Serrano v. United States of America
OPINION AND ORDER: For the reasons set forth in the remainder of this Opinion, the Court DENIES Mr. Serrano's motion pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2255 to vacate his conviction. A certificate of appealability shall be not granted, because Mr. Se rrano has not made a substantial showing of a denial of a federal right and appellate review is, therefore, not warranted. Hoffler v. Bezio, 726 F.3d 144, 154 (2d Cir. 2013); Tankleff v. Senkowski, 135 F.3d 235, 241 (2d Cir. 1998).Further, the Court GRANTS IN PART Mr. Serrano's motion for a reduction in sentence pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(A)(i), such that his sentence is modified to reduce the term of imprisonment on Count One from 78 to 68 months, still followed by a consecut ive sentence of 60 months' imprisonment on Count Fifteen. This Court will further amend the judgment pursuant to Fed. R. Crim. P. 36 to make clear that Mr. Serrano's conviction on Count Fifteen is predicated on a qualifying narcotics traff icking offense. All other aspects of Mr. Serrano's sentence remain in full force and effect. The Clerk of Court is directed to docket this Opinion in Case Nos. 15 Cr.608-4 and 20 Civ. 9887; to terminate all pending motions in both cases; and to close Case No. 20 Civ. 9887.(Signed by Judge Katherine Polk Failla on 5/06/2022) (ama)
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UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
SOUTHERN DISTRICT OF NEW YORK
UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
15 Cr. 608-4 (KPF)
OPINION AND ORDER
20 Civ. 9887 (KPF)
-v.UNITED STATES OF AMERICA,
KATHERINE POLK FAILLA, District Judge:
Samuel Serrano, who is presently housed at the Federal Correctional
Institution at Ray Brook, New York (“FCI Ray Brook”), was sentenced by this
Court on racketeering and firearms charges to an aggregate term of 138
months’ imprisonment in January 2017. Mr. Serrano did not appeal from his
conviction or sentence, but later filed a pro se motion for resentencing that this
Court denied as untimely in July 2018. Thereafter, with the assistance of
counsel, Mr. Serrano filed (i) a motion pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2255 seeking
vacatur of one of his counts of conviction and resentencing, and (ii) a motion
for compassionate release pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(A)(i). For the
reasons set forth in the remainder of this Opinion, this Court denies Mr.
Case 1:20-cv-09887-KPF Document 3 Filed 05/06/22 Page 2 of 37
Serrano’s Section 2255 motion and grants in part his Section 3582(c)(1)(A)(i)
The Charging Instruments and the Guilty Plea
Indictment 15 Cr. 608 (KPF) (the “Indictment”) was filed under seal on
September 3, 2015, and unsealed six days later. (Dkt. #1, 2). Broadly
speaking, the Indictment detailed criminal activities undertaken by the Taylor
Avenue Crew (or the “Crew”), described as a “criminal organization whose
members and associates engaged in, among other activities, narcotics
trafficking, attempted murder, and murder” (Dkt. #1 at ¶ 1), while embroiled in
a violent, years-long dispute with the rival Leland Avenue Crew (see, e.g., id. at
¶¶ 1-9). Mr. Serrano was charged in three of the eight counts of the Indictment
with racketeering conspiracy, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1962(d) (Count One);
narcotics conspiracy, in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 846 (Count Five); and the use,
carrying, and discharge of a firearm during and in relation to, and possession
in furtherance of, the racketeering conspiracy charged in Count One, in
violation of 18 U.S.C. §§ 924(c)(1)(A)(iii) and 2 (Count Seven).
Superseding Indictment S3 15 Cr. 608 (KPF) was filed on April 15, 2016.
(Dkt. #73). Mr. Serrano was again charged with racketeering conspiracy
(Count One) and narcotics conspiracy (Count Eight), but this time the firearms
count was modified to charge him with the use, carrying, and discharge of a
Except where otherwise indicated, the Court cites to the parties’ submissions by their
docket entry number and will use the page numbers assigned by this Court’s electronic
case filing (“ECF”) system. “Dkt.” refers to the docket in Mr. Serrano’s criminal case.
Case 1:20-cv-09887-KPF Document 3 Filed 05/06/22 Page 3 of 37
firearm during and in relation to, and possession in furtherance of, the
racketeering conspiracy charged in Count One and the narcotics conspiracy
charged in Count Eight (Count Fifteen). (Id.).
Mr. Serrano pleaded guilty to Counts One and Fifteen of the S3
Indictment on July 28, 2016. (Dkt. #121 (plea transcript)). He did so pursuant
to a written plea agreement with the Government (the “Plea Agreement” (Dkt.
#472-1 at 30-37)) that made clear, among other things, that (i) his plea to
Count Fifteen was to the lesser-included offense of using, carrying, or
possessing a firearm, but not discharging it; and (ii) Mr. Serrano’s use,
carrying, or possession of a firearm was in relation to both a crime of violence
(the Count One racketeering conspiracy) and a qualifying narcotics trafficking
offense (the Count Eight narcotics conspiracy). (Id. at 30, 31). Also in the Plea
Agreement, the parties stipulated to a range under the United States
Sentencing Guidelines (“U.S.S.G.” or the “Guidelines”) of 168 to 195 months’
imprisonment, which included a mandatory minimum term under Count
Fifteen of 60 months’ imprisonment that was to be imposed consecutive to any
term of imprisonment imposed on Count One. (Id. at 34).
During Mr. Serrano’s plea allocution, the Court discussed with him the
offenses to which he proposed to plead guilty, viz., Counts One and Fifteen,
and had the prosecutor outline the elements of each offense. With particular
respect to Count Fifteen, the prosecutor explained as follows:
Then with respect to Count 15, the elements are, first,
that the defendant committed a crime for which he
might be prosecuted in a court of the United States,
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here, narcotics trafficking and the racketeering
conspiracy; second, that the defendant knowingly used
or carried or possessed a firearm during and in relation
to or in furtherance of these crimes, or aided and
abetted others in doing the same.
(Dkt. #121 at 14-15 (emphasis added)). Later in the proceeding, the Court
directed Mr. Serrano’s attention to the specific paragraph of the Plea Agreement
that discussed the lesser-included offense of Count Fifteen to which he
proposed to plead guilty; that paragraph also referenced both the racketeering
and narcotics trafficking conspiracies. (Id. at 22-23). And the Court reviewed
with Mr. Serrano his waiver of his right to appeal and to collaterally challenge
certain components of his sentence, including any sentence of imprisonment
within or below the stipulated Guidelines range of 168 to 195 months’
imprisonment. (Id. at 25).
When asked by the Court to explain what he had done that made him
believe that he was guilty of the offenses charged in Counts One and Fifteen of
the S3 Indictment, Mr. Serrano began as follows:
From in or around 2012 through September, 2015, in
the Southern District of New York, I was a member of
Taylor Ave Gang. When I was a member, I agreed to
with others to participate in activities, including
possession of a firearm and drug dealing crack cocaine.
On March 4[, 2012], I participated in a shooting in the
Bronx. I fired a gun through an apartment building.
(Dkt. #121 at 27). The Court then asked several clarifying questions
concerning Mr. Serrano’s conduct, which prompted the following exchange:
THE COURT: So Taylor as an organization engaged in
narcotics trafficking, among other things; is that
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THE DEFENDANT: Yes.
THE COURT: And they sold crack cocaine?
THE DEFENDANT: Yes.
THE COURT: And they sold it in the Bronx?
THE DEFENDANT: Yes.
THE COURT: In addition, in order to protect their
territory or to aid them in continuing their operations,
Taylor also had people in the organization use guns,
THE DEFENDANT: Yes.
THE COURT: So is it fair to say that there were threats
of violence or actual violence in order to protect or
preserve the Taylor Avenue Crew?
THE DEFENDANT: Yes.
THE COURT: In part, that was because there were
rivalries with other groups, such as the Leland Avenue
Crew; is that fair to say, as well, sir?
THE DEFENDANT: Yes.
