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BOP Warden Does Not Have Authority to Reduce Prisoner’s Sentence Under Rule 35(b)

A federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) warden does not have authority to reward a prisoner’s cooperation with prison officials with a reduced sentence under Fed.R.Crim.P. Rule 35(b), the First Circuit held on May 23, 2008.

Edward B. Ellis, a federal prisoner serving 20 years, provided assistance to the warden of the federal prison in Lompoc, California while incarcerated there in 1994. In return for Ellis’ cooperation, the warden promised to transfer Ellis to a lower-security facility and write a letter to Ellis’ sentencing judge describing his assistance so the court could consider reducing his sentence.

The warden fulfilled both of his promises. Ellis was transferred to a lower-security prison, and his sentencing judge received a letter describing Ellis’ assistance. Neither the court nor the U.S. Attorney, however, took any action in response to the warden’s letter.

Some thirteen years later Ellis filed a motion in his criminal case seeking a reduced sentence, arguing that the government was required to file a Rule 35(b) motion on his behalf. According to Ellis, the government was bound by what was essentially a “promise” by the warden that Ellis would receive a reduced sentence. The district court disagreed.

The court found no evidence that the warden had in fact “promised” Ellis a reduced sentence, and that even if he had, the warden had no authority to make such a promise. Ellis appealed.

Putting aside the question of whether the warden had actually “promised” Ellis a reduced sentence, the appellate court agreed with the district court that even if such a promise had been made, it was done without authority and could not be enforced. Under Rule 35(b), only the “government” may move for a reduced sentence. A warden of a federal prison is not the “government” within the meaning of Rule 35(b), the Court of Appeals held.

The First Circuit also rejected Ellis’ argument that the warden had the authority to bind the U.S. Attorney’s Office to file the Rule 35(b) motion. When a private party seeks performance of a promise allegedly made by the government, “it must show that the government representative alleged to have entered into the agreement had actual authority to bind the United States,” the appellate court explained. Wardens, while possessing broad authority to run federal prisons, lack “the power to reward helpful inmates with sentence reductions by the filing of a motion under Rule 35(b).”

Accordingly, the judgment of the district court denying Ellis’ motion was affirmed. See: United States v. Ellis, 527 F.3d 203 (1st Cir. 2008).

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Related legal case

United States v. Ellis