Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Court's Guideline Findings Not Clear Enough for Review

US v. Bell: Bell, who suffers from numerous maladies, was a patient at a pain management clinic in Tennessee who was prescribed large amounts of Oxycontin. Although complying with the controls of the clinic to ensure no improper use of the pills, Bell was taking some of the pills she received to Virginia, where she distributed them along with her codefendant, Gibson (at whose home the transactions took place). Following a series of controlled buys and a search of the home, Bell and Gibson were charged with a pleaded guilty to several drug offenses. At sentencing, the main issue was the amount of relevant conduct attributable to Bell and Gibson. Although Bell had been prescribed the equivalent of 4695 40-mg Oxycontin pills during the relevant time, she argued that she used many of the pills prescribed as intended and distributed only the equivalent of 888 40-mg pills. At sentencing, several witnesses testified about Bell and Gibson's distribution scheme. The district court rejected Bell's claim that the amount of relevant conduct should be reduced based on what she used herself on legal grounds, but concluded that the testimony had "obvious discrepancies" and reduced the relevant conduct amount to the equivalent of 2612 40-mg pills. Both Bell and Gibson were then sentenced within the resulting advisory Guideline ranges.

On appeal, the Fourth Circuit vacated the sentences and remanded for resentencing. The court drew a distinction between relevant conduct determinations involving Schedule I drugs, with no recognized medical use, and all others, noting that the key issue when determining relevant conduct is the defendant's illegal conduct. Drugs obtained and used legally, therefore, cannot necessarily be included simply because the defendant once possessed them. In this particular case, the court concluded, the district court's findings were not explained with enough sufficiency to allow for meaningful appellate review. The court rejected the Government's attempts to divine the basis for the district court's findings ex post. It also rejected the Government's contention that anyone who sells a majority of pills prescribed to them to others lacks the medical need to make their possession of the pills legal.

There is some interesting positioning by the panel with regards to the burden of proof. In footnote 8 of the opinion, it states that the Government ultimately bears the burden of proving relevant conduct, even though it may be difficult to do so in cases like this. However, that footnote expresses only the view of Judge Davis. In a brief concurrence, Judge Hamilton (joined by Judge Floyd) does not embrace footnote 8 and notes that the defendant bears some burden to bring forth evidence of personal use.

Congrats to the WDVA FPD office on the win!

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