THE COURT: So you told me a few moments ago that
you agreed with others [in] Taylor to do things. So what
you did as part of your agreement was to sell crack
THE DEFENDANT: Yes.
THE COURT: Did you also agree to use or carry or
possess a gun in connection with Taylor’s activities?
THE DEFENDANT: Yes.
THE COURT: Separately, you mentioned that in
connection with these activities, you once, in March of
2012, fired a gun through a door; is that correct?
THE DEFENDANT: Yes.
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THE COURT: Working backwards, sir. When you agreed
with others in Taylor to engage in these activities, did
you know that what you were doing was wrong and
THE DEFENDANT: Yes, I did.
THE COURT: And when you possessed the gun in
connection with these activities, and when you fired the
gun, did you also know that what you were doing was
wrong and illegal?
THE DEFENDANT: Yes.
(Id. at 28-29). 2
The Court also asked the Government to outline the evidence that it
would introduce if Mr. Serrano were to proceed to trial, which included
rap videos from YouTube that involved the defendant
and other members of the Taylor Avenue Crew
displaying gang signs and rapping about shootings and
dealing drugs, multiple cooperating witnesses who
would testify that the defendant sold crack cocaine on
Taylor Avenue for the Taylor Avenue Crew as far back
as 2012 and in the 2014 to 2015 time period, testimony
from NYPD officers regarding the defendant’s prior
arrests during the conspiracy period for crack sales and
crack cocaine possession, and also cooperating
witnesses, law enforcement testimony, and video
regarding the March, 2012 shooting.
(Dkt. #121 at 32-33). Mr. Serrano acknowledged listening to this recitation of
evidence. (Id. at 33). At the conclusion of the proceeding, the Court accepted
Mr. Serrano’s guilty plea. (Id. at 34).
Counsel for Mr. Serrano also indicated that the defense did not dispute that “the
particular activities of this gang involving, as they did, narcotics that were not grown in
New York State, or guns that are not manufactured in New York State, that they
implicated interstate commerce.” (Dkt. #121 at 30).
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The Probation Office prepared a Presentence Investigation Report in
anticipation of Mr. Serrano’s sentencing. (Dkt. #142 (Final Presentence
Investigation Report (“PSR”))). After discussing at some length the rivalry
between the Taylor and Leland Avenue Crews, and the escalating acts of
violence that marked that rivalry, the PSR addressed the roles of each of the
defendants charged in the instant case. (PSR ¶¶ 38-64). Mr. Serrano was
described as (i) a “Taylor Avenue Crew member who personally distributed
crack cocaine on Taylor Avenue,” (ii) who “carried guns in connection with his
membership in the Taylor Avenue Crew,” (iii) who once “brandished a firearm
to threaten an individual with whom members of the Taylor Avenue Crew had a
dispute,” and (iv) who attempted to kill a member of the Leland Avenue Crew
by firing two shots into an apartment where he believed the Leland member
was staying. (Id. at ¶¶ 47-48). 3
In his sentencing submission, Mr. Serrano acknowledged that “[h]e was
involved with a gang that engaged in violence and drug-dealing.” (Dkt. #176 at
9; see also id. at 10 (“[Mr. Serrano’s] role in drug-dealing was limited to streetlevel sales, as opposed to high-volume trafficking.”)). The Government, in its
sentencing submission, reiterated that the firearms charge in Count Fifteen
pertained to both the racketeering conspiracy charged in Count One and the
The original Guidelines calculations in the PSR were incorrect, as the parties
acknowledged. (Dkt. #191 at 4-5). The Court ultimately calculated the Guidelines in a
manner that replicated the parties’ stipulated Guidelines range of 168 to 195 months’
imprisonment. (Id. at 31-32).
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narcotics conspiracy charged in Count Eight, and that Mr. Serrano’s
acknowledged discharge of a firearm could, absent the parties’ Plea Agreement
to a lesser-included offense, have resulted in a ten-year mandatory consecutive
term. (Dkt. #179 at 2, 4). The Government further noted that
Serrano was not simply a drug dealer. As a member of
the Taylor Avenue Crew, he showed a willingness to
protect the Crew’s drug territory with the most serious
forms of violence involving firearms. At least twice, the
defendant resorted to using firearms to enforce the
Crew’s control over its territory, brandishing the firearm
on one occasion and firing it on another. On the later
occasion, Serrano attempted to murder a rival gang
member, and because he fired into the wrong apartment
door, very easily could have killed an innocent
Serrano also boasted online about
committing acts of violence.
(Id. at 6).
Sentencing in the matter took place on January 20, 2017. (Dkt. #191
(sentencing transcript); see also Dkt. #184 (judgment)). After ensuring that it
had all of the relevant sentencing materials, the Court confirmed with counsel
for Mr. Serrano that the defense had no objections to the PSR and its factual
statements, including the passages cited above. (Dkt. #191 at 3-4). The Court
then engaged in a wide-ranging colloquy with both sides that covered, among
other issues, Guidelines calculation errors in the PSR; the possibility of credit
for prior sentences served; Mr. Serrano’s involvement in drug-dealing and
firearms offenses as a member of the Crew; and his efforts at rehabilitation and
plans for reentry. (Id. at 4-29). After hearing from Mr. Serrano himself and
taking a recess to consider the parties’ arguments, the Court imposed a
substantially-below-Guidelines sentence, reasoning as follows:
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No one disputes that [Mr. Serrano’s] childhood was not
what we would want it to be, and it is unfortunate that
it led him to the acts that bring him here today. The
concern that I have with the recommendations of the
probation office and of the defense is that I think it very
much understates what happened in the RICO
conspiracy. I do understand the need for family, the
need to belong, but it does not justify what I think Mr.
Serrano participated in, which is effectively terrorizing
the residents of this very small area, be it in drug
dealing or in violent conflicts with another gang.
I also cannot look past the use of a firearm. It’s
unfortunate he had it. It’s unfortunate he brandished
it. It’s unfortunate that he shot at someone else’s door.
I am less sanguine, I am less willing to give him a break,
as it were, because he didn’t hit anyone. There is
something to be said for that, but it wasn’t for lack of
trying, and that does really concern me.
I also note, because I do note it, that there has been a
not great adjustment to incarceration.
infractions here and while in the custody of the New
York City Department of Corrections. I think the
criminal history category is the proper one.
convictions that he has previously are small in scale,
but there are a number of them.
I have also considered the possibility of sentence
I have sentenced others in this case,
including Mr. Otero, and I need to ensure that the
sentence I impose reflects accurately how these two
men are similar and are different.
So I am willing to go down 30 months, but I am not
willing to go down to the level sought by the defense,
because, again, I think what happened was just too, too
severe, and to do that would basically give a package
deal or a volume discount to the RICO conspiracy that
I think is inappropriate on these facts.
So it will be a 78-month term of imprisonment on Count
One and a 60-month term of imprisonment on Count
Fifteen. This aggregate term of imprisonment will be
Case 1:20-cv-09887-KPF Document 3 Filed 05/06/22 Page 10 of 37
followed by concurrent terms of three years’ supervised
release, with the mandatory, standard and special
conditions that we discussed earlier. I will not impose
a fine or restitution or forfeiture. I am required to
impose a $100 special assessment on each count of
conviction, and so that would be $200 in this case.
(Id. at 33-34). 4
The Post-Conviction Motion Practice
Mr. Serrano did not appeal from his conviction and sentence. In August
2017, Mr. Serrano sought reappointment of his defense counsel to assist with a
collateral challenge motion based on the Supreme Court decision in United
States v. Dean, — U.S. —, 137 S. Ct. 1170 (2017), in which the Court held that
a sentencing court was not precluded from considering the mandatory
minimum term specified by Section 924(c) when calculating an appropriate
sentence for the predicate offense. (Dkt. #231). The Court denied the request,
observing, among other things, that (i) the issues raised by Mr. Serrano were
straightforward and required neither discovery nor an evidentiary hearing and
(ii) “any expansion of the Court’s discretion occasioned by the Dean decision
would not have caused the Court then, and does not cause it now, to revisit the
sentence it imposed.” (Dkt. #234).
