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United States v. Sarmiento-Palacios

United States Court of Appeals, First Circuit

March 16, 2018

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Appellee,
v.
JOHNNY SARMIENTO-PALACIOS, Defendant, Appellant.

         APPEAL FROM THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF PUERTO RICO [Hon. Jay A. García-Gregory, U.S. District Judge]

          Julia Pamela Heit for appellant.

          John A. Mathews, II, Assistant United States Attorney, with whom Rosa Emilia Rodríguez-Vélez, United States Attorney, Mariana E. Bauzá-Almonte, Assistant United States Attorney, Chief, Appellate Division, and Juan Carlos Reyes-Ramos, Assistant United States Attorney, were on brief, for appellee.

          Before Howard, Chief Judge, Torruella and Barron, Circuit Judges.

          OWARD, Chief Judge.

         Johnny Sarmiento-Palacios pleaded guilty to two cocaine-related charges under the Maritime Drug Law Enforcement Act ("MDLEA"). On appeal, Sarmiento claims that (1) Congress exceeded its constitutional authority in promulgating the MDLEA; (2) Amendment 794 to the U.S. Sentencing Commission Guidelines ("the Guidelines") is retroactive, so he should be re-sentenced under the Sentencing Commission's amended guidance; or, in the alternative, (3) section 3B1.2 of the Sentencing Guidelines is void for vagueness. Although we find Sarmiento's constitutional challenges to MDLEA and section 3B1.2 meritless, because we agree that Amendment 794 is retroactive, we vacate his sentence and remand for re-sentencing.

         I. Background

         A. Facts and Procedural History

         In August 2013, United States Coast Guard personnel stationed aboard a Dutch warship encountered a "go-fast" vessel[1]dead in the Caribbean Sea's international waters. Because the vessel bore no indicia of nationality, the Coast Guard conducted a right-of-visit[2] approach. The Coast Guard found Sarmiento and two codefendants -- as well as over 600 kilograms of cocaine in plain view -- on the vessel. The Coast Guard arrested the three men and seized the contraband.

         In March 2015, Sarmiento entered a straight plea of guilty (that is, without a plea agreement) for (1) conspiracy to possess cocaine with the intent to distribute; and (2) aiding and abetting the same, all on a vessel subject to United States jurisdiction. See 46 U.S.C. §§ 70501 et seq.; 18 U.S.C. § 2. At his sentencing hearing in August 2015, Sarmiento argued for a two-level reduction because he was a "minor participant" in the offense and was "substantially less culpable than the average participant." See U.S.S.G. § 3B1.2(b) & cmt. n.3(A) (2014). Sarmiento emphasized that he had no criminal record prior to his arrest and that he was almost entirely blind. As such, he argued that he was both too inexperienced and too ill-suited to play more than a minor role in the charged crimes.

         The district court rejected this argument, citing the "substantial amount of drugs" at issue. It sentenced Sarmiento to 135 months' imprisonment on each count -- at the bottom of the guidelines sentencing range -- to run concurrently. This timely appeal followed.

         II. Analysis

         A. Sarmiento's MDLEA Challenge

         Sarmiento briefly suggests that because Congress exceeded its constitutional authority under Article I when it promulgated the MDLEA, the United States lacked jurisdiction to prosecute him. See United States v. Cardales-Luna, 632 F.3d 731, 739-51 (1st Cir. 2011) (Torruella, J., dissenting). But even if this skeletal challenge has ...


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