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June 28, 2010

Fourth Circuit opinion reverses sentence when district judge refused to consider acquitted drug conduct

A notable circuit sentencing opinion today from the Fourth Circuit in US v. Young, No. No. 08-4117 (4th Cir. June 28, 2010) (available here), provides a little twist on the usual circuit approval of sentencing consideration of acquitted conduct. Here is how the Young opinion starts and some key passages of its analysis:

Darnell Young was convicted of drug-related charges and received a within-Guidelines sentence of 136 months’ imprisonment. Young appeals his convictions and sentence, and the government cross-appeals the sentence imposed by the district court. We reject Young’s challenges, but we agree with the government that the district court erred when it concluded that the drug-quantity determinations made by the jury prevented the court from finding a different quantity at sentencing. Accordingly, we affirm Young’s convictions, vacate his sentence, and remand for resentencing....

By determining that the evidence presented at trial established that Young’s crimes involved between 500 grams but less than five kilograms of cocaine, the jury in this case effectively acquitted Young of involvement with the distribution of more than five kilograms.  The district court was free to consider, as it would with any other acquitted conduct, whether the government could establish a higher quantity under a preponderance of the evidence standard.

To the extent that Young suggests the government was estopped from establishing a higher drug quantity at sentencing because it elected not to present that evidence at trial, the argument is without merit. The government at sentencing properly sought to establish as relevant conduct the total quantity of drugs attributable to Young.  "Relevant conduct" under the Guidelines, of course, often includes a broader range of conduct than the conduct underlying the offense of conviction.  See, e.g., United States v. Newsome, 322 F.3d 328, 339 (4th Cir. 2003).  This is particularly so in drug cases, where relevant conduct is defined to include "all acts and omissions . . . that were part of the same course of conduct or common scheme or plan as the offense of conviction." U.S.S.G. § 1B1.3(a)(2).

The government’s decision to limit the evidence it presented at trial necessarily affected the jury’s drug-quantity determination, but that trial decision did not tie the hands of the government, or the district court, at sentencing.  There is no requirement that the government present its relevant conduct evidence at trial, nor is the district court at sentencing bound by the evidence presented at trial when determining drug quantity or other relevant conduct.

June 28, 2010 at 04:25 PM | Permalink

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Comments

Consideration of acquitted conduct at sentencing, under less than BRD standards, is legal (up to statutory maximum, I think). My issue is; is this legal construct moral? I think not.

Posted by: wishful | Jun 29, 2010 9:39:16 PM

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