In July 2018, Mr. Serrano asked the Court to resentence him in light of
the Supreme Court’s decision in Sessions v. Dimaya, — U.S. —, 138 S. Ct.
1204 (2018), which had concluded that the definition of “crime of violence” in
As Mr. Serrano noted (see Dkt. #472 at 7), the judgment defines the “nature of offense”
of Count Fifteen as “[u]sing firearms during crime of violence,” omitting the narcotics
conspiracy object. That is a clerical error that this Court will correct pursuant to
Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 36.
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18 U.S.C. § 16(b), as incorporated into the Immigration and Nationality Act’s
definition of “aggravated felony,” was unconstitutionally vague in violation of
the Fifth Amendment’s Due Process Clause. The Court construed the request,
for purposes of its analysis, as a Section 2255 motion, but denied it as
untimely because more than one year had passed since Mr. Serrano’s
conviction had become final and the Supreme Court had not found the Dimaya
decision to apply retroactively. (Dkt. #244). 5
In March 2019, Mr. Serrano again requested the appointment of counsel
to assist with a request for resentencing in light of the First Step Act of 2018,
Pub. L. No. 115-391, 132 Stat. 5194, and the aforementioned Dimaya decision.
(Dkt. #308). Again the Court denied his request, noting as before that the legal
issues were straightforward and required neither discovery nor an evidentiary
hearing. (Dkt. #310). 6
While specifically referencing Adams v. United States, 155 F.3d 582 (2d Cir. 1998), the
Court inadvertently overlooked that case’s directive to obtain the informed consent of
Mr. Serrano before recharacterizing his request for resentencing as a Section 2255
motion. For this reason, the request does not count for purposes of determining
whether the instant motion is “second or successive” under 28 U.S.C. § 2255(h). See
Castro v. United States, 540 U.S. 375, 383 (2003) (“In such circumstances the district
court must notify the pro se litigant that it intends to recharacterize the pleading, warn
the litigant that this recharacterization means that any subsequent § 2255 motion will
be subject to the restrictions on ‘second or successive’ motions, and provide the litigant
an opportunity to withdraw the motion or to amend it so that it contains all the § 2255
claims he believes he has. If the court fails to do so, the motion cannot be considered to
have become a § 2255 motion for purposes of applying to later motions the law’s
‘second or successive’ restrictions.”).
In responding to Mr. Serrano’s first two requests for counsel, the Court referred him to
then-binding Second Circuit precedent concerning what racketeering activity sufficed to
render RICO violations qualifying offenses under 18 U.S.C. § 924(c). This precedent
would subsequently be abrogated by the Supreme Court’s Davis decision, discussed
later in this Opinion.
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In July 2020, Mr. Serrano again requested the appointment of counsel to
assist with a request for resentencing. (Dkt. #432). In response to a Court
request for clarification (see id.), Mr. Serrano explained that he sought vacatur
of his conviction on Count Fifteen for violation of Section 924(c) in light of the
Supreme Court’s decision in United States v. Davis, –– U.S. ––, 139 S. Ct. 2319
(2019), which concluded that the residual definition of “crime of violence” in 18
U.S.C. § 924(c)(3)(B) was unconstitutionally vague (Dkt. #461). The Court
granted Mr. Serrano’s request (Dkt. #460), and appointed Georgia J. Hinde
from the Court’s Criminal Justice Act panel to represent him (Dkt. #460-463). 7
Mr. Serrano filed his counseled Section 2255 motion on November 20,
2020. (Dkt. #472). The Government responded on December 5, 2020 (Dkt.
#481), and Mr. Serrano filed a counseled reply on December 18, 2020 (Dkt.
#483). In April 2021, Mr. Serrano filed a counseled motion for compassionate
release pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(A)(i). (Dkt. #508). The Government
opposed the motion by letter brief dated May 13, 2021. (Dkt. #519). Mr.
Serrano filed a counseled reply submission on May 27, 2021 (Dkt. #524), and
several supplemental submissions thereafter (Dkt. #533, 590). The parties also
filed supplemental submissions in response to a Court order inviting same
issued on April 12, 2022. (Dkt. #605, 607, 608, 609). The Court will first
consider Mr. Serrano’s Section 2255 motion, and then consider his later-filed
motion for compassionate release.
The Court extends its appreciation to Ms. Hinde for her thoughtful submissions in this
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The Court Denies Mr. Serrano’s Section 2255 Motion
Motions Under 28 U.S.C. § 2255 8
A prisoner in federal custody may seek to have his sentence vacated, set
aside, or corrected on the grounds that it “was imposed in violation of the
Constitution or laws of the United States, or that the [trial] court was without
jurisdiction to impose such sentence, or that the sentence was in excess of the
maximum authorized by law, or is otherwise subject to collateral attack[.]” 28
U.S.C. § 2255(a). However, the grounds for such a collateral attack under
Section 2255 are much more limited than those available on a direct appeal.
See United States v. Addonizio, 442 U.S. 178, 185 (1979). Relief may lie “only
for a constitutional error, a lack of jurisdiction in the sentencing court, or an
error of law or fact that constitutes ‘a fundamental defect which inherently
results in a complete miscarriage of justice.’” United States v. Bokun, 73 F.3d
8, 12 (2d Cir. 1995) (quoting Hill v. United States, 368 U.S. 424, 428 (1962)).
A federal prisoner seeking relief under Section 2255 must generally file a
motion within one year from the latest of four benchmark dates, that is, from
the date when: (i) the judgment of conviction becomes final; (ii) a governmentcreated impediment to making such a motion is removed; (iii) the right asserted
is initially recognized by the Supreme Court, if it has been made retroactively
Caselaw in this area uses the terms “movant,” “petitioner,” and “defendant”
Case 1:20-cv-09887-KPF Document 3 Filed 05/06/22 Page 14 of 37
available to cases on collateral review; or (iv) the facts supporting the claim(s)
could have been discovered through the exercise of due diligence. See 28
U.S.C. § 2255(f).
“[A] § 2255 petition cannot be used to ‘relitigate questions which were
raised and considered on direct appeal.’” United States v. Sanin, 252 F.3d 79,
83 (2d Cir. 2001) (quoting Cabrera v. United States, 972 F.2d 23, 25 (2d Cir.
1992)). What is more, Section 2255 cannot be used to bring claims for the first
time that could have been raised on direct appeal. See Bousley v. United
States, 523 U.S. 614, 622-23 (1998). Where the petitioner has procedurally
defaulted on a claim by failing to raise it on direct appeal, the claim may be
raised pursuant to Section 2255 only if the petitioner can demonstrate (i) cause
for the failure to raise the claim and prejudice from the alleged error, or
(ii) actual innocence of the crime. Id.
Cause can be established by showing that the default was the result of
“some objective factor external to the defense.” Murray v. Carrier, 477 U.S.
478, 488 (1986). For example, where a claim “is so novel that its legal basis is
not reasonably available to counsel, a defendant has cause for his failure to
raise the claim.” United States v. Whitman, 115 F. Supp. 3d 439, 443 (S.D.N.Y.
2015) (quoting Reed v. Ross, 468 U.S. 1, 16 (1984)) (internal quotation marks
omitted). “[A] claim is not reasonably available when, at the time of the
procedural default, binding precedent foreclosed the argument or when the
defendant lacked the relevant tools with which to raise his claim on direct
appeal.” Id. (citations and internal quotation marks omitted). To demonstrate
Case 1:20-cv-09887-KPF Document 3 Filed 05/06/22 Page 15 of 37
prejudice, the petitioner must show “not just that the errors ‘created a
possibility of prejudice, but that they worked to his actual and substantial
disadvantage.’” Borrego v. United States, 975 F. Supp. 520, 522 (S.D.N.Y.
