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U.S. v. QAZAH, NO. 14-4204

Decided: November 17, 2015

The Fourth Circuit affirmed the Defendants’ convictions, but vacated their sentences, remanding for resentencing.

In 2010 and 2011, Defendant Kamal Zaki Qazah (“Qazah”), along with other conspirators, began purchasing thousands of cases of stolen cigarettes from undercover law enforcement officers. The officers had represented that the cigarettes had been stolen from Philip Morris trucks. Qazah sold the cigarettes to conspirators who operated convenience stores in South Carolina. Qazah’s Uncle, Defendant Nasser Kamal Alquza (“Alquza”) eventually became a part of the conspiracy in order to make additional money by laundering the undercover officers’ cash proceeds from the cigarette sales. In November 2011, the officers arranged a final controlled purchase. However, instead of completing the transaction, the officers arrested Qazah and Alquza, where they also executed a search warrant of Qazah’s house, where they found 1.3 million dollars in cash and a notebook in which Qazah had recorded his cigarette sales. Later that day, officers executed another search warrant at Alquaza’s house, recovering relevant financial records and false identification documents. On trial, a jury convicted Qazah and Alquza of conspiracy, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 371, by conspiring to receive and transport stolen cigarettes in interstate commerce in violation of 18 U.S.C. §§ 2314 and 2315, along with other charges. The district court sentenced Qazah to 216 months’ imprisonment and Alquza to 108 months’ imprisonment.

On appeal, Alquza challenged the district court’s denial of his motion to suppress evidence recovered from a search of his home. He argued that because the search warrant for his home identified items that were instead in Qazah’s home, that the warrant did not satisfy the Fourth Amendment’s particularity requirement. The Court agreed with the district court’s ruling, holding that this error was a technical one, which did not influence the warrant’s issuance or affect its execution. Further, the Court found that the officers were acting in good faith, therefore, the suppression of evidence in this case would have no deterrent effect. Qazah challenged the court’s denial of his motion to sever his trial from Alquza’s. The Court affirmed the district court, finding that when defendants are charged together, a district court should grant severance only if there is a “serious risk that a joint trial would compromise a specific trial right of the defendants.”

Both Defendants challenged their respective sentences, claiming that the district court inaccurately calculated the “loss” for which they were responsible under the Sentencing Guidelines. Defendants claimed that the court relied on the retail value of the stolen cigarettes, rather than their wholesale value. The Court held that the district court’s reasoning behind their calculation of loss was in error, but that the final number was not necessarily incorrect. The Court concluded that the district court needed to re-evaluate their calculations to expand its inquiries into the intended victim of the relevant offenses and then to recalculate the Defendants’ sentencing ranges based on its findings and conclusions about the amount of loss that they intended to result from their commission of their crimes.

Accordingly, the Court affirmed in part, vacated in part, and remanded for resentencing.

Full Opinion

Meredith Weisler