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United States v. Lee

United States Court of Appeals, First Circuit

June 18, 2018

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Appellee,
v.
MARIO LEE, a/k/a Mo, Defendant, Appellant.

          APPEAL FROM THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF MAINE.NANCY TORRESEN, U.S. DISTRICT JUDGE

          Bruce M. Merrill on brief for defendant-appellant.

          Halsey B. Frank, United States Attorney, and Benjamin M. Block, Assistant United States Attorney, on brief for appellee.

          Before Thompson, Circuit Judge, Souter, Associate Justice, [*] and Selya, Circuit Judge.

          THOMPSON, CIRCUIT JUDGE.

         This appeal comes from a district court's imposition of a 218-month sentence on Mario Lee for conspiracy to distribute and possession with intent to distribute 100 grams or more of a mixture or substance containing heroin in violation of 21 U.S.C. §§ 841(a)(1) and 846. Lee only attacks his sentence as procedurally unreasonable. Concluding, as we do, that the district court did not commit any error, we affirm.

         A. Background[1]

         On February 7, 2014, Mario Lee was released from prison in New York, having been convicted for selling crack cocaine to an undercover police officer. Within months of his release, federal and state law enforcement in Maine discovered that Lee was participating in an ongoing conspiracy to distribute heroin there. Lee would obtain heroin from outside Maine and would transport it back to Maine to be distributed by himself and others. On September 3, 2015, Lee was arrested. He was charged with four counts of distribution of heroin, and one count of conspiracy to distribute heroin. Facing a possible life sentence, Lee pled guilty to one count of conspiracy to distribute and possession with intent to distribute 100 grams or more of a mixture or substance containing heroin, in violation of 21 U.S.C. §§ 841(a)(1) and 846. The plea agreement struck by the government and Lee, due to Lee's undisputed career offender status under U.S.S.G. § 4B1.1, had the effect of setting his guideline range at 120 to 240 months.

         At Lee's sentencing, and in its sentencing memorandum, the government presented and summarized evidence from its investigation to support a 1.3 kilogram drug quantity determination, as recommended by the PSR. This evidence included the grand jury testimony or interviews of nine witnesses who connected Lee to large quantities of heroin.[2] Lee objected to the drug quantity estimates in the PSR based on the government's witness statements.[3] Unlike other cases where drug quantity comes up as an issue, in this case the district court noted, and counsel for the government and Lee agreed, that Lee's PSR objections would not affect the guidelines calculations because Lee's undisputed status as a career offender under U.S.S.G. § 4B1.1 superseded those considerations. However, the district court said that drug quantity could be relevant to the actual sentence imposed under the 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a) factors.

         To hear Lee tell it, the witnesses' statements, which were not subject to cross-examination in the grand jury or the prosecutor's office, had inconsistencies. These inconsistencies all amounted to arguing either that the witnesses exaggerated the period of time they were acquainted with Lee when he was selling heroin in Maine or the amount of heroin the witnesses knew Lee had possessed. Lee concluded that that made them too unreliable to be considered. While noting these discrepancies, the district court found that the witnesses' statements were credible, corroborating locations, associates, and drugs connected to Lee, and adopted the PSR's recommended 1.3 kilograms as the drug quantity. The district court considered the drug quantity in imposing Lee's 218-month sentence rather than a more lenient one.

         B. Discussion

         On appeal, Lee complains only about the drug quantity the district court attributed to him. According to Lee, SI-1, SI-2, SI-3, SI-4, and SI-5, whose testimony supported the PSR's drug quantity recommendation, were inherently unreliable. Even worse, Lee says that considering these unreliable statements would risk "double counting, " incorrectly ballooning the drug amounts attributable to him by considering the testimony of multiple witnesses that could relate to the same drugs. To Lee, considering this evidence despite the shortcomings he identified was procedural sentencing error. As a part of his argument that the witness statements are unreliable, Lee believes that the witness statements are especially so because they are out-of-court statements from either grand jury testimony or proffer interviews with the government. Thus, Lee concludes, if the district court had required the government to produce these witnesses for live testimony at sentencing, as he requested below, the district court could not have possibly believed them.

         We must ensure that the sentence imposed by the district court was "procedurally sound." United States v. Dávila-González, 595 F.3d 42, 47 (1st Cir. 2010) (citing United States v. Martin, 520 F.3d 87, 92 (1st Cir. 2008)). A district court commits a procedural error in sentencing if it "fail[s] to calculate (or improperly calculate[s]) the Guidelines range, treat[s] the Guidelines as mandatory, fail[s] to consider the § 3553(a) factors, select[s] a sentence based on clearly erroneous facts, or fail[s] to adequately explain the chosen sentence." Gall v. United States, 552 U.S. 38, 51 (2007). When making a drug quantity finding, the sentencing court's responsibility is to "make reasonable estimates of drug quantities, provided they are supported by a preponderance of the evidence." United States v. Mills, 710 F.3d 5, 15 (1st Cir. 2013). We review those estimates "deferentially, reversing only for clear error." Id. We will only find clear error when our review of the whole record "form[s] a strong, unyielding belief that a mistake has been made." Cumpiano v. Banco Santander P.R., 902 F.2d 148, 152 (1st Cir. 1990).

         Evidence supporting the drug quantity determination may be considered regardless of its admissibility at trial, so long as it has "sufficient indicia of reliability to support its probable accuracy." U.S.S.G. § 6A1.3(a). The sentencing court has a lot of discretion in deciding what evidence is reliable enough to be considered for sentencing purposes. See Mills, 710 F.3d at 15-16; United States v. ...


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