1997) (quoting United States v. Frady, 456 U.S. 152, 170 (1982)). In the
context of a guilty plea, a petitioner “must show that there is a reasonable
probability that, but for [the] errors, he would not have pleaded guilty and
would have insisted on going to trial.” Hill v. Lockhart, 474 U.S. 52, 59 (1985)
(discussing prejudice in the context of an ineffective assistance of counsel
claim); see also Strickler v. Greene, 527 U.S. 263, 296 (1999) (finding no
prejudice from procedural default since “petitioner has not shown that there is
a reasonable probability that his conviction or sentence would have been
Alternatively, the petitioner may show that the federal court’s refusal to
consider the merits of his claim will result in a fundamental miscarriage of
justice, because he is “actually innocent” of the crimes for which he was
convicted. Aparicio v. Artuz, 269 F.3d 78, 90 (2d Cir. 2001). A court may find
that a petitioner is actually innocent only when, after reviewing all of the
evidence, it concludes that “no reasonable juror would have found petitioner
guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.” Doe v. Menefee, 391 F.3d 147, 162 (2d Cir.
2004) (internal quotation marks omitted).
18 U.S.C. § 924(c)
Title 18, United States Code, Section 924(c)(1)(A) prohibits “during and in
relation to any crime of violence or drug trafficking crime ... us[ing] or
Case 1:20-cv-09887-KPF Document 3 Filed 05/06/22 Page 16 of 37
carr[ying] ... or ... possess[ing] a firearm.” Section 924(c)(2) defines a “drug
trafficking crime” to include “any felony punishable under the Controlled
Substances Act …, the Controlled Substances Import and Export Act …, or
chapter 705 of title 46.” Section 924(c)(3) defines a “crime of violence” as “an
offense that is a felony” and:
(A) has as an element the use, attempted use, or
threatened use of physical force against the person or
property of another, or
(B) that by its nature, involves a substantial risk that
physical force against the person or property of another
may be used in the course of committing the offense.
The first subpart of Section 924(c)(3) is commonly called the “elements clause,”
and the second subpart is commonly called the “residual clause.” Davis, 139
S. Ct. at 2324.
The residual clause contained in Section 924(c) and other statutes has
been extensively litigated. See Jackson v. United States, No. 16 Civ. 4792
(LAP), 2022 WL 976358, at *4 (S.D.N.Y. Mar. 31, 2022) (discussing evolution of
the definition of “crime of violence”). In 2015, the Supreme Court struck down
a similar residual clause in the Armed Career Criminal Act, 18 U.S.C.
§ 924(e)(2)(B), reasoning that the residual clause was unconstitutionally vague.
See Johnson v. United States, 576 U.S. 591 (2015). Three years later, the Court
invalidated the residual clause of the INA, 18 U.S.C. § 16. See Sessions v.
Dimaya, 138 S. Ct. at 1215-16. The following year, the Court applied Johnson
to strike down the residual clause of Section 924(c)(3) as unconstitutionally
vague as well. Davis, 139 S. Ct. at 2323-24.
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After Davis, the predicate crime of violence required to sustain a
conviction under Section 924(c) must be a crime of violence as defined by the
elements clause. Generally speaking, conspiracy offenses do not meet this
definition. See, e.g., United States v. McCoy, 995 F.3d 32, 52 (2d Cir. 2021).
More specifically, the Second Circuit has found that RICO conspiracy is not a
crime of violence under Section 924(c)(3). See United States v. Capers, 20 F.4th
105, 120 (2d Cir. 2021) (“In sum, it cannot be the case that RICO conspiracy
categorically ‘has as an element the use, attempted use, or threatened use of
physical force against the person or property of another.’ 18 U.S.C.
§ 924(c)(3)(A). Thus, RICO conspiracy is not a crime of violence.”); see also
United States v. Martinez, 991 F.3d 347, 354 (2d Cir. 2021) (“We can assume
that the [RICO] conspiracy violation is not a crime of violence under the force
clause because, as the Supreme Court’s decision in Davis reasoned, a
conspiracy offense cannot categorically involve the use of force, since its key
element is simply an agreement to commit a crime.” (citing Davis, 139 S. Ct. at
2325, and United States v. Barrett, 937 F.3d 126, 127 (2d Cir. 2019))). Of note,
however, Section 924(c) convictions predicated on a narcotics trafficking
offense are unaffected by Davis. See, e.g., United States v. Kilpatrick, No. 153012-cr, 2021 WL 3354737, at *4-5 (2d Cir. Aug. 3, 2021), cert. denied sub
nom. Taylor v. United States, 142 S. Ct. 502 (2021); United States v. Dussard,
967 F.3d 149, 156 (2d Cir. 2020); see generally McKnight v. United States, No.
15 Cr. 607 (JPC), 2021 WL 5647792, at *4 (S.D.N.Y. Dec. 1, 2021).
Case 1:20-cv-09887-KPF Document 3 Filed 05/06/22 Page 18 of 37
The Court Will Not Enforce Mr. Serrano’s Appellate
Though the Government does not raise this argument, the waiver
provision of Mr. Serrano’s Plea Agreement seemingly bars him from bringing
this motion. It is settled law that “[a] defendant’s knowing and voluntary
waiver of the right to appeal or collaterally attack his conviction and/or
sentence is enforceable.” Sanford v. United States, 841 F.3d 578, 580 (2d Cir.
2016) (collecting cases). More to the point, Second Circuit precedent
“foreclose[s] the possibility that a plea agreement can be nullified by a change
in law after the agreement is executed.” Unites States v. Riggi, 649 F.3d 143,
149 n.7 (2d Cir. 2011); see also Sanford, 841 F.3d at 580 (“[A] defendant’s
inability to foresee [a change in the law] does not supply a basis for failing to
enforce an appeal waiver.” (internal quotation marks omitted)); see also United
States v. Santiago, 806 F. App’x 32, 34 (2d Cir. 2020) (summary order)
(rejecting argument that appeal waiver in plea agreement was nullified by
subsequent change in law reflected in Davis); accord United States v. Crews,
No. 20-3820, 2022 WL 777684, at *3 (2d Cir. Mar. 15, 2022); United States v.
Borden, 16 F.4th 351, 353-56 (2d Cir. 2021).
As noted, Mr. Serrano pleaded guilty pursuant to a written Plea
Agreement in which he waived certain rights and agreed “not [to] file a direct
appeal; nor bring a collateral challenge, including but not limited to an
application under Title 28, United States Code, Section 2255 and/or Section
2241; nor seek a sentence modification pursuant to Title 18, United States
Case 1:20-cv-09887-KPF Document 3 Filed 05/06/22 Page 19 of 37
Code, Section 3582(c), of any sentence within or below the Stipulated
Guidelines Range of 168 to 195 months’ imprisonment.” (Dkt. #472-1 at 35).
During the plea proceeding, the Court drew Mr. Serrano’s attention to the
waiver paragraph of the Plea Agreement, and confirmed his waiver of his right
to “to appeal or otherwise challenge any term of imprisonment that is 195
months or less.” (Dkt. #121 at 25). See Fed. R. Crim. P. 11(b)(1)(N) (“During
[the plea colloquy], the court must inform the defendant of, and determine that
the defendant understands, the following: … (N) the terms of any pleaagreement provision waiving the right to appeal or to collaterally attack the
sentence[.]”); see also United States v. Salmonson, 759 F. App’x 106, 108 (2d
Cir. 2019) (summary order) (finding appellate waiver to have been knowingly
and voluntarily made, and thus enforceable). On the theory that the
Government’s failure to raise the provision in its opposition papers has “waived
the waiver,” as it were, the Court will continue with its analysis. See generally
United States v. Quiroz, 22 F.3d 489, 491 (2d Cir. 1994) (discussing
circumstances in which Government failure to raise argument amounts to
waiver of otherwise applicable waiver).
The Government Has Waived Any Claim of Procedural
Because Mr. Serrano did not raise his Davis argument on direct appeal,
the Court next considers whether he has procedurally defaulted on the claim.
