Monday, June 26, 2017

Drug-Related Gun Bump Doesn't Preclude Safety Valve Relief

US v. Bolton: Bolton was charged with conspiracy to distribute marijuana. A search conducted at his home following his arrest uncovered (among other things) a shotgun and a rifle in his bedroom. The shotgun was stolen. Bolton was released on bond and eventually pleaded guilty to the conspiracy and was released pending sentencing. Prior to sentencing, Bolton's bond was revoked after it was learned that he was involved with the distribution of cocaine. Following his arrest, he was debriefed by law enforcement. He was eventually charged with conspiracy to distribute cocaine, pleaded guilty to that, and a consolidated sentencing hearing was scheduled. At sentencing there was a dispute over the application of a two-level gun enhancement recommended in the PSR and the PSR's failure to include reductions for acceptance of responsibility and because Bolton qualified under the "safety valve" provision. The district court overruled Bolton's objections, applying the gun enhancement because of the circumstances surrounding the possession of the guns (which happened outside of the time frame of the charged conspiracy) and concluding Bolton didn't qualify for the safety valve because of the gun enhancement. Nor did he receive credit for acceptance of responsibility.  Bolton was sentenced to 161 months in prison.

The Fourth Circuit affirmed Bolton's sentence, but no precisely on the grounds identified by the district court. Bolton challenged the district court's rulings on the gun enhancement and the safety valve. On the gun enhancement, the court held that the Government met its burden by showing that the guns were found in Bolton's bedroom along with marijuana and cash and that Bolton did not show that it was "clearly improbable" that the guns were linked to drug trafficking. However, the court also concluded that the district court's finding on the gun enhancement did not preclude Bolton receiving relief under the safety valve. That is because the burdens of proof on the two are different - to avoid the enhancement the defendant must show it was "clearly improbable" that the gun at issue wasn't possessed in connection with drug trafficking, but under the safety valve he must show that he "did not possess a firearm in connection with the offense." This, the court held, "is not a distinction without a difference." Thus, the district court erred by concluding that because the enhancement applied the safety valve could not. However, the court also concluded that the error was harmless because Bolton hadn't proved that he did not possess a firearm under the later standard. Finally, the court concluded that the district court did not err in denying Bolton a reduction for acceptance of responsibility, given that he was continuing to distribute drugs while on bond.

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