February 15, 2012

Proving the Measure of Things At Sentencing - The Fourth Circuit Remands For More Explanation

Nancy Bell had serious health problems. Because of those health problems, she was prescribed pain medicine - OxyContin.

When a person is prescribed oxycodone, which is the generic version of OxyContin, she is required to be tested through pill counts and urine screens to make sure she's actually using it. Ms. Bell was tested, her treatment center said that she had an "outstanding record" of compliance.

494517_calculator_1.jpgThe Market For Oxycodone

The reason people taking oxycodone are tested is because there is a tremendous illicit market for the drug.

Ms. Bell was no stranger to that market, unfortunately. She, and her daughter, Iris Gibson, were discovered by law enforcement to be selling oxycodone to others. The "others" decided they liked the government enough to help them prosecute Ms. Bell and Ms. Gibson.

Ms. Bell and Ms. Gibson were charged with conspiracy to distribute oxycodone. They pled guilty without a plea agreement. They went to a sentencing hearing.

The Quantity of Oxycodone

The biggest issue in the sentencing of Ms. Bell and Ms. Gibson was the quantity of oxycodone that was sold illegally.

The sentencing guidelines - specifically section 2D1.1 - suggest longer sentences for people who are involved in a greater quantity of drugs being distributed. Similarly, in a fraud case, the guidelines - specifically section 2B1.1 - suggest a longer sentence for people who are involved in a greater amount of money being taken.

Here, the government introduced the records of the quantity of pills that Ms. Bell was prescribed. They wanted to use that as the basis for the drug quantity.

The government also introduced lengthy testimony from the others who were involved in the drug distribution scheme with Ms. Bell.

Ms. Bell introduced her records from the pain management center to establish that she actually took a lot of these pills. As a result, she argued that the quantity that should be attributed to her should be reduced by the reasonable amount of medicine that she took, under her legitimate prescription for the medicine.

The district court, after listening to what appears to have been a lot of testimony, punted. The sentencing court decided that about 104.5 grams of oxycodone. The court didn't explain how much Ms. Bell consumed herself, or how much was sold to the others, or anything else. The court just asserted that 104.5 was the right number.

The district court then sentenced Ms. Bell and Ms. Gibson based on guidelines ranges based on that number.

The Fourth Circuit Appeal

Ms. Bell and Ms. Gibson appealed. They argued that the judge has to do more to explain how he arrived at the drug quantity.

In United States v. Bell, the Fourth Circuit agreed. Writing for the panel, Judge Andre Davis wrote that, "the district court's explanation for how it calculated that quantity is insufficient to allow for meaningful appellate review."

The court of appeals remanded the case for resentencing for the district court to explain how it arrived at the amount that it used to impose sentencing.

Footnote 8

All of this is relatively uncontroversial, as for as appellate decisions go. Except for the very odd disagreement between the panel about footnote 8 of the opinion.

In the main text, the opinion lists a number of questions that were unanswered by the district court - things like how much oxycodone each witness testified to, how much Ms. Bell used personally and legally, and the time period over which the illegal pill distributing spanned.

After listing these factors, Judge Davis dropped a footnote - footnote 8 - which started,

I hasten to make two observations. First, I do not suggest that any one or more of the specific queries listed above is or should be either a necessary or a sufficient basis for a permissible finding of drug quantity in any particular case. Like relevant conduct in any case, the district court approaches its task based on the facts and circumstances presented. Second, I recognize that some of these queries, such as the quantity Bell herself consumed, may be more difficult for the government to prove than others. But that does not relieve the government of proving such facts by a preponderance of the evidence at sentencing.

The rest of the panel - Judges Hamilton and Floyd - refused to join this footnote. The rest of the (lengthy) footnote takes these judges to task for failing to sign on to these relatively benign legal propositions.

Really - it's controversial that proving things at sentencing is a "task based on the facts and circumstances presented"? Or that some facts are harder to prove than others?
After reading the footnote and the concurrence by Judge Hamilton, I really don't see the issue, except, perhaps, that Judge Hamilton seems less likely to accept an invitation to a cocktail party for criminal defense lawyers.

Ms. Gibson's Challenge

Ms. Gibson raised a separate challenge. She argued that the government failed to prove that the drugs were attributable to her. Judge Davis was sympathetic, and provided guidance on remand,

the district court will have the opportunity in any event to revisit the evidence of the extent and timing of Gibson's involvement in the conspiracy. We note, however, that the district court's rejection of Gibson's argument turned on its finding that Gibson "had full knowledge of the scope of the conspiracy and quantity of drugs involved." J.A. 427. Gibson's "knowledge" of the scope of Bell's drug sales, however, is only part of the analysis; under the Guidelines the full amount of oxycodone sold or transferred by Bell is only attributable to Gibson for drug weight purposes if that full amount was reasonably foreseeable to Gibson and within the scope of the criminal activity that she jointly undertook with Bell. See U.S.S.G. ยง 1B1.3 cmt. n.2. Moreover, if Gibson did not join the conspiracy until May 2008, oxycodone distributed by Bell or other conspiracy members before that date could not be considered "relevant conduct," even if Gibson knew of that conduct. Id.

Ms. Gibson, it appears, will have a better time at resentencing as well.

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