On this point, Mr. Serrano makes no arguments concerning cause and
Case 1:20-cv-09887-KPF Document 3 Filed 05/06/22 Page 20 of 37
prejudice excusing his failure to raise the issue earlier. 9 Instead, Mr. Serrano
suggests that his motion is timely because it was filed within one year of the
Davis decision, and because Davis should be given retroactive effect. (See Dkt.
#472 at 9 n.1). However, while the Johnson case on which Davis is based has
been found by the Supreme Court to apply retroactively to cases on collateral
review, see Welch v. United States, 578 U.S. 120, 130 (2016), neither the
Supreme Court nor the Second Circuit has found Davis itself to have
retroactive effect. See, e.g., United States v. Vallejo, No. 16 Cr. 108 (ALC), 2022
WL 313873, at *1 (S.D.N.Y. Feb. 2, 2022) (“The government has also correctly
stated that there is no controlling authority from the Second Circuit or the
Supreme Court on retroactive application of the Davis rule for purposes of
review under Section 2255.”); Caraballo v. United States, No. 10 Cr. 392 (CS),
2021 WL 1062036, at *1 (S.D.N.Y. Mar. 19, 2021) (“The Second Circuit has not
decided whether Davis is retroactively available on collateral review.”); cf.
Knowles v. United States, No. 11 Cr. 630 (KMK), 2022 WL 999078, at *19
(S.D.N.Y. Mar. 30, 2022) (“The Supreme Court, in the wake of Johnson, applied
Courts undertaking a cause and prejudice analysis in light of Davis have come to
different conclusions. Compare, e.g., Lopez v. United States, No. 16 Cr. 719-3 (RJS),
2022 WL 912698, at *4 (S.D.N.Y. Mar. 29, 2022) (finding neither cause nor prejudice
where conviction became final in 2018 and where record, including plea allocution,
identified narcotics trafficking as an alternate predicate), with Jackson v. United States,
No. 16 Civ. 4792 (LAP), 2022 WL 976358, at *6-7 (S.D.N.Y. Mar. 31, 2022) (finding
cause, but no prejudice, where movant’s conviction became final in 1999, and where
review of the record disclosed evidence sufficient to support a substantive murder
conviction, and thus “no reasonable probability that Mr. Jackson would not have pled
guilty to the § 924(c) counts”), and Speed v. United States, No. 16 Civ. 4500 (PKC), 2020
WL 7028814, at *3-4 (S.D.N.Y. Nov. 30, 2020) (finding cause and prejudice, but denying
Davis claim on the merits, where record supported substantive racketeering charge as
Case 1:20-cv-09887-KPF Document 3 Filed 05/06/22 Page 21 of 37
the same logic in Davis, holding the residual clause in § 924(c)(3)(B) void for
vagueness. See Davis, 139 S. Ct. at 2336. It follows, then, that Davis also
announced a new substantive criminal rule that has retroactive effect on
collateral review.”); Savoca v. United States, No. 03 Cr. 841-01 (VB), 2020 WL
2133187, at *6 (S.D.N.Y. May 5, 2020) (“[T]he parties agree Davis applies
retroactively to cases on collateral review under Welch.”), aff’d, 21 F.4th 225
(2d Cir. 2021).
Again, however, the Court’s analysis is largely academic, because the
Government has not made a claim of procedural default in its opposition. (See
generally Dkt. #481). A court “is not required to raise the issue of procedural
default sua sponte,” because “procedural default is normally a defense that the
[Government] is obligated to raise and preserve if it is not to lose the right to
assert the defense thereafter.” Trest v. Cain, 522 U.S. 87, 89 (1997) (internal
quotation marks and brackets omitted); see also Cone v. Bell, 556 U.S. 449,
486 n.6 (2009) (Alito, J. concurring) (“Unlike exhaustion, procedural default
may be waived if it is not raised as a defense”); cf. Jiau v. United States, No. 11
Cr. 161-1 (JSR) (JCF), 2016 WL 11201437, at *5 (S.D.N.Y. Nov. 16, 2016)
(“Rather, the Government is considered to have ‘forfeited or waived the
argument’ when it fails to raise procedural default, leaving it to the court’s
discretion whether to raise the issue itself.” (citations omitted)), report and
recommendation adopted, 2018 WL 2122817 (S.D.N.Y. May 8, 2018).
Accordingly, the Court proceeds to consider the merits of Mr. Serrano’s
Case 1:20-cv-09887-KPF Document 3 Filed 05/06/22 Page 22 of 37
Mr. Serrano’s Conviction Under Section 924(c) Is Valid,
Even After Davis
Ultimately, Mr. Serrano’s Davis claim fails on the merits. Mr. Serrano
acknowledges that “[u]nadmitted offense conduct may serve as a predicate for a
violation of § 924(c), but only so long as the record established that the
additional conduct in fact occurred.” (Dkt. #472 at 12 (citing Johnson v. United
States, 779 F.3d 125, 128-29 (2d Cir. 2015))). He maintains, however, that the
record is insufficient as to the additional predicate of narcotics trafficking, i.e.,
Mr. Serrano’s use of the firearm in furtherance of the Taylor Avenue Crew’s
narcotics trafficking. (Id. at 13). Not so, as this Opinion makes clear. To
begin, the Indictment to which Mr. Serrano pleaded guilty detailed a
racketeering enterprise whose very raison d’être was the sale of crack cocaine
in and around Taylor Avenue of the Bronx. (Dkt. #73 at ¶¶ 1-6). Acts of
violence committed by Crew members were not indicative of a second, separate
line of business, but rather were inextricably bound up in the Crew’s narcotics
trafficking. (Id. at ¶ 5 (“Certain members and associates of the Taylor Avenue
Crew committed and agreed, attempted, and threatened to commit acts of
violence to protect and expand their drug trafficking operation and to protect
fellow members and associates of the Enterprise.” (emphasis added); see also id.
at ¶ 32 (Count Fifteen)).
Mr. Serrano pleaded guilty pursuant to a Plea Agreement with the
Government in which he specifically agreed to plead to a Section 924(c) charge
that was predicated on two offenses, including, as relevant here, his use and
possession of one or more firearms in furtherance of the charged narcotics
Case 1:20-cv-09887-KPF Document 3 Filed 05/06/22 Page 23 of 37
conspiracy. (Dkt. #472-1 at 30). During his plea allocution, Mr. Serrano was
specifically advised (and acknowledged) that the Section 924(c) offense to which
he was pleading guilty was predicated in part on the narcotics conspiracy.
(Dkt. #121 at 14-15). And Mr. Serrano was allocuted at length concerning his
involvement in selling cocaine, as well as his (and the Crew’s) use of guns “to
protect their territory or to aid them in continuing their operations.” (Id. at 28;
see also id. at 29 (admitting his use, carrying, or possession of a gun “in
connection with [the Taylor Avenue Crew’s] activities”)). In short, abundant
evidence in the record confirms not only Mr. Serrano’s involvement in the
charged narcotics conspiracy, but his use and possession of firearms in
furtherance of that conspiracy.
In this regard, the Court is guided by the Second Circuit’s analysis in
United States v. Dussard, 967 F.3d 149, 156 (2d Cir. 2020). The defendant in
Dussard had been involved in planning an armed robbery of a drug dealer; he
was charged with conspiracy to commit Hobbs Act robbery, conspiracy to
distribute narcotics, and possession of a gun during and in relation to a crime
of violence and a drug trafficking crime. Id. at 151-52. Dussard agreed to
plead guilty to the Hobbs Act conspiracy charge and the Section 924(c) charge
(the latter of which was predicated on the Hobbs Act conspiracy charge), and
the Government agreed to drop the narcotics distribution charge. Id. at 152.
After Davis held that Hobbs Act robbery conspiracy was no longer a crime of
violence for purposes of Section 924(c), defense counsel withdrew a previously
Case 1:20-cv-09887-KPF Document 3 Filed 05/06/22 Page 24 of 37
filed brief pursuant to Anders v. California, 386 U.S. 738 (1967), and argued on
appeal for vacatur of the Section 924(c) count. Id. at 154.
