Law360 (July 24, 2020, 10:23 PM EDT) -- A Pennsylvania federal court was correct in declining to temporarily release Allentown's former mayor from prison amid the coronavirus pandemic, the Third Circuit has ruled, holding in a precedential decision that the court would have to substantially reduce his sentence in order to release him.
Edwin Pawlowski was convicted of promising lucrative city business for vendors in exchange for donations to his ill-fated U.S. Senate campaign in 2018. In his emergency motion for temporary release to home confinement, Pawlowski said a COVID-19 outbreak in the Federal Correctional Institution at Danbury, Connecticut, threatened his life, adding that multiple serious health problems put him at risk of a bad outcome if he's infected.
But in May, a Pennsylvania federal judge denied Pawlowski's release bid, saying the "compassionate release" provision under which the former mayor sought release only allows courts to reduce a term of imprisonment, not order a release. The judge noted that Pawlowski's situation was "concerning" and that the Bureau of Prisons could make the call to release him.
The Third Circuit agreed, holding that the district court had reasonably concluded that several factors weigh against compassionate release, citing the need to reflect the seriousness of the offense, promote respect for the law and afford adequate deterrence. The decision was initially filed as non-precedential on June 26, but the Third Circuit agreed to refile it as precedential on Friday.
On appeal, Pawlowski only challenged the district court's decision declining to reduce his sentence, not the denial of his motion. But that argument falls flat, the panel said.
Pawlowski's release would effectively reduce his sentence from 15 years to less than two years, an extraordinarily significant decrease, the three-judge panel said. And the district court was correct in finding that the severity of his crimes were "extraordinarily serious" and require "a significant period of incarceration," it said, citing the lower court's decision.
The Third Circuit said it hasn't previously considered whether a district court abuses its discretion by denying a motion for compassionate release based on the amount of time remaining to be served in the inmate's sentence. But numerous district courts have taken that remaining time into account, it said.
A defendant's sentence reflects the sentencing judge's view of the matter at the time of sentencing, thus the time remaining in that sentence — along with other factors — may inform whether release is appropriate, the panel said.
"We discern no clear error of judgment here," the panel said.
According to Pawlowski's case, he's serving a 180-month sentence in the low-security federal prison in Danbury, Connecticut. Pawlowski noted in his May 4 bid for freedom that he only has one lung, on top of other health concerns including heart disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and shortness of breath, making him high-risk for COVID-19.
He asked that he be sent home to his wife and children in Allentown to continue serving his sentence while he appeals his March 2018 conviction, according to the motion.
In his May 18 order, U.S. District Judge Juan R. Sánchez said he would have to reduce the 180-month sentence to time served, which is only 19 months, in order to release Pawlowski under that provision.
"Because a reduction of this magnitude is inappropriate in the circumstances of this case, the court will deny Pawlowski's motion," the judge said.
Representatives with the government and counsel for Pawlowski didn't immediately return requests for comment late Friday.
U.S. Circuit Judges Thomas L. Ambro, Cheryl Ann Krause and Stephanos Bibas sat on the panel for the Third Circuit.
The government is represented by Robert A. Zaumer, Anthony J. Wzorek and Michelle L. Morgan of the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.
Pawlowski is represented by Jack J. McMahon Jr.
The case is U.S. v. Edwin Pawlowski et al., case number 20-2033, in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit.
--Additional reporting by Emilie Ruscoe and Matt Fair. Editing by Kelly Duncan.
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