Mandatory Minimum Sentence Triggers For Drug Distribution Conspiracy Cases

Emily Westerfield, Associate Member, University of Cincinnati Law Review

Issues of individual culpability are particularly prominent in conspiracy cases, where two separate sentencing ranges apply.[1] The statutory range of punishment prescribes the mandatory minimum and maximum sentences, while the sentencing guidelines provide further direction on where a sentence should fall within those statutory boundaries.[2] Title 21 U.S.C. § 841 lays out the sentencing range for people who have been convicted of illegally manufacturing or distributing controlled substances.[3] One of the factors used to determine the statutory range of punishment is the drug quantity involved in the commission of the crime.[4] Consequently, in conspiracy cases involving illegal drug distribution, whether a court looks at the quantity of drugs attributable to the conspiracy as a whole or to each co-conspirator individually could make a significant difference in the amount of time each defendant will serve in prison.[5] That finding alone can increase a defendant’s statutory minimum sentence from zero to ten years, and the maximum penalty from twenty years to life in prison.[6]

In cases involving conspiracies to illegally distribute drugs, both the federal courts and the government are moving away from basing mandatory minimum and maximum sentences for each defendant on the quantity of drugs attributable to the conspiracy as a whole, and toward basing that trigger on the quantity of drugs attributable to each individual defendant.[7] While the Third and Seventh Circuits adhere to the conspiracy-wide approach, in July of this year the D.C. Circuit joined the First, Fourth, Fifth, and Ninth Circuits in adopting the individualized approach in United States v. Stoddard–and rightly so.[8] This individualized approach to determinations of drug quantity that control the mandatory sentencing range within which a defendant’s sentence must fall protects defendants from the possibility of facing prison sentences that do not reflect the extent of their criminal actions.

In 2003, the Third Circuit held in United States v. Phillips that in order to trigger the statutory maximum of life imprisonment for a defendant convicted of alleged involvement in a conspiracy to unlawfully distribute a controlled substance, the jury must find beyond a reasonable doubt (1) the existence of a conspiracy, (2) the defendant’s involvement in the conspiracy, and (3) that the drug quantity involved in the entire conspiracy–not that attributable to the defendant himself–meets the statutory requisite to trigger that maximum sentence.[9]  Once the jury makes that factual determination, a judge then determines by a preponderance of the evidence the drug quantity attributable to the defendant individually, and sentences the defendant accordingly.[10]

Thus, while the judge determines the length of each alleged co-conspirator’s sentence, according to the quantity of drugs attributable to each of them individually, the range within which that sentence must fall depends on the quantity of drugs attributable to the conspiracy as a whole. For example, when two co-conspirators are being sentenced, a sentencing judge might find by a preponderance of the evidence that a quantity of drugs far below the amount required to trigger the statutory minimum sentence is attributable to one co-conspirator, while a quantity of drugs considerably greater than that amount is attributable to the other co-conspirator. Even if the judge sentences the first first co-conspirator to less prison time than the second co-conspirator, the first co-conspirator’s sentence would still have to last for at least the minimum sentence triggered by the quantity of drugs attributable to the second co-conspirator. Thus, there are occasions when, under the conspiracy-wide approach, a co-conspirator will be sentenced on the basis of drugs the co-conspirator had no knowledge of.

In Stoddard, the D.C. Circuit concluded that the conspiracy-wide approach delineated above violates the long-held principle, known as the Pinkerton Rule, that a co-conspirator may only be held liable for acts committed by fellow co-conspirators during the course of the conspiracy when those acts are not only in furtherance of the conspiracy, but are also reasonably foreseeable to that individual co-conspirator.[11] The mere finding that a defendant participated in a conspiracy to illegally distribute drugs does not necessarily mean that the total quantity of drugs involved in the conspiracy as a whole was reasonably foreseeable to that defendant. Thus, a fair and accurate application of the doctrine must involve a finding not only of the quantity of drugs involved in the entire conspiracy, but also the quantity of drugs the defendant knew about or should have reasonably foreseen being involved in the conspiracy

The Fourth Circuit employed similar reasoning in a 2015 case, United States v. Rangel, to support its holding that a district court erred in failing to instruct the jury to find the drug quantity attributable to each individual defendant–not to the conspiracy as a whole–to then determine the statutory sentencing range applicable to each defendant individually.[13]

Fortunately, it seems that the criminal justice system is generally moving toward endorsing the individualized approach in determining the trigger for mandatory minimum and maximum sentences for those who have been convicted of violating Title 21 U.S.C. § 841 through their participating in conspiracies involving the illegal distribution of controlled substances. In its opinion in Stoddard, the D.C. Circuit indicated that the government’s argument for the conspiracy-wide approach appeared to be an anomaly, since there seemed to be no other cases in that circuit where the government was advocating for the conspiracy-wide approach.[14] Moreover, the government even advocated for some courts in circuits that adopted the conspiracy-wide approach to consider adopting the individualized approach.[15] While the conspiracy-wide approach might further the criminal justice system’s goal of deterring people from getting involved in illegal drug distribution conspiracies in the first place, a stronger focus on individual culpability is ultimately more reflective of the system’s ideals of fairness and justice.

[1] United States v. Haines, 803 F.3d 713, 738 (5th Cir. 2015).

[2] Id.

[3] Id.

[4] Id.

[5] Id.

[6] Id.

[7] United States v. Stoddard, 892 F.3d 1203, 1222 (D.C. Cir. 2018).

[8] Id.

[9] United States v. Phillips, 349 F.3d 138, 143 (3rd Cir. 2003).

[10] Id.

[11] United States v. Haines, 803 F.3d 713, 740 (5th Cir. 2015).

[12] United States v. Rangel, 781 F.3d 736, 743 (4th Cir. 2015).

[13] Stoddard, 393 U.S. at 1222.

[14] Id.

[15] Id.


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