The Second Circuit reviewed Dussard’s challenge for plain error, focusing
in particular on whether the claimed error affected Dussard’s substantial
rights, which in the context of a conviction after a guilty plea required him to
demonstrate that “there is a ‘reasonable probability’ that the error” in that case
“affected the outcome of the proceeding.” 967 F.3d at 156. After reviewing the
text of the indictment, Dussard’s statements during the plea proceeding, the
PSR’s factual recitation (to which the defense had not objected), the benefits to
Dussard in accepting a guilty plea that did not include a plea to a narcotics
trafficking offense with a ten-year mandatory minimum term, and Dussard’s
statements accepting responsibility, the Second Circuit concluded that
Dussard had failed to show that his plea of guilty to the Section 924(c) offense
“adversely affected his substantial rights, given the record as a whole.” Id. at
Among other things, the Court observed that Dussard “would have had
little genuine hope of being acquitted of the ... drug trafficking conspiracy after
a trial.” 967 F.3d at 157. The Dussard Court also noted that “nothing about
[Dussard’s] plea or the plea hearing itself provides any basis for an argument
that he was willing to plead guilty to [the section 924(c) charge] only if it was
tied to the charge of Hobbs Act conspiracy ... instead [of] the drug trafficking
predicate,” which has “no difference in the offense of conviction or in the
punishment.” Id. at 158. To the contrary, Dussard was “motivated — and the
Case 1:20-cv-09887-KPF Document 3 Filed 05/06/22 Page 25 of 37
government was willing — to enter into a plea agreement that would allow him
to plead guilty to a § 924(c)(1)(A)(i) offense, with its mandatory minimum
consecutive five-year prison term, plus an offense that had no mandatory
minimum prison term,” id., rather than the ten-year mandatory minimum term
specified by the narcotics count. The Second Circuit thus affirmed the
conviction, stating that the appellant “ha[d] not shown any reasonable
probability that he would not have pleaded guilty to [the section 924(c) charge]”
had Davis been in effect at that time. Id. at 159.
As the Government observes (Dkt. #481 at 5), the record here is stronger
than that in Dussard. Where the Second Circuit had to search the record for
proof of a qualifying predicate offense to which that defendant had not
admitted, Mr. Serrano pleaded guilty to a dual-predicate Section 924(c) offense;
he allocuted to both predicates; and the narcotics conspiracy predicate remains
viable after Davis. More than that, Mr. Serrano obtained several benefits from
the Plea Agreement, including a plea to a lesser-included offense that did not
involve the discharge of a firearm — even though Mr. Serrano freely admitted to
“fir[ing] a gun through an apartment building” (Dkt. #121 at 27) — and
dismissal of a narcotics charge that carried a ten-year mandatory minimum.
See Kilpatrick, 2021 WL 3354737, at *3 (finding no plain error as to two
defendants who pleaded guilty to Section 924(c) counts with crime of violence
predicates, where record disclosed basis for narcotics offense predicates as to
both, and where plea agreements were favorable to defendants); United States
v. Gomez, 849 F. App’x 11, 12 (2d Cir. 2021) (summary order) (finding no plain
Case 1:20-cv-09887-KPF Document 3 Filed 05/06/22 Page 26 of 37
error where Section 924(c) conviction “just as easily could have been based on
the drug trafficking charge,” and where plea offer gave defendant “significant
incentive to plead guilty”). 10
In his motion papers, Mr. Serrano argues a series of purported Rule 11
errors, suggesting that the dots were not properly connected between his
admitted involvement in narcotics trafficking on behalf of the Taylor Avenue
Crew and his admitted involvement in using a gun in furtherance of the Crew’s
activities. (See, e.g., Dkt. #472 at 13-18 (alleging errors in plea proceeding);
Dkt. #483 at 1-2 (“Also, while Mr. Serrano generally admitted that, as part of a
pattern of racketeering, he agreed with others to participate in drug dealing, he
never admitted that he used a gun in relation to that aspect of the affairs of the
enterprise.”)). As a factual matter, these efforts at hair-splitting are incorrect,
given the Plea Agreement, the unobjected-to factual recitations of the PSR, and
Mr. Serrano’s own statements discussed above. 11 As a legal matter, Mr.
Serrano’s efforts to obtain vacatur through Rule 11 are unavailing:
Mr. Serrano’s citations to Second Circuit decisions involving jury trials are inapposite.
(See Dkt. #533, 590, 607, 609). In United States v. Capers, 20 F.4th 105 (2d Cir. 2021),
and United States v. Heyward, 3 F.4th 75 (2d Cir. 2021), the Second Circuit found plain
error in part because it could not be sure whether the jury’s verdicts on the Section
924(c) counts rested on a proper or improper basis. In light of the Dussard, Kilpatrick,
and Gomez decisions discussed in the text — which set forth a wholly different plainerror analysis for convictions obtained by guilty plea — Mr. Serrano is simply wrong to
argue that “[a]lthough Mr. Serrano’s § 924(c) conviction is based on his guilty plea
instead of a jury’s verdict, the same principles equally apply here.” (Dkt. #590 at 1).
See McKnight v. United States, No. 15 Cr. 607 (JPC), 2021 WL 5647792, at *5 (S.D.N.Y.
Dec. 1, 2021) (footnote omitted):
Moreover, the factual basis to support a valid guilty plea need not
only come from a defendant’s allocution. See Fed. R. Crim. P.
11(b)(3) (“Before entering judgment on a guilty plea, the court must
determine there is a factual basis for the plea.” (emphasis added)).
For instance, the Second Circuit has commented that the factual
Case 1:20-cv-09887-KPF Document 3 Filed 05/06/22 Page 27 of 37
Where a Rule 11 challenge is brought in a motion under
 U.S.C. § 2255, the “movant can successfully
challenge [the] guilty plea conviction ... only by
establishing that the violation constituted a
constitutional or jurisdictional error, or by showing that
the error resulted in a complete miscarriage of justice
or in a proceeding inconsistent with the rudimentary
demands of fair procedure.” Lucas v. United States, 963
F.2d 8, 12-13 (2d Cir. 1992) (internal quotations and
citations omitted). The movant must also show
prejudice, meaning that “he did not understand the
consequences of his plea, or that, if he had been
properly advised, he would not have pled guilty.” Id. at
Rojas v. United States, 803 F. App’x 526, 528 (2d Cir. 2020) (summary order);
see also McKnight, 2021 WL 5647792, at *4-5 (rejecting substantively identical
argument made by defendant in companion Leland Avenue case). Mr. Serrano
has made clear that he does not wish to withdraw his guilty plea, but only
wishes to be resentenced without the Section 924(c) charge. (Dkt. #483 at 2).
For all of the reasons just discussed, Davis does not support the relief he
basis to support a plea may include “any other evidence ... in the
record at the time of the plea,” Robinson, 799 F.3d at 199-200, and
has further explained that a district judge is not even “limited to
considering the materials available at the time of the change of
plea,” but also may “look to ‘the defendant’s own admissions,’ and
to ‘statements of the defendant, of the attorneys for the government
and the defense, or of the presentence report when one is
available,’” United States v. Lloyd, 901 F.3d 111, 123 (2d Cir. 2018)
(quoting United States v. Pattee, 820 F.3d 496, 509 (2d Cir. 2016)).
Here, statements by the Government and defense attorney at the
guilty plea hearing and statements in the Presentence Investigation
Report, whose factual findings McKnight did not object to and
Judge Pauley expressly adopted, see Sentencing Tr. at 2, 14,
further demonstrate that McKnight engaged in a conspiracy to
Case 1:20-cv-09887-KPF Document 3 Filed 05/06/22 Page 28 of 37
The Court Grants in Part Mr. Serrano’s Compassionate Release
The Section 3582(c)(1)(A)(i) Motion
While his Section 2255 motion was pending, Mr. Serrano filed a motion
for compassionate release pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(A)(i), citing the
conditions of his confinement during the COVID-19 pandemic, his positive
achievements while incarcerated, and his plans for reentry. (Dkt. #508, 524).
