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United States v. Young

United States District Court, Eighth Circuit

August 16, 2013



MARK W. BENNETT, District Judge.

This case presents a deeply disturbing, yet often replayed, shocking, dirty little secret of federal sentencing: the stunningly arbitrary application by the Department of Justice (DOJ) of § 851 drug sentencing enhancements.[1] These enhancements, at a minimum, double a drug defendant's mandatory minimum sentence and may also raise the maximum possible sentence, for example, from forty years to life.[2] They are possible any time a drug defendant, facing a mandatory minimum sentence in federal court, has a prior qualifying drug conviction in state or federal court (even some state court misdemeanor convictions count), no matter how old that conviction is.

Recent statistics obtained from the U.S. Sentencing Commission (Commission)- the only known data that exists on the eligibility and applications of the DOJ's § 851 decision making-reveal jaw-dropping, shocking disparity. For example, a defendant in the Northern District of Iowa (N.D. Iowa) who is eligible for a § 851 enhancement is 2, 532% more likely to receive it than a similarly eligible defendant in the bordering District of Nebraska. Equally problematic is that, at least prior to August 12, 2013, decisions to apply or waive § 851 enhancements were made in the absence of any national policy, and they are still solely within the unreviewed discretion of the DOJ without any requirement that the basis for the decisions be disclosed or stated on the record. This is true even for non-violent, low-level drug addicts. These decisions are shrouded in such complete secrecy that they make the proceedings of the former English Court of Star Chamber appear to be a model of criminal justice transparency. See In re Oliver, 333 U.S. 257, 266-271 (1948) ("The traditional Anglo-American distrust for secret trials has been variously ascribed to the notorious use of this practice by... the English Court of Star Chamber."). Attorney General Holder's August 12, 2013, Memorandum to the United States Attorneys and Assistant Attorney General for the Criminal Division: Department Policy on Charging Mandatory Minimum Sentences and Recidivist Enhancements in Certain Drug Cases (Holder 2013 Memo), while establishing a national policy for § 841 enhancements, does nothing to pull aside the cloak of secrecy shrouding the nationwide disparities in the application of § 851 enhancements.


Defendant Douglas Young, whose situation brings the issue of the § 851 enhancement before me now, pleaded guilty to conspiracy to distribute 28 grams or more of cocaine base following a prior conviction for a felony drug offense (count 1) and possession with intent to distribute 28 grams or more of cocaine base (count 2) in violation of 21 U.S.C. §§ 846, 841(b)(1)(B), and 851. His preliminary Presentence Investigation Report revealed, inter alia, that he is a 37-year-old African-American male with a Total Offense Level of 29, and 3 criminal history points, putting him in Criminal History Category II. Mr. Young's advisory U.S. Guideline range was 93 to 121 months. His entire criminal history scoring consisted of one offense-a conviction in Cook County, Illinois, in 1996, at age 20, for the manufacture/delivery of a controlled substance-cocaine base. He received probation, which he successfully completed without notation of any probation violations. His mandatory minimum sentence of 60 months is doubled to 120 months as a result of a § 851 enhancement for this 17-year-old conviction, and his maximum sentence of 40 years is increased to life, as well. However, after objections were filed by defense counsel, Mr. Young argued that his one prior conviction should receive no criminal history points, and the AUSA, the U.S. probation officer, and I agreed. Thus, Mr. Young is in Criminal History Category I and is now safety-valve eligible.

Both pre-[3] and post-[4] Fair Sentencing Act, [5] I have used a 1:1 crack-to-powder ratio, rather than the historical 100:1 ratio prior to the FSA and the current 18:1 ratio post-FSA. If I use this 1:1 ratio, Mr. Young would have a base offense level of 26, minus 3 levels for acceptance of responsibility, for a Total Offense level of 23. Combined with his Criminal History Category II, this results in an advisory Guideline range of 51 to 63 months. However, in the final PSR, Mr. Young dropped to a Criminal History Category I, and is now safety-valve eligible with a Guideline range of 70 to 87 months, which lowers to 37 to 46 months using the 1:1 ratio. Because Mr. Young is safety-valve eligible, he no longer has the 5-year mandatory minimum, and the § 851 enhancement no longer doubles that mandatory minimum, but it still raises his maximum statutory sentence to life

