Drug Dealer Sentencing Is Role-Based, Court Says

     CHICAGO (CN) – The law does not require a group of heroin dealers to receive the same 20-year mandatory minimum sentence after five users fatally overdosed, the 7th Circuit ruled, deepening a divide among its sister circuits.
     In 2007 and 2008, five people died after overdosing on heroin distributed by a Milwaukee-based drug-trafficking organization. A grand jury later charged five Wisconsin dealers with conspiracy to distribute heroin in an indictment tying them to the deaths.
     Defendants Eneal Gladney, Jean Lawler, Jason Lund, Jermaine Stewart and Keith Walker all played different roles in the organization, according to the ruling. Stewart was a leader who supplied most of the drugs. Walker and Gladney were high-level distributors in Milwaukee. Lund and Lawler occupied lower positions, distributing relatively small quantities on the street.
     After all five entered guilty pleas, the government asked the court to apply a 20-year minimum prison sentence for each defendant under a section of law mandating such sentences “if death or serious bodily injury results” from the drugs.
     Prosecutors argued that when a drug network results in a death, all members of the conspiracy must receive the mandatory minimum.
     U.S. District Judge J.P. Stadtmueller agreed, but “appeared troubled by these sentencing implications,” according to the three-judge panel in Chicago.
     The 7th Circuit reversed Stadtmueller’s ruling in part, saying the 20-year minimum sentence does not apply to all defendants equally, because they had different roles in the distribution chain.
     Judge Ann Claire Williams said a district court “must make specific factual findings to determine whether each defendant’s relevant conduct encompasses the distribution chain that caused a victim’s death.”
     Williams noted that the panel’s decision put it at odds with six other circuit courts.
     “Almost every other circuit … has held that a victim’s death need not be reasonably foreseeable for the penalty to apply in cases where the defendant either directly produces, distributes, or uses an intermediary to distribute, fatal doses of drugs,” Williams wrote.
     The 1st, 3rd, 4th, 8th, 9th and 11th Circuits have all applied the mandatory minimum without finding reasonable foreseeability. The 1st and 8th Circuits have written that the section imposes strict liability, holding a defendant “automatically liable for the increased penalty regardless of whether or not he know, or should have known, that a drug user might die.”
     But the 7th Circuit said the sentencing guidelines “make clear that the scope of a defendant’s relevant conduct for determining sentencing liability may be narrower than the scope of criminal liability.”
     Although the defendants are “subject to the same penalties” regardless of their direct involvement in the individual’s death, Williams wrote, “this does not mean that every co-conspirator shares the same mandatory minimum sentence for the entire quantity of drugs distributed by the conspiracy, or for the deaths of each buyer.”
     The ruling brings the 7th Circuit in line with the Cincinnati-based 6th Circuit, which issued a similar decision in U.S. v. Swiney in 2006.
     “Swiney highlighted an important distinction between a defendant’s criminal liability for acts committed by others in furtherance of the conspiracy and the sentencing consequences for a particular defendant,” Williams wrote. (Emphasis in original.)
     She said the law limits sentencing liability to “the scope of the specific conduct and objectives embraced by the defendant’s agreement.'”
     Using a single sentencing scheme for all members of a multilevel drug network would “have far-reaching implications,” Williams wrote.
     The panel cited a 2001 case where a child died after ingesting methamphetamine residue that had been left on a coffee filter.
     “Under the government’s approach here, not only would the individual who produced the methamphetamine receive the 20-year minimum sentence, but every person connected with the conspiracy in any way – from the lowliest lookout on the corner to the boss – would all receive the same 20-year penalty,” Williams wrote. “Such a result is overly broad and not supported by the law in our view.”
     However, the 7th Circuit cautiously noted that the mandatory minimum could apply to a dealer at any level in a drug conspiracy, so long as the proper findings are made at sentencing.
     “Consider the following example: A gives drugs to B, B sells them to C, and C dies. D, a member of the overall drug conspiracy, may be subject to the 20-year sentencing penalty even though she did not directly sell the fatal dose to C, but ‘the court must first determine the scope of the criminal activity the particular defendant agreed to jointly undertake’ … before the penalty is applied,” Williams wrote.
     Because the district court made no findings as to whether Gladney and Walker dealt drugs in Waukesha, Wisc., the town where four of the five deaths occurred, the 7th Circuit vacated their sentences.
     The court upheld the sentences of Stewart, the heroin supplier, and of Lund and Lawler, who, despite their relatively low-level roles “had perhaps the closest connection to the deaths of customers.”
     The federal appeals court identified the five overdose victims as Joshua Carroll, Andrew Goetzke, David Knuth, Valerie Luszak, and Jeffrey Topczewski.

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