Sunday, September 9, 2018

Drug conspiracies and jury-determined drug quantities

As we find ourselves once again on the cusp of a new season, a quick recap on a notable decision issued early this summer seems worthy lest it pass under the radar.

Over the past two decades, the US Supreme Court has made certain that the Constitution requires the jury to find beyond a reasonable doubt any facts that increase either (1) the prescribed range of penalties to which a criminal defendant is exposed (Apprendi v. New Jersey), or (2) the mandatory minimum sentence to which a criminal defendant is exposed (Alleyne v. United States; Burrage v. United States).  

Image result for norman rockwell juryIn United States v. Stoddard, the D.C. Circuit applied these principles to address whether an individualized jury finding as to the quantity of drugs attributable to (i.e., foreseeable by) an individual defendant is required to trigger a mandatory-minimum sentence, or if it is sufficient for the jury to find that a conspiracy as a whole resulted in the distribution of the mandatory-minimum-triggering quantity. After acknowledging the circuit split on the issue (including a discussion of Tenth Circuit decisions calling its own precedent into question), the Stoddard court decisively concluded that that the conspiracy-wide approach could not stand muster after Alleyne. Rather, for a defendant’s sentence to be based on a mandatory minimum triggered by a certain quantity of drugs, a jury must find the drug quantity attributable to that defendant on an individualized basis.

Hence the remand for resentencing in Stoddard where the district court unlawfully determined that the defendants had conspired to distribute 100 grams or more of heroin, which increased their mandatory-minimum sentences beyond the crime for which the jury found each one of them individual liable—that is, entering into a conspiracy to distribute an indeterminate quantity of heroin.

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