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United States v. Steffen, No. 12-4484

Decided: December 20, 2013

The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s application of a sentencing enhancement to the defendant’s conviction for participating in a drug conspiracy based on his role as a “manager or supervisor” of the drug conspiracy.

Defendant, Patrolman Kurt Steffen (“Steffen”) was arrested in November 2009 for his participation in a large-scale drug conspiracy in Dorchester County, South Carolina. Steffen was the owner of one of five properties involved in a large-scale drug conspiracy. In addition to his duties as a highway patrolman, Steffen allowed others involved in the conspiracy to use his property to cultivate marijuana in exchange for a share of the profits. Additionally, Steffen initially paid for equipment and a shed furnished with electricity for use in the operation prior to transferring the utilities into another conspirator’s name to avoid detection. Moreover, on a couple of occasions, Steffen used his patrol car to follow someone selling marijuana to “prevent any other law enforcement agency from stopping [the] vehicle.” At trial, the district court imposed a three-level upward sentencing enhancement for being a “manager or supervisor” of criminal activity primarily because his ownership of the land gave him the “ability…to pull the plug on the enter operation.” Steffen appealed the enhancement.

On appeal, the Fourth Circuit affirmed the enhancement, finding that the district court did not commit clear error in applying the enhancement. A defendant qualifies for the “manager or supervisor” enhancement if the defendant “managed or supervised ‘participants, as opposed to property, in the criminal enterprise.’” The Fourth Circuit found that Steffen exercised management responsibility on several occasions. Frist, his use of his patrol car to “prevent another other law enforcement officers from stopping” the vehicle transporting marijuana “reflected a management decision regarding the manner in which another participant in the conspiracy was to conduct the conspiracy’s business.” Second, the court found that Steffen’s transfer of the electric bill out of his name to “avoid detection” further reflected a management decision to reduce his risk of exposure. Therefore, under the deferential standard of review for clear error, the Fourth Circuit affirmed the sentencing enhancement.

Full Opinion

– Wesley B. Lambert