The Government opposed the motion by letter brief dated May 13, 2021; it
noted that Mr. Serrano’s vaccinated status ameliorated the risks to his health
from the coronavirus, and argued more broadly that Mr. Serrano presented a
continuing danger to the community and that the relevant factors counseled
against his early release. (Dkt. #519).
By Order dated April 12, 2022, the Court sought additional information
concerning Mr. Serrano from both sides. (Dkt. #605). Mr. Serrano filed a
counseled supplemental submission on April 29, 2022, in which, among other
things, he provided information concerning his conditions of confinement
during the pandemic, a recent disciplinary proceeding, and the plans made by
Mr. Serrano and his family for his reentry. (Id.; see also Dkt. #607-1 (letter
from Mr. Serrano)). The Government filed a letter brief dated May 2, 2022,
incorporating by reference its prior submissions. (Dkt. #608).
Under 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(A), as modified by the First Step Act, a
court may reduce a defendant’s sentence upon motion of the Director of the
BOP, or upon motion of the defendant. A defendant may move under
Case 1:20-cv-09887-KPF Document 3 Filed 05/06/22 Page 29 of 37
§ 3582(c)(1)(A) only after the defendant has “fully exhausted all administrative
rights to appeal a failure of the Bureau of Prisons to bring a motion on the
defendant’s behalf or the lapse of 30 days from the receipt of such a request by
the warden of the defendant’s facility, whichever is earlier.” Id. The Court
understands that Mr. Serrano’s application to the Warden of his facility was
denied. (Dkt. #508 at 2).
When considering an application under Section 3582(c)(1)(A)(i), a court
may reduce a defendant’s sentence only if it finds that “extraordinary and
compelling reasons warrant such a reduction,” and that “such a reduction is
consistent with the applicable policy statements issued by the Sentencing
Commission.” 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(A)(i); see generally United States v. Jones,
17 F.4th 371, 374 (2d Cir. 2021) (“Thus, extraordinary and compelling reasons
are necessary — but not sufficient — for a defendant to obtain relief under
§ 3582(c)(1)(A). As we have just noted, a district court must also consider ‘the
factors set forth in section 3553(a)’ before granting relief.” (citing 18 U.S.C.
§ 3582(c)(1)(A))). “The defendant has the burden to show he is entitled to a
sentence reduction.” United States v. Ebbers, No. 02 Cr. 1144-3 (VEC), 2020
WL 91399, at *4 (S.D.N.Y. Jan. 8, 2020) (citing United States v. Butler, 970
F.2d 1017, 1026 (2d Cir. 1992)).
The Second Circuit has summarized the standards pursuant to which
district courts must evaluate compassionate release applications:
Section 3582(c)(1)(A) authorizes a court to reduce a
previously imposed term of imprisonment upon finding
that “extraordinary and compelling reasons warrant
such a reduction.” 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(A)(i). A court
Case 1:20-cv-09887-KPF Document 3 Filed 05/06/22 Page 30 of 37
deciding a compassionate release motion can consider
“the full slate of extraordinary and compelling reasons
that an imprisoned person might bring before [it].”
United States v. Brooker, 976 F.3d 228, 237 (2d Cir.
2020). But there are three requirements that must be
satisfied before a court can grant such relief. First,
absent waiver or forfeiture by the government, an
inmate must exhaust administrative remedies by
requesting such relief from prison authorities.
Specifically, an inmate may ask the sentencing court to
consider reducing a sentence only “after the defendant
has fully exhausted all administrative rights to appeal a
failure of the Bureau of Prisons to bring a motion on the
defendant’s behalf or the lapse of 30 days from the
receipt of such a request by the warden of the
defendant’s facility, whichever is earlier.” 18 U.S.C.
§ 3582(c)(1)(A); see also United States v. Saladino, 7
F.4th 120, 124 (2d Cir. 2021) (holding that the
government may waive or forfeit the exhaustion
requirement). Second, a court must “consider[ ] the
factors set forth in [18 U.S.C. §] 3553(a) to the extent
that they are applicable.” 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(A); see
[United States v. Jones, 17 F.4th 371, 374-75 (2d Cir.
2021)]. Section 3553(a), in turn, lists numerous factors
a court must review when imposing a sentence. These
include, as most relevant here, “the nature and
circumstances of the offense and the history and
characteristics of the defendant”; “the need for the
sentence imposed ... to reflect the seriousness of the
offense, to promote respect for the law, and to provide
just punishment for the offense”; “the need for the
sentence imposed ... to provide the defendant with ...
correctional treatment in the most effective manner”;
and “the need to avoid unwarranted sentence
disparities among defendants with similar records who
have been found guilty of similar conduct.” 18 U.S.C.
§ 3553(a). Third, the inmate must demonstrate that his
proffered circumstances are indeed “extraordinary and
compelling” such that, in light of these § 3553(a) factors,
a sentence reduction is justified under § 3582(c)(1)(A)
and would not simply constitute second-guessing of the
sentence previously imposed.
United States v. Keitt, 21 F.4th 67, 71 (2d Cir. 2021); accord United States v.
Halvon, 26 F.4th 566, 570 (2d Cir. 2022); see also United States v. Martinez,
Case 1:20-cv-09887-KPF Document 3 Filed 05/06/22 Page 31 of 37
No. 06 Cr. 987-1 (DC), 2021 WL 3374530, at *2 (S.D.N.Y. Aug. 2, 2021)
(discussing what can qualify as “extraordinary and compelling reasons”). The
court’s discretion includes both the power to reduce, and the power to
eliminate, the remaining term of a defendant’s sentence. See Brooker, 976 F.3d
Mr. Serrano contracted the COVID-19 virus in or about December 2020
while housed at the United States Penitentiary in Pollock, Louisiana (“USP
Pollock”). (Dkt. #508 at 1). In or about March 2021, he received both doses of
the COVID-19 vaccine. (Id.). In his initial compassionate release submission,
Mr. Serrano argued that this Court should recognize “that individuals, like Mr.
Serrano, who have medical conditions that potentially make them more
vulnerable to infection, still face extraordinary and compelling circumstances
while they remain in prison, even after they have contracted COVID and also
after they have been vaccinated.” (Id. at 3). He further argued that the severity
of the conditions of his confinement — both in terms of lockdowns and reduced
opportunities for rehabilitative programming — counsel in favor of a reduction
in sentence. (Id. at 4). Finally, Mr. Serrano cited “his excellent programming
achievements in prison, his continuing family support, and his well developed
release plan.” (Id. at 5). In his supplemental submission, Mr. Serrano
acknowledged that the number of positive COVID-19 cases had “substantially
declined” at FCI Ray Brook since his prior submission (Dkt. #607 at 2), but
noted that the facility was still operating as a “Level 3 Facility” with “intense
Case 1:20-cv-09887-KPF Document 3 Filed 05/06/22 Page 32 of 37
modifications,” which included curtailments of social visits, time inmates may
spend outside of their cells, and programming (id. at 2-3).
This Court acknowledges that courts in this District have granted, and
denied, compassionate release motions predicated on the existence of the
COVID-19 pandemic and the risks of its transmission in prisons. See generally
United States v. Morrison, No. 16 Cr. 551-1 (KPF), 2020 WL 2555332, at *2
(S.D.N.Y. May 20, 2020) (collecting cases). This Court continues to align itself
with those courts that have found “that the risks posed by the pandemic alone
do not constitute extraordinary and compelling reasons for release, absent
additional factors such as advanced age or serious underlying health
conditions that place a defendant at greater risk of negative complications from
the disease.” United States v. Nwankwo, No. 12 Cr. 31 (VM), 2020 WL
2490044, at *1-2 (S.D.N.Y. May 14, 2020) (collecting cases).
