Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Drug totals must be proven with facts

US v. Flores-Alvarado:  In this appeal, the Fourth Circuit vacated and remanded a life sentence (and concurrent 480-month term) for the defendant’s convictions for his part in a drug trafficking conspiracy that purportedly involved over 30,000 kilos of marijuana equivalent.  At issue was whether the district court conducted a sufficient inquiry into the calculation of the defendant’s drug relevant conduct, and the Fourth Circuit determined that it had not, and remanded the case for further specific factual determinations regarding the defendant’s role in the conspiracy, in addition to whether the drug quantities were reasonably foreseeable as to him.

An investigation into the trafficking organizations, which involved multiple sources of both marijuana and cocaine, lead to two main seizures of drugs from houses in Stokesdale, North Carolina and Lexington, Kentucky, described briefly in the PSR.  During two separate sentencing hearings, the Government did not call any witnesses or present any other evidence about the drug quantities in either of these seizures.  The district court relied upon the recitation of events from the PSR, which attributed all seized quantities to the defendant.  At both sentencing hearings, Flores-Alvarado objected to the drug quantities attributed to him, to no avail.

The Fourth Circuit found that the district court clearly erred in failing to resolve the dispute about whether the events as described in the PSR supported attributing the seized amounts to Flores-Alvarado, and it did not make the necessary factual findings to attribute those amounts to him.  When dealing with drug conspiracies, the Fourth Circuit requires lower courts to “make particularized findings with respect to both the scope of the defendant’s agreement and the foreseeability of [the conduct at issue].”  The Fourth Circuit concluded that the PSR did not contain facts sufficient to show that the seized drug quantities were within the scope of Flores-Alvarado’s criminal activity, that the district court failed to make any findings on that “critical” point, and consequently, the Fourth Circuit was unable to review the issue.

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