United States v. Waseem Alam

Case No. 20-1298. Waseem Alam appealed the Eastern District of Michigan District Court’s denial of his motion for compassionate release.  In 2016, Alam pled guilty to conspiracy to commit health care and wire fraud after participating in an $8,000,000 Medicare kickback scheme.  He was sentenced to more than eight years of imprisonment as a result.

In March of this year, amid the Coronavirus pandemic, Alam—in an effort to protect himself against the threat of the virus and its uncontrolled spread in the prison system—requested the warden for compassionate release.  Alam’s primary concerns were that, as a 64-year-old suffering from a number of health issues including diabetes, obesity, and coronary heart disease, he would be susceptible to severe complications if he were to contract COVID-19.

After ten days without a response from the warden, Alam moved the district court for emergency relief. However, the court denied the motion, citing 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(A).  That statute lays out the proper procedure that a prisoner must take to receive compassionate release.  The statute allows the director of the Bureau of Prisons to move, at any time, the federal court for compassionate release of a prisoner.  However, when a prisoner seeks compassionate release he or she may only move in federal court after exhausting all administrative options or 30 days following the prison warden receiving a request.  Once the director of the Bureau of Prisons or the prisoner moves for compassionate release, the district court may only alter the prisoner’s sentence for extraordinary and compelling reasons.  The district court found that Alam failed to wait the required amount of time, and thus, did not exhaust his administrative relief options prior to filing the motion.

Alam appealed the district court’s denial of his motion asking the bench to recognize the pandemic as an extraordinary circumstance that compels an exception to the statutory requirements.  Meanwhile, district courts throughout the Sixth Circuit have ruled in a number of ways on the issue in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.  See United States v. Saad, No. 16-20197, 2020 WL 2065476 (E.D. Mich. Apr. 29, 2020) (applying exceptions to the exhaustion requirement given the risk of severe health consequences if delays in relief should occur); Miller v. United States, No. 16-20222-1, 2020 WL 1814084 (E.D. Mich. Apr. 9, 2020) (finding that defendant properly exhausted all administrative remedies and that prompt resolution of the issue was essential during the pandemic); United States v. Coles, No. 18-CR-20254, 2020 WL 1899562 (E.D. Mich. Apr. 17, 2020) (waiving the exhaustion requirement as futile but holding that twenty-eight-year-old defendant with asthma was not entitled to compassionate release because COVID-19 did not present a high risk to him).  But see United States v. Singleton, No. 5:13-8, 2020 WL 2319694 (E.D. Ky. May 11, 2020) (holding that the court did not have jurisdiction to hear the claim when the defendant failed to exhaust administrative remedies); United States v. Bolze, No. 3:09-CR-93, 2020 WL 2521273 (E.D. Tenn. May 13, 2020) (recognizing that courts may not create exceptions to the exhaustion requirement, even during a pandemic); United States v. McDonald, No. 94-CR-20256-1, 2020 WL 3166741(W.D. Tenn. June 8, 2020) (denying compassionate release because the defendant failed to present specific health issues or underlying conditions to show compelling or extraordinary circumstances warranting relief).

Despite confusion across the districts, the Sixth Circuit in Alam decided not to waive the requirement, and, in an act of judicial deference, the court held that federal courts do not have the power to create exceptions to statutes, even when the reason for the exception would be equitable.  The court found that, although § 3582 does not limit the jurisdiction of federal courts, it is a mandatory rule that must be enforced.  The Sixth Circuit supported its holding by highlighting recent congressional actions that provide relief for prisoners during the pandemic, which include home confinement as a compassionate relief alternative.

Ultimately, when asked how to deal with mandatory statutory requirements, even during a pandemic, the Sixth Circuit found that federal courts must enforce the statutes.