Federal circuits not routinely aligned on drug dealer sentencing

Five drug dealers in a drug-trafficking enterprise who were convicted on federal charges of conspiracy to distribute heroin were sentenced to the same mandatory minimum 20-year prison term by a federal district judge, despite differentiated roles they played in the organization. That sentence was handed down after five people fatally overdosed on the drug.

Their sentences were reviewed on appeal and partially vacated by a three-judge panel from the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago. The court ruled that, for the same minimum prison term to be meted out to several defendants under a federal law mandating that result “if death or serious bodily injury results,” each defendant must reasonably foresee that his role in the distribution scheme could lead to such a result.

That was not the case over which the lower court presided, the appellate court stated, since the dealers’ roles ranged widely from key organizational players to lower-rung participants. The panel ruled that a court “must make specific factual findings” as to the role and conduct of each defendant in a drug organization when handing down a criminal sentence.

The court noted that federal circuits are split on the issue. Although the 6th Circuit similarly holds that a defendant’s sentencing liability must be limited to the scope of his or her conduct in a conspiracy to distribute drugs, other circuits — including the 11th Circuit, which encompasses Georgia — have all applied the mandatory minimum sentence in the absence of a “reasonably foreseeable” finding.

Federal sentencing, especially concerning a drug charge, can rely upon complex factors, and a drug suspect in a federal court has strong need for the rigorous and experienced advocacy of a proven criminal defense attorney well versed in federal matters.

Source: Courthouse News Service, “Drug dealer sentencing is role-based, court says,” Joseph Celentino, July 9, 2013