Decided April 26, 2013
The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the plaintiff’s conviction of conspiracy to possess crack cocaine with the intent to distribute, finding substantial supporting evidence and no error in its pretrial evidentiary rules. However, the Court of Appeals vacated the plaintiff’s sentence and remanded for resentencing in accordance with the Fair Sentencing Act, which applies to all sentences imposed after its enactment, regardless of the fact that plaintiff’s underlying crime was committed before its enactment.
In June 2010, the defendant, Raymond Allen (“Allen”), was convicted of conspiring to possess fifty grams or more of cocaine base with intent to distribute and sentenced to ten years’ imprisonment. Allen was one of eleven defendants named in a fifteen-count indictment. Evidence at trial showed that street dealers bought from three suppliers, who bought from Chrissawn Folston, who would then buy in bulk from another supplier or from Allen. On May 17-18, 2010, Folston drove twice to Ashville in order to make a purchase from Allen. Folston was driven both times by his girlfriend, who was a government informant, and had first-hand knowledge of both transactions. As such, Allen does not dispute the fact that these two buy-sell transactions occurred; he only disputes the evidence regarding his knowledge of the conspiracy. To this the government responded with evidence indicating Allen’s awareness of the drug distribution network. While Allen was detained awaiting trial, he had a conversation with a street dealer wherein he admitted they would all “be partying” if the others had kept their mouths shut and had not told on everyone.
On appeal, Allen challenged his conviction on the basis that (1) there was insufficient evidence to support his knowledge of the drug rink, (2) the court erred in denying his pretrial motions, and (3) the court erred in imposing the ten-year mandatory minimum sentence given that Congress passed the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 prior to his sentencing. First, the court analyzed the factors for finding a defendant guilty of conspiracy. The court recognized that a conspiracy may be proven wholly by circumstantial evidence and even a defendant’s minimal involvement is sufficient. Although the court agreed with Allen that evidence of a single sale is insufficient on its own to infer knowledge of a conspiracy, it did recognize that it was relevant on the conspiracy issue. Therefore, considering that the sale and the fact that it involved 3.5 ounces of crack cocaine, which is enough to produce over 1,000 “crack rocks”, the court held that a reasonable juror could infer that when Allen sold Folston such a substantial quantity of crack cocaine over the course of two days he knew the drug was going to be further distributed. This inference is further buttressed by Allen’s jailhouse conversation where he indicated at least some awareness of “others” in the scheme. On the second issue, the court reviewed the district court’s denial of Allen’s two pretrial motions. In the first, Allen moved to see his codefendants’ Presence Reports (PSR) and sealed sentencing memorandum. The court recognized that PSR’s have always been jealously guarded by the federal courts and customarily requires the court to first perform an in camera review before granting a defendant’s request to view it. However, the court need only perform the review once the defendant plainly articulates how the information contained in the PSR will be both material and favorable to his defense. When Allen requested the PSR’s, he referenced the fact that one codefendant was responsible for 361.1 grams of crack cocaine but was only sentenced in the memorandum for at least 1.4 grams of crack cocaine but less than 2.8 grams, which led to a reduction in his sentence. However, the court affirmed the district court’s reasons for denying the request. Although evidence of a “sweetheart deal” is relevant to a witness’s credibility, it does not mean that a defendant can go on a fishing expedition every time a codefendant pleads guilty. In the second motion, Allen moved to call a criminal defense expert to help explain the potential significance of all of the indicted codefendants reaching plea agreements with the government. However, the court again affirmed the district court’s denial of the motion on the basis that expert testimony introduced solely for the purpose of undermining the credibility of the codefendant witnesses is not the function of an expert. This is not the type of expert testimony required under Rule 702 of the Federal Rules of Evidence of scientific or technical expertise. Finally, the court vacated the district court’s application of the ten-year mandatory minimum sentence for offenses involving fifty or more grams of crack cocaine. Although the district court was correct in recognizing the fact that the Fair Sentencing Act does not apply retroactively, it failed to incorporate the reasoning of the recent Supreme Court decision in Dorsey v. United States. In that case the Supreme Court held that the Fair Sentencing Act applies to all sentences imposed after its enactment, regardless of when the underlying crime was committed. Therefore, because the Act was passed before Allen was sentenced and he did not possess 280 grams of crack cocaine necessary for the ten-year mandatory minimum sentence to apply under the Fair Sentencing Act, the district court erred by sentencing Allen to the mandatory minimum.
– Sarah Bishop