the Supreme Court concluded that the record as a whole had convinced it “that the
judge considered the parties’ arguments and had a reasoned basis for exercising his own legal
decisionmaking authority.” Id. (brackets, internal quotation marks, and citation omitted). That is
a far cry from Jones’s unduly restrictive view that barebones orders are to be “reserved for the
simplest of cases” with “thorough record evidence of the [district court]’s factual decisions.”
980 F.3d at 1113–14.
B.
We therefore follow the guidance of Chavez-Meza and consider whether Quintanilla’s
request for compassionate release and the district court’s denial thereof reflects a “conceptually
simple” matter suitable to resolution via a form order. We conclude that it was, and that the
district court therefore did not abuse its discretion by denying Quintanilla’s motion.
The district court had before it the record of the original proceedings, including a
presentence report it adopted in full, the sentencing hearing transcript, and the judgment. It is
apparent from the original sentencing records that the district court was concerned that the
defendant had been deported from the United States “numerous times”—the presentence report
establishes that defendant had voluntarily departed the United States (as opposed to being
deported) ten times between 2004 and 2008, and had been deported from the United States six
additional times since then. In addition, defendant’s convictions for possession with intent to
distribute cocaine—for which the presentence report attributed to defendant more than ten
kilograms of cocaine—led the district court to remark that the offense conduct was “very
serious.” Those concerns led the district court to impose a mandatory-minimum ten-year
No. 20-5640 United States v. Quintanilla Navarro Page 6
sentence as outlined in Quintanilla’s plea agreement, especially because Quintanilla “doesn’t
seem to learn his lesson very well.”
A little more than two years later, Quintanilla filed his motion for compassionate release
and requested that the district court reduce his sentence to time served, excusing him from the
remaining seven or so years of his mandatory-minimum sentence. Notably, Quintanilla’s motion
focused exclusively on establishing that the COVID-19 virus established extraordinary and
compelling circumstances under § 3582(c)(1)(A). He did not argue that his personal
circumstances—beyond the COVID-19 outbreak—had changed so that the district court should
weigh the § 3553(a) factors differently than it had at the original sentencing.
Accordingly, for largely the same reasons cited by the Chavez-Meza Court, we are
“satisfie[d] . . . that the judge considered the parties’ arguments and ha[d] a reasoned basis for
exercising [her] own legal decisionmaking authority.” 138 S. Ct. at 1967 (second alteration in
original) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). Based on the district court’s
observations at the original sentencing proceeding that Quintanilla had committed a serious drugtrafficking offense and had not learned his lesson from prior run-ins with law enforcement, “[t]he
record as a whole strongly suggests” that the district court’s view of the § 3553 factors had not
changed by the time of Quintanilla’s motion for compassionate release. Id. And so, while a
more detailed order fleshing out the district court’s weighing of the § 3553(a) factors may be
desirable as a general matter, and “under different facts and a different record, the district court’s
use of a barebones form order in response to a motion like [defendant’s] would be inadequate,”
id., we conclude that “given the simplicity of this case . . . the judge’s explanation (minimal as it
was) fell within the scope of the lawful professional judgment that the law confers upon the
sentencing judge.” Id. at 1968.
This conclusion aligns with United States v. McGuire, where, on nearly identical facts,
we affirmed a district court’s denial of compassionate release. 822 F. App’x 479 (6th Cir. 2020).
There, we found no abuse of discretion where the district court used precisely the same language
to deny McGuire’s motion, stating that it had “considered the relevant § 3553(a) factors and
policy statements” and conducted a “complete review” of the merits. Id. at 480–81. We were
unconcerned that the district court “did not specifically cite which factors guided its decision,”
No. 20-5640 United States v. Quintanilla Navarro Page 7
because the circumstances—including the defendant’s history of violent crimes and behavior—
were such that it “did not need to.” Id. In other words, “[b]ecause it [was] clear that the judge
relied on the record when declining to modify McGuire’s sentence,” we concluded that “even a
‘barebones form order’ could have sufficed.” Id. (quoting Chavez-Meza, 138 S. Ct. at 1968).
The same can be said for Quintanilla, who like the defendant in McGuire, has an extensive
criminal history—in addition to his repeated illegal reentries, he has been convicted of reckless
driving and driving under the influence several times and arrested for aggravated burglary and
assault. Id. at 480. And just as in McGuire, these facts—among others—made the district
court’s denial of Quintanilla’s motion, and our review thereof, “conceptually simple.” Rita, 551
U.S. at 359.

Outcome: For these reasons, we affirm the district court’s order denying Quintanilla’s motion for compassionate release

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