Nevertheless, in a somewhat bizarre "O. Henry" ending, the AUSA did make a substantial assistance motion, but also made a Motion For Upward Departure For Under-Representation Of Criminal History (docket no. 88), because Mr. Young's Criminal History Category is I, despite his previous conviction for a felony drug-trafficking offense in 1996. I say "bizarre, " because a strong argument can be made that Mr. Young is in the class of 74% of defendants nationally who are eligible for a § 851 enhancement, yet have it waived. It seems that a defendant, like Mr. Young, who pleads guilty, signs a cooperation plea agreement, actually cooperates to the degree to earn a prosecution recommendation for a substantial assistance reduction (which, in this district, is a very high bar), and who has a 17-year-old predicate state court drug conviction, where he received probation and successfully completed it, so that he received no criminal history points, is likely the kind of defendant who should receive a waiver of his § 851 enhancement. I denied the AUSA's Motion For Upward Departure. Thus, owing to the convoluted workings of Mr. Young's criminal history scoring, making him safety-valve eligible, and my rejection of the AUSA's attempt to reimpose sentencing consequences for Mr. Young's prior conviction, the harsh effect of a § 851 enhancement here was minimized for Mr. Young-but that is a very rare occurrence in this district.

Addressing the individual 3553(a) factors, I find that the 1:1 ratio issue is the only mitigating factor, which is why I am not varying any lower than the revised 1:1 ratio range of 37 to 46 months. Mr. Young asserted that the following aspects of his history and characteristics warranted a lower sentence:

• He was born in Chicago and had an unstable childhood;
• His mother was a drug addict, who was eventually murdered in 2008;
• His father was often absent from the family home as he traveled in the United States Army;
• At one point in his childhood, the State of Illinois Department of Children and Family Services conducted a home study and found that his mother was neglectful of him and his sister. Although no removal proceedings were conducted, he and his sister eventually moved in with their maternal grandmother;
• He has a history of marijuana use and completed a drug treatment program while on supervised release; and
• He was compliant while on pretrial release and, while he should not get kudos for doing what he is supposed to be doing, his being compliant on pretrial release indicates that he is amenable to supervision.

Defendant's Brief In Support Of Motion For Downward Variance (docket no. 87-1), 3-4. I have balanced against these mitigating factors the following aggravating factors:

• The length of the charged drug conspiracy and the frequency of purchases for distribution;
• The lack of any reportable Social Security Administration (SSA) income for years 2008 through 2012 and very minimal reportable income for years 2003 to 2007;
• His claims of self-employment income from cutting hair of $500 per month from 2010 to the present, with no record of SSA earnings for those years; and
• His child-support obligation of $200 per month, but in arrears by over $10, 000

Balancing all relevant factors, Mr. Young's August 12, 2013, Motion For Downward Variance (docket no. 87) is granted only to the extent that I have applied a 1:1 ratio. Ultimately, after evaluating the U.S.S.G. § 5K1.1 factors, I did reduce Mr. Young's sentence, based solely on application of a 1:1 ratio and Mr. Young's substantial assistance, to 24 months of incarceration followed by 4 years of supervised release on each count, to run concurrently, with certain other conditions as stated on the record.


A. How The § 851 Enhancement Works

I turn now to the § 851 enhancement issue in this and other cases. Pursuant to the penalty provisions set forth in 21 U.S.C. § 841(b)(1), enhanced penalties, including increased mandatory minimum and maximum terms of imprisonment, apply if the defendant has a prior conviction for a "felony drug offense." "Felony drug offense" is defined as "an offense that is punishable by imprisonment for more than one year under any law of the United States or of a State or foreign country that prohibits or restricts conduct relating to narcotic drugs, marihuana, anabolic steroids, or depressant or stimulant substances." 21 U.S.C. § 802(44). This sweeping definition includes many state drug convictions that the various states define under state law as misdemeanors. Unlike criminal history scoring under the Federal Sentencing Guidelines, no conviction is too old to be used as an enhancement. These enhancements are usually referred to as "§ 851 enhancements" because 21 U.S.C. § 851 establishes and prescribes certain notice and other procedural requirements that trigger them.[6]

In my experience, many § 851 enhancements involve only relatively minor state drug offenses classified as some variation of a misdemeanor under state law. Many predicate prior offenses are also decades old, where the defendant never served so much as one day in jail, and often paid only a small fine.

