Friday, January 15, 2016

Life Sentence for Drug Convictions Is Not Unreasonable

United States v. Craig, 2015 WL 9299409 (12/22/2015)(published)(KS): Craig pleaded guilty to being involved in a drug distribution conspiracy, maintaining a stash house and using a communication facility as part of the conspiracy. He got a life sentence because the district court applied a murder cross-reference and leadership and obstruction of justice enhancements. On appeal he challenged the court’s use of these enhancements. He also argued the life sentence was substantially unreasonable. The panel affirmed the life sentence.

The panel ruled that each enhancement could be established by merely a preponderance of the evidence. Craig argued that the murder cross reference was not supported by specific evidence tying it to the conspiracy. By combining two relevant conduct guideline clauses, the panel decided that the attempted robbery in which Craig participated was relevant conduct to the drug conspiracy. The “act” contemplated in USSG § 1B1.3(a)(1)(A) was the attempted robbery and the “harm that resulted” from § 1B1.3(a)(3) was the murder of one of the participants. Still, there was no specific evidence that the attempted robbery was part of or even related to the conspiracy. The panel was unconcerned; it found that ‘common knowledge’ that drug dealers rob each other and carry weapons to rob and to defend against robberies was enough proof that this attempted robbery was part of the conspiracy. In a footnote, the panel hinted that Craig should have argued that the shooting of his compatriot was not first degree murder and therefore, §2A1.1 was the wrong guideline to use. Regarding the standard of review, it acknowledged an intra-circuit conflict over whether a district court’s relevant conduct decision is a legal conclusion reviewed de novo on appeal or a factual finding reviewed for clear error.

The panel also held there was adequate evidence for the four-level leader organizer enhancement in § 3B1.1. It concluded the enhancement was warranted because Craig organized the attempted robbery in which two other men participated and there were more than 5 people involved in the drug conspiracy. Regarding the obstruction of justice enhancement, the panel said it was justified because Craig had refused to give a voice exemplar for which the court held him in contempt. Craig’s subsequent guilty plea to the charges for which the government needed the exemplar did not purge his obstructive behavior.

Finally, a life sentence was not unreasonable because one of Craig’s compatriots was killed during an attempted robbery which he organized. Also, since the guidelines are advisory, the court knew it could have departed from a life sentence. After considering a downward variance it decided a lower sentence was not appropriate