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December 28, 2022

Notable ruling on meth sentencing guidelines by a notable federal sentencing judge

A helpful colleague made sure I did not miss a notable little new ruling from federal judge in Mississippi in US v. Robinson, No. 3:21-CR-14-CWR-FKB-2 (S.D. Miss. Dec. 23, 2022) (available here).  The ruling addresses the calculation of the federal sentencing guideline range in meth cases, and here are some excerpts (with lots of cites omitted):

The issue is fairly straightforward. The U.S. Sentencing Guidelines use drug purity as a proxy for a defendant’s culpability....  As a result, the Guidelines make a distinction between “methamphetamine” and “actual methamphetamine.”   All else equal, defendants caught with actual methamphetamine get longer sentences than defendants caught with methamphetamine mixture....

The distinction is significant to Mr. Robinson.  Because he possessed 214.4 grams of especially pure methamphetamine, the Guidelines indicate that he should have a “base offense level” of 32.  In contrast, if Mr. Robinson was deemed to have possessed 214.4 grams of methamphetamine mixture, the Guidelines indicate that his base offense level would be 26....

At the outset, the Court appreciates the parties for pointing to Judge Bennett’s decision in United States v. Nawanna, 321 F. Supp. 3d 943 (N.D. Iowa 2018).  In that case, the United States conceded that there is no empirical basis for the Sentencing Commission’s 10-to-1 weight disparity between actual methamphetamine and methamphetamine mixture. Other courts have found the same....

On review, the undersigned agrees with these colleagues.  The Guidelines use drug purity as a proxy for culpability.  But national experience suggests that is no longer true for methamphetamine.  The DEA data show that most methamphetamine confiscated today is “pure” regardless of whether the defendant is a kingpin or a low-level addict....

Given the on-the-ground reality in methamphetamine cases, the better way to determine culpability is to examine all of the circumstances of the defendant’s case and life -- seeing the defendant as a “whole person,” as the Supreme Court just instructed in Concepcion. 142 S. Ct. at 2395.  There are sentencing enhancements available for leaders, organizers, or managers of criminal enterprises.  If the defendant’s case warrants, those enhancements should be applied.  In the context of methamphetamine, though, purity is no longer probative of the defendant’s culpability.

This ruling is notable on its own terms, but it seemed especially blogworthy because of the opinion's author: US District Judge Carlton W. Reeves. Judge Reeves, as some readers likely know, is the new Chair of the US Sentencing Commission.

December 28, 2022 at 11:29 AM | Permalink


It was only a matter of time before someone saw this 10:1 ratio. In my federal experience, I don't think I have ever seen a meth case where the purity was less than 90% - which then according to the Guidelines is actually ICE - see Note C to the Drug Quantity Table - (if it is d-methamphetamine hydrochloride).

Posted by: atomicfrog | Dec 28, 2022 12:37:16 PM

i have a family memebr serving 25 yrs in prison for meth will this help him at all

Posted by: nay | Dec 30, 2022 10:18:47 PM

I am glad the district judge had the courage to call out the irrationality of the 10:1 guidelines ratio for "ice." Unfortunately this happens only rarely in sentencing. The overwhelming majority of judges still give too much weight to the guidelines range even if it lacks an "empirical" basis despite Booker's directive that the Guidelines are supposed be just a starting point. And it is damn near impossible to get a reversal on appeal if the sentence is within the guidelines range. I am a defense attorney based in Texas.

Posted by: Alan Winograd | Dec 31, 2022 3:36:37 PM

Footnote 3 is also notable. "On a related note, some courts have noted that drug quantity, too, is a “poor proxy for culpability.” Johnson, 379 F. Supp. 3d at 1220 (citation omitted). They have observed that “while quantity can reflect culpability or a defendant’s role in a scheme, in many cases it does not do so.” Carrillo, 440 F. Supp. 3d at 1154. In Cabrera, 576 F. Supp. 2d at 276-78, for example, the court granted a downward variance when the “delivery man” was apprehended as a part of sting and the quantity he possessed did not reflect his role in the enterprise. Succinctly stated, “[a] more useful factor in determining culpability is not quantity, but role.” Diaz, 2013 WL 322243, at *13; see also Johnson, 379 F. Supp. 3d at 1220."

My impression is that there are more judges who think purity is a poor proxy for culpability than who reject weight-based drug sentencing.

Posted by: mp | Jan 4, 2023 1:22:40 PM

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