Mr. Serrano has not made such a showing. Even were the Court to find
that his asthma condition is “moderate or severe” — which is what the Centers
for Disease Control and Prevention (the “CDC”) states might increase an
individual’s chances of contracting severe illness from the COVID-19 virus —
there are other factors to consider. See CDC, People with Certain Medical
Conditions, https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/need-extraprecautions/people-with-medical-conditions.html (accessed May 5, 2022); For
People Living in Prisons and Jails, https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019ncov/need-extra-precautions/living-prisons-jails.html (accessed May 5,
Case 1:20-cv-09887-KPF Document 3 Filed 05/06/22 Page 33 of 37
2022). 12 Among other things, Mr. Serrano’s vaccinated status mitigates,
though it does not reduce entirely, his risk of contracting the COVID-19 virus
and having serious medical conditions, and it counsels against a finding of
“extraordinary and compelling reasons.” See United States v. Bailey, No. 97 Cr.
269 (DLC), 2021 WL 4942954, at *2 (S.D.N.Y. Oct. 22, 2021) (“While the
intersection of the COVID-19 pandemic and underlying health conditions can
serve as an extraordinary and compelling circumstance justifying
compassionate release, Bailey is fully vaccinated against COVID-19 and his
medical records indicate that his chronic health conditions are well-controlled.
Bailey’s risk of continued incarceration given the COVID-19 pandemic does not
qualify as an extraordinary and compelling circumstance.”). 13 Additionally, the
Court takes notice of the BOP’s report that FCI Ray Brook currently has no
cases of COVID-19 among inmates and only four cases among staff. See
Bureau of Prisons, COVID-19 Cases, https://www.bop.gov/coronavirus/
(accessed May 5, 2022). On balance, this Court concludes that the danger that
Mr. Serrano faces from infection with COVID-19, even accounting for his
See also United States v. Jones, 17 F.4th 371, 375 (2d Cir. 2021) (“While current
guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (‘CDC’) lists ‘moderate-tosevere’ asthma as a condition that ‘can make [it] more likely’ that a COVID-19 infection
will result in severe illness, People with Moderate to Severe Asthma, CDC,
(updated Apr. 7, 2021), [Defendant] does not claim that he suffers from moderate or
severe asthma, rather than a mild form of asthma.”).
The Court takes note, however, of Mr. Serrano’s statement that he has been unable to
obtain a vaccine booster shot since his transfer to FCI Ray Brook, and expects that BOP
officials will address this issue promptly. (Dkt. #607 at 2).
Case 1:20-cv-09887-KPF Document 3 Filed 05/06/22 Page 34 of 37
asthma, does not amount to extraordinary and compelling reasons for granting
Mr. Serrano offers an additional basis for compassionate release that has
more traction, namely, that the conditions of his confinement during the
COVID-19 pandemic have resulted in a sentence that was more severe than the
Court contemplated when it originally sentenced Mr. Serrano in January 2017.
(See, e.g., Dkt. #508 at 5 (“We hope this Court will again consider the ‘more
punishing’ quality of Mr. Serrano’s incarceration over the past 13 plus months
and modify his sentence accordingly.”); Dkt. #607 at 3 (“All of these
modifications naturally have made the conditions of Mr. Serrano’s confinement
far harsher than could have been anticipated at the time of his sentencing, and
after 25 months of these atypically severe restrictions and lock downs, some
downward modification of his remaining sentence is justified.”)). The Court
acknowledges that it could not have foreseen the restrictions that would be
precipitated by the pandemic (including lockdowns and curtailment of facility
programming and visitation opportunities), nor the public health risks faced by
individuals like Mr. Serrano who spent the entirety of the pandemic in a
carceral setting, nor the length of time over which these risks and deprivations
would persist. And in a prior decision resolving a compassionate release
motion, the Court recognized “that courts reviewing motions for sentence
modifications have considered the extent to which onerous lockdowns and
restrictions imposed by correctional facilities attempting to control the spread
of the virus have made sentences ‘harsher and more punitive than would
Case 1:20-cv-09887-KPF Document 3 Filed 05/06/22 Page 35 of 37
otherwise have been the case.’” United States v. Hatcher, No. 18 Cr. 454-10
(KPF), 2021 WL 1535310, at *3 (S.D.N.Y. Apr. 19, 2021) (quoting United States
v. Rodriguez, 492 F. Supp. 3d 306, 311 (S.D.N.Y. 2020)); see also United States
v. Mcrae, No. 17 Cr. 643, 2021 WL 142277, at *5 (S.D.N.Y. Jan. 15, 2021) (“[A]
day spent in prison under extreme lockdown and in fear of contracting a deadly
virus exacts a price on a prisoner beyond that imposed by an ordinary day in
prison. While not intended as punishment, incarceration in such conditions is,
unavoidably, more punishing.”). In short, the Court believes that pandemicinduced conditions of confinement may constitute “extraordinary and
compelling” circumstances warranting compassionate release, particularly for
defendants who have (i) served long sentences and (ii) been detained for the
entirety of the pandemic. It therefore proceeds to consider whether such relief
is warranted in light of the factors set forth in 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a).
In this case, the Section 3553(a) factors — which include “the nature
and circumstances of the offense and the history and characteristics of the
defendant,” as well as the need “to protect the public from further crimes of the
defendant” — point in both directions. See 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a)(1), (a)(2)(C).
The instant case represented Mr. Serrano’s sixth criminal conviction. (PSR
¶¶ 101-105). In this case, Mr. Serrano distributed crack cocaine for the Taylor
Avenue Crew over a period of years, and both sold crack in the Bronx and
transported it to Maryland for distribution. (Id. at ¶¶ 9, 47-48; Dkt. #519 at 8).
On at least two occasions, Mr. Serrano resorted to using firearms to enforce the
Crew’s control over its territory, brandishing the firearm on one occasion and
Case 1:20-cv-09887-KPF Document 3 Filed 05/06/22 Page 36 of 37
firing it on another in a misguided (and thankfully unsuccessful) effort to
murder a rival gang member. And during his period of incarceration, Mr.
Serrano amassed several disciplinary violations, including citations for assault,
possession of an unauthorized item, possession of narcotics, and destroying
property. (Dkt. #519 at Ex. C). 14 As countervailing facts, the Court notes that
Mr. Serrano has been detained on these charges since September 2015 (PSR at
2); that he has attempted to better himself in prison (Dkt. #508 at 5; Dkt. #607
at 3-4); and that he has proposed a plan of reentry (Dkt. #508 at 5; Dkt. #607
at 3-4; Dkt. #607-1). After balancing the severity of Mr. Serrano’s criminal
conduct with the severity of the conditions of his confinement, this Court will
grant his request for compassionate release in part, by reducing his sentence
by ten (10) months.
For the reasons set forth in the remainder of this Opinion, the Court
DENIES Mr. Serrano’s motion pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2255 to vacate his
conviction. A certificate of appealability shall be not granted, because Mr.
Serrano has not made a substantial showing of a denial of a federal right and
appellate review is, therefore, not warranted. Hoffler v. Bezio, 726 F.3d 144,
154 (2d Cir. 2013); Tankleff v. Senkowski, 135 F.3d 235, 241 (2d Cir. 1998).
Further, the Court GRANTS IN PART Mr. Serrano’s motion for a
reduction in sentence pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(A)(i), such that his
The Court accepts Mr. Serrano’s representation that he is appealing a disciplinary
sanction awarded in January 2022. (Dkt. #607 at 3-4).
Case 1:20-cv-09887-KPF Document 3 Filed 05/06/22 Page 37 of 37
sentence is modified to reduce the term of imprisonment on Count One from 78
to 68 months, still followed by a consecutive sentence of 60 months’
imprisonment on Count Fifteen. This Court will further amend the judgment
pursuant to Fed. R. Crim. P. 36 to make clear that Mr. Serrano’s conviction on
Count Fifteen is predicated on a qualifying narcotics trafficking offense. All
other aspects of Mr. Serrano’s sentence remain in full force and effect.
The Clerk of Court is directed to docket this Opinion in Case Nos. 15 Cr.
608-4 and 20 Civ. 9887; to terminate all pending motions in both cases; and to
close Case No. 20 Civ. 9887.
May 6, 2022
New York, New York
KATHERINE POLK FAILLA
United States District Judge
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