The highest penalties in federal drug cases are for convictions under 21 U.S.C. § 841(b)(1)(A). This subsection applies when the offense of conviction involves specifically identified drugs coupled with specific quantities of those drugs. A first-time drug offender convicted under § 841(b)(1)(A) faces a statutory mandatory minimum sentencing range of ten years and a maximum sentence of life. With a prior "felony drug conviction, " the mandatory minimum doubles to twenty years. With two prior "felony drug convictions, " a mandatory life sentence must be given. 21 U.S.C. § 841(b)(1)(A). On the other hand, § 841(b)(1)(B) applies to offenses involving lower quantities of drugs. A five-year mandatory minimum applies with no "prior felony drug" convictions, while a prior "felony drug" conviction, doubles the mandatory minimum to ten years.[7]

B. A Brief History Of Recidivist Enhancements And § 851

The modern history of experimentation with enhancements for prior drug convictions can be traced back to the 1964 amendments to the Narcotic Drug Import and Export Act of 1958.[8] This statutory scheme automatically required the mandatory minimum sentence to be doubled when the offender had a qualifying prior drug conviction. Title II of the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1970, better known as the Controlled Substances Act (CSA), repealed and replaced the Narcotic Drug Import and Export Act. Pub. L. No. 91-513, 84 Stat. 1236 (Oct. 27, 1970), codified at 21 U.S.C. §§ 801-904. The CSA afforded judges and prosecutors some leeway for the application of the prior drug conviction enhancement. The CSA also replaced mandatory minimum sentences with maximum sentences for what has become 21 U.S.C. § 841.

The House Committee, in reporting on the House bill, explained the reasons for revising the penalty structure:

The foregoing sentencing procedures give maximum flexibility to judges, permitting them to tailor the period of imprisonment, as well as the fine, to the circumstances involved in the individual case.
The severity of existing penalties, involving in many instances minimum mandatory sentences, have led in many instances to reluctance on the part of prosecutors to prosecute some violations, where the penalties seem to be out of line with the seriousness of the offense. In addition, severe penalties, which do not take into account individual circumstances, and treat casual violators as severely as they treat hardened criminals, tend to make convictions somewhat more difficult to obtain. The committee feels, therefore, that making the penalty structure in the law more flexible can actually serve to have a more deterrent effect than existing penalties, through eliminating some of the difficulties prosecutors and courts have had in the past arising out of minimum mandatory sentences.

H. Rep. No. 91-1444, 91st Cong., 2d Sess., 1970 U.S. Code Cong. & Admin. News, pp. 4566, 4576.

In United States v. Noland, 495 F.2d 529 (5th Cir. 1974), the first appellate case to be decided under the enhancement section of the 1970 CSA, the court understood this flexibility to be used in situations where neither the prosecutor, nor the court thought the enhancement desirable or necessary. Id. at 532. The court in Noland determined that it was up to the U.S. Attorney to seek enhancement if the sentence was to be doubled. Judge Sidney Thomas noted, in discussing Noland, that "the statutory scheme was completely everted: rather than requiring courts to impose mandatory minimums regardless of prosecutorial desire, courts were prohibited from enhancing sentences unless the government had timely filed an information stating that it intended to seek an enhanced sentence based on specific prior convictions." United States v. Severino, 268 F.3d 850, 863 (9th Cir. 2001). So, the Congressional motivation for the injection of prosecutorial discretion for the sentencing enhancement was to overcome the temptation for prosecutors not to charge offenders in situations where the court was likely to impose an unduly harsh sentence because of a qualifying prior drug offense. This is the opposite of the application of § 851 enhancements as currently applied in the N.D. Iowa, where it is applied in four out of five eligible cases.

C. Lack Of A National DOJ § 851 Policy

Until earlier this week, the DOJ did not appear to have a national policy[9] for the 94 districts as to when or why to seek a § 851 enhancement and, in the N.D. Iowa, there was no discernible local policy or even a whiff of an identifiable pattern. I have never been able to discern a pattern or policy of when or why a defendant receives a § 851 enhancement in my nearly 20 years as a U.S. district court judge who has sentenced over 3, 500 defendants, mostly on drug charges. I asked one of our district's most respected supervisors of probation officers to inquire among all of this district's probation officers who write pre-sentence reports if any could discern a pattern. I received the following response: "I had a chance to talk with each of the writers and the consensus is that there really is no rhyme or reason to when the § 851 [enhancement] is filed and when it is not." I have also repeatedly asked defense counsel, on the record, if they are able to discern a pattern as to when their clients, who are eligible for a § 851 enhancement, receive it and when it is waived. Not a single defense lawyer has ever been able to articulate a pattern-other than the criminal defense lawyers from Omaha, Nebraska, who routinely indicate that, had the case been in the District of Nebraska, the § 851 notice would have been waived. These on-the-record statements by the Omaha criminal defense lawyers are validated by the data from the Commission. These data establish that, for the three-year sampling period, an eligible defendant in the N.D. Iowa had a whopping 2, 532% greater likelihood of receiving a § 851 enhancement than the same defendant in the District of Nebraska. See App. C, Figure 2C.

