Melendez v. United States

RESPONDENT: United States
LOCATION: Virginia Military Institute

DOCKET NO.: 95-5661
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit

CITATION: 518 US 120 (1996)
ARGUED: Feb 27, 1996
DECIDED: Jun 17, 1996

Irving L. Gornstein - Argued the cause for the respondent
Patrick A. Mullin - Argued the cause for the petitioner

Facts of the case

After purchasing cocaine, Juan Melendez was charged with violating federal drug laws. The law carried a minimum sentence of ten years imprisonment. Melendez signed a plea agreement stating he would be cooperative. In turn the government agreed to give him a short sentence. The District Court thus sentenced Melendez to ten years in prison, the mandatory minimum. The Court of Appeals affirmed.


Does a federal prosecutor's plea agreement that a cooperating defendant be given the minimum sentence authorize a judge to depart below a statutory minimum?

Media for Melendez v. United States

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - February 27, 1996 in Melendez v. United States

William H. Rehnquist:

We'll hear argument next in Number 95-5661, Juan Melendez v. The United States.

Mr. Mullin, you may proceed whenever you're ready.

Patrick A. Mullin:

Thank you, Mr. Chief Justice.

Mr. Chief Justice, and may it please the Court:

In this case, there is no dispute that the Government made a motion which asked the district court for a sentence that reflected the petitioner's substantial assistance.

The issue before this Court is whether that Government motion was sufficient to permit a sentence which both departed from the guidelines and was also below a statutory minimum.

Petitioner submits that the Government's motion was sufficient, and bases his position on the language in the pertinent statutory and Sentencing Guidelines provisions.

William H. Rehnquist:

It's agreed, is it not, Mr. Mullin, that the Government's motion was not filed under section 3553(e)?

Patrick A. Mullin:

That... no, Mr. Chief Justice, I don't agree with that.

The motion that was filed by the Government was brought under section 5K1.1, but it encompassed the requirements under section 3553(e) that permitted--

William H. Rehnquist:

Well, the question presented, and I believe it was presented in your petition, is... let me get the petition.

It's, once the prosecutor moves for a sentencing departure in recognition of a defendant's substantial assistance to law enforcement, does a Federal court have authority to impose a sentence beneath both the guideline range and a minimum term set by statute, even when the Government does not seek the latter degree of departure?

You say, then, the Government did move under section 3553(e)?

Patrick A. Mullin:

--Oh, no, no, I'm not saying that they brought... that they specific... they specify their application as being under section 3553(e), Mr. Chief Justice.

What I'm saying is that the court had authority to--

William H. Rehnquist:

Well then the Government... at least the Government's motion by its terms was not made pursuant to 3553(e), you agree with--

Patrick A. Mullin:

--Oh, that is correct, Mr. Chief Justice, yes.

Their motion was brought by letter, I would note, but was accepted as a form of notice of motion by both parties as specifying that a motion was being brought under section 5K1.1 of the guidelines.

It is our position that that motion permitted Judge Sarokin in the District Court of New Jersey to depart not only from the applicable guideline range, which in that case was 135 to 168 months, but also below the 10-year statutory minimum that was in place in that case, or in this case.

The three provisions enacted in the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 establish a regime to reward substantial assistance by defendants.

Section 3553(e) imposes a Government motion requirement for sentences below statutory minimums.

In section 994(n), Congress directed the Sentencing Commission to, and I'm quoting from the statute now, which... it is found at the appendix Al... assure that the guidelines reflect the general appropriateness of imposing a sentence lower than would otherwise be imposed.

William H. Rehnquist:

--Whereabouts is that found, Mr. Mullin?

Patrick A. Mullin:

I'm sorry, Mr. Justice, in my brief, my first brief to the Court.

In A1 I specifically cite, at the bottom of the page, the statute.

William H. Rehnquist:

Thank you, and would you tell us again what you're quoting from the statute?

Patrick A. Mullin:

Moving down to the first line, Congress directed... let me state the language.

Assure that the guidelines reflect the general appropriateness of imposing a sentence lower than would otherwise be imposed... and this is the key language... including a sentence that is lower than that established by statute as a minimum sentence.

And it's petitioner's position that the Congress directed the Commission to establish a regime to regulate the substantial assistance motions to include, and as it states here, not only departures from the applicable guideline range but also departures below mandatory minimums.

William H. Rehnquist:

Well, that's quite consistent with 3553(e), isn't it, that the Commission was to have a role in both of those kinds of departures?