Daniel Hernandez, the flamboyant, rainbow-haired rapper better known by his stage name Tekashi 6ix9ine, was compassionately released from federal custody earlier this month under the federal courts’ growing appreciation that the COVID-19 pandemic is an “extraordinary and compelling circumstance” warranting a sentence reduction under 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c) if an inmate has a severe underlying health issue. By law, courts have the authority to grant compassionate release to persons who are incarcerated due to “extraordinary or compelling circumstances” such as imminent death or serious incapacitation. See 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(A)(i).
In December 2019, Mr. Hernandez was sentenced to two years in prison for racketeering and, at the time of his release, had already served approximately 17 months of that sentence and was expected to be released in August of this year. Mr. Hernandez, who suffers from severe asthma, was initially denied release under 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c) because the statute permits a court to reduce a prisoner’s sentence only after the inmate has exhausted their remedies through the Bureau of Prisons (“BOP”). At the time of his motion and the court’s order, Mr. Hernandez had not made any request for relief from BOP. Immediately following the court’s denial, Mr. Hernandez made a request for release through BOP that was denied for unique administrative reasons: Mr. Hernandez had been serving his sentence at a private facility and not at a regular BOP facility. Therefore, the BOP was unable to evaluate his request. After BOP’s denial of his application, Mr. Hernandez made a second, proper application with the court.
In granting Mr. Hernandez’s application, the court found that “[t]he COVID-19 pandemic is extraordinary and unprecedented in modern times in this nation” and “presents a heightened risk for incarcerated defendants like Mr. Hernandez with respiratory ailments such as asthma.” The court went on to note the unique situation for incarcerated individuals because “a high-risk inmate who contracts the virus while in prison will face challenges in caring for himself.” Thus, faced with the real risk of medical complications, the court found that the combination of Mr. Hernandez’s asthma and the ongoing pandemic constituted such “extraordinary and compelling reasons” to reduce his sentence, release him from federal custody, and allow him to start serving his term of supervised release in home confinement.
Of additional interest, in its order releasing Mr. Hernandez from confinement, the court noted that a number of additional federal courts across the country had engaged in similar sentence reductions beginning in March related to the growing pandemic. Courts across the country are now recognizing that the risk of contracting the virus in prison may satisfy the requirement under 18 U.S.C. § 3582 that an inmate demonstrate an “extraordinary and compelling reason” warranting a sentence reduction. Inmates with certain health risks may be entitled to seek early release from prison provided that (as shown in Mr. Hernandez’s case) they exhaust administrative remedies by seeking relief through the BOP in the first instance.