In eight of the Nation's ninety-four federal districts, § 851 enhancements have been waived in every case, regardless of whether the defendant pleads, goes to trial, or cooperates, with or without receiving a substantial assistance motion. In many other districts, the § 851 enhancements were used as a plea hammer to induce a defendant to plead-then withdrawn when the defendant did plead. In the N.D. Iowa, already this year, I have sentenced numerous defendants with § 851 enhancements, regardless of whether they pled, or pled and cooperated, and did or did not receive a substantial assistance motion. Indeed, in one case, the § 851 notice was not waived where a defendant pled, cooperated, was given a U.S.S.G. § 5K1.1 motion, but not an 18 U.S.C. § 3553(e) motion, so that the defendant received the full brunt of the doubling of her mandatory minimum sentence, even though she was the least culpable defendant in a small methamphetamine conspiracy. She received the second longest sentence of any of her co-defendants. United States v. Newhouse, ___ F.Supp.2d ___, 2013 WL 346432, *26, *30 (N.D. Iowa Jan. 30, 2013).

At long last, on August 12, 2013, Attorney General Holder issued his 2013 Memo establishing a national policy on charging mandatory minimum sentences and recidivist enhancements in drug cases. In pertinent part, the Holder 2013 Memo addressed § 851 enhancements, as follows:

Recidivist Enhancements: Prosecutors should decline to file an information pursuant to 21 U.S.C. § 851 unless the defendant is involved in conduct that makes the case appropriate for severe sanctions. When determining whether an enhancement is appropriate, prosecutors should consider the following factors:
• Whether the defendant was an organizer, leader, manager or supervisor of others within a criminal organization;
• Whether the defendant was involved in the use or threat of violence in connection with the offense;
• The nature of the defendant's criminal history, including any prior history of violent conduct or recent prior convictions for serious offenses;
• Whether the defendant has significant ties to large-scale drug trafficking organizations, gangs, or cartels;
• Whether the filing would create a gross sentencing disparity with equally or more culpable co-defendants; and
• Other case-specific aggravating or mitigating factors.
In keeping with current policy, prosecutors are reminded that all charging decisions must be reviewed by a supervisory attorney to ensure adherence to the Principles of Federal Prosecution, the guidance provided by my May 19, 2010 memorandum, and the policy outlined in this memorandum.

Holder 2013 Memo at 3.

D. The Wheel of Misfortune

The lack of any national or local policy, at least until August 12, 2013, rendered application of § 851 enhancements both whimsical and arbitrary-something akin to the spin of a "Wheel of Misfortune"-where similarly-situated defendants in the same district, before the same sentencing judge, sometimes received a doubling of their mandatory minimum sentences and sometimes did not.[10] The same was true for similarly-situated defendants in the same district, before different judges, and similarly-situated defendants spanning the ninety-four districts. Also, the opposite problem of unwarranted uniformity existed, where, owing to the absence of a national policy, the most objectively deserving defendants were never subject to an enhancement in the eight districts that never apply § 851 enhancements. Given the arbitrary nature of § 851 enhancements, there were no assurances that the most objectively deserving defendants, nationwide, were actually the defendants receiving enhancements. Likewise, there were no assurances that the least deserving defendants, nationwide, were the ones that actually received a waiver.

The purpose of the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984 (SRA) was to

[P]rovide certainty and fairness in meeting the purposes of sentencing, avoiding unwarranted sentencing disparities among defendants with similar records... while maintaining sufficient flexibility to permit individualized sentences, where appropriate; and to "reflect, to the extent practicable, advancement in knowledge of human behavior as it relates to the criminal justice process." 28 U.S.C. § 991(b)(1), Congress further specified four "purposes" of sentencing that the Commission must pursue in carrying out its mandate: "to reflect the seriousness of the offense, to promote respect for the law, and to provide just punishment for the offense"; "to afford adequate deterrence to criminal conduct"; "to protect the public from further crimes of the defendant"; and "to provide the defendant with needed... correctional treatment." 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a)(2).

Mistretta v. United States, 488 U.S. 361, 374 (1989). The lack of a national, regional, intra-state, or local policy on § 851 enhancements rendered that stated purpose as illusory as David Copperfield's Vanishing Statue of Liberty.[11]

If humans continue to be involved in federal sentencing, there will always be some disparity. There was before the passage of the SRA, and there has been in each phase of the unfolding saga of federal Guideline sentencing.[12] The current most popular gripe is that post Booker and Gall, federal judges create too much sentencing disparity in applying the 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a) factors.[13] Indeed, there is some disparity because no two federal district court judges, over numerous cases, are likely to apply the Guidelines and the § 3553(a) factors in precisely the same way. Nevertheless, there is no unwarranted disparity because judges are applying congressionally-mandated factors and their decisions are subject to appellate review. Where there is now a national policy by the DOJ, with defined factors for the 94 U.S. Attorneys and the thousands of Assistant U.S. Attorneys to apply, I can accept that different federal prosecutors, like different federal judges, could, in the utmost good faith, apply the same factors differently and reach different results-that's what happens when individuals exercise judgment. What should be totally unacceptable and shocking to federal judges of all stripes, the DOJ, Congress, and the American public were the effects of a total lack of a national policy prior to August 12, 2013. What we had until then was a standardless Wheel of Misfortune regime.[14] The Commission's data and my experience illustrated the dangers of such a regime: Individual prosecutor's wholly-insulated § 851 charging decisions resulted in both unwarranted sentencing disparity and unwarranted sentencing uniformity-the worst case scenario imaginable.

E. Other Problems With The Arbitrary Workings Of § 851 Enhancements

Wholly apart from these critical considerations of arbitrary application and lack of transparency by the DOJ, the serious and pervasive structural deficiencies in § 851 enhancements that existed prior to August 12, 2013, often led to bizarre and incomprehensibly unfair results.[15] For example, take two low-level drug addict co-defendants who, prior to August 12, 2013, pled guilty to and were sentenced for the same conspiracy to manufacture a small amount (as little as five grams) of homemade methamphetamine, made from cough medication purchased at a local drug store. One was non-violent; the other had a long history of violence. They were both fifty years old and lived next to each other, and both worked the night shift at a local manufacturing plant. Bob had a thirty-year-old prior aggravated misdemeanor conviction in Iowa for possession of a small amount of marijuana. In 1993, he paid a $100 fine, was given probation, never served a day in jail, and successfully completed his short term of probation. He had no other prior convictions. His co-defendant, John, had one prior armed robbery conviction in 2000, served an eight-year prison sentence, and violated his parole on several occasions before he was discharged in 2011. John also had four assault convictions before his armed robbery conviction. John would likely have received a mandatory minimum five-year sentence, but because Bob's prior misdemeanor drug conviction is a predicate to a § 851 enhancement, and John's prior robbery and assault convictions are not, Bob would likely have received, at a minimum, the mandatory minimum sentence of ten years in a district where § 851 enhancements were routine. This was justice?[16] Indeed, a major drug trafficker in federal court would not receive a recidivist enhancement with a prior state court murder conviction, but a low-level drug addict would receive such an enhancement with a prior qualifying state court misdemeanor drug conviction. This was justice?

I am optimistic that fair application of the Holder 2013 Memo will rectify this problem going forward.


A. Overview Of The Underlying Data On § 851 Enhancements

The grim state of affairs for § 851 enhancements prior to the national policy established by the Holder 2013 Memo is starkly revealed by an examination of the Commission's § 851 data on the one occasion that it collected such information. Every year, pursuant to its statutory mandate, the Commission publishes national data collected from federal sentencings spanning all ninety-four districts.[17] In 2011, the Commission conducted the first and only, additional targeted coding and analysis project on nationwide application of 21 U.S.C. § 851 recidivist enhancements as part of the REPORT TO THE CONGRESS: MANDATORY MINIMUM PENALTIES IN THE FEDERAL CRIMINAL JUSTICE SYSTEM (Commission's 2011 REPORT). Ninety-three of the ninety-four districts reported data, and the Commission described in detail its methodology for its targeted § 851 study.[18] The Commission's 2011 REPORT itself notes, "[This] study of drug offenses and mandatory minimum penalties demonstrates a lack of uniformity in application of the enhanced mandatory minimum penalties." Commission's 2011 REPORT at 253.

Because the Commission's 2011 REPORT does not contain the raw data used for the § 851 analysis, I requested it directly from the Commission, and the Commission quickly responded by sending me the "851 datafile, " which is contained in Appendix F. I then re-analyzed and reformatted the raw data in several significant ways that go far beyond the Commission's analysis. These data are presented in a variety of charts and graphs included in the text and appendices of this opinion.[19] All of the statistics used in the empirical analysis sections of this opinion (B-E) and in the appendices are drawn exclusively from the Commission's "851 datafile."[20] Sections B and C compare the application of § 851 enhancements in the N.D. Iowa to national statistics and the Eighth Circuit respectively. Section D examines disparity that can be found within circuits, and ...

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