On August 10, 2021, a panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit held that a defendant who a jury determined did not know the quantity of drugs involved in a conspiracy could be found guilty of the conspiracy, but could not be sentenced for the quantity of drugs involved in the conspiracy. United States v. Aguirre-Rivera, 8 F.4th 405 (5th Cir., 2021). The case distinguishes between jury questions related to the primary offense versus those relating to punishment.
Background of the Case
Baltazar Aguirre-Rivera was charged with one count of conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute at least one kilogram of heroin in violation of 21 U.S.C. §§841(a)(1), (b)(1)(A)(I), and 846. At the end of Aguirre-Rivera’s trial, the district Court instructed the jury that it could find Aguirre-Rivera guilty only if the government had proven beyond a reasonable doubt: (1) “that two or more persons directly, or indirectly, reached an agreement to possess heroin with intent to distribute the same”; (2) “that the Defendant knew of the unlawful purpose of the agreement”; (3) “that the Defendant joined in the agreement willfully, and that is with the intent to further its unlawful purpose”; (4) “that the overall scope of the conspiracy involved at least one kilogram or more of a mixture or substance containing a detectable amount of heroin”; and(5) “that the Defendant knew, or reasonably should have known, that the scope of the conspiracy involved at least one kilogram or more of a mixture or substance containing a detectable amount of heroin.” See id. at 408.
Jury Questions and Answers
The district court provided the jury with a verdict form containing three questions. The first question asked for a general verdict of “Guilty” or “Not Guilty.” The jury answered this question “Guilty.” The second question asked, “Do you find beyond a reasonable doubt that the overall scope of the conspiracy involved at least one kilogram or more of a mixture or substance containing a detectable amount of heroin?” The jury responded “Yes” to this query. The final question asked, “Do you find beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant knew or reasonably should have known that the scope of the conspiracy involved at least one kilogram or more of a mixture or substance containing a detectable amount of heroin?” The jury answered, “No.” See id.
Is there a Problem here?
The jury’s answer to the third question seems to fly in the face of the Court’s instructions. The jury found the defendant guilty in spite of the fact that they did not find that the government proved beyond a reasonable doubt that the Defendant knew or should have known the scope of the conspiracy; this was one of the questions the Court instructed the jury must be answered affirmatively in support of a “Guilty” verdict. Based on this discrepancy, Aguirre-Rivera moved for judgment of acquittal on the basis that the jury’s answer to the second special interrogatory contradicted, and therefore undermined, its general verdict of guilty. See id.
“No” Does Not Mean No
Despite the Court’s instructions, the judge did not issue a judgment of acquittal. The district court denied Aguirre-Rivera’s motion because, although the jury’s answer to the second special interrogatory “undermine[d] the fifth element of the jury charge, [it did] not negate an essential element of the jury’s finding of guilt.” See id.
The 5th Circuit addresses the First Issue
Aguirre-Rivera first challenged the district court’s denial of his motion for judgment of acquittal. He contended that the jury’s answer to the second special interrogatory, which found that he neither knew nor should have known that the conspiracy involved one kilogram or more of heroin, directly contradicted the fifth element of the jury charge. According to him, this contradiction undermined one of the elements that was necessary to support his conviction under the statute; and therefore it also undermined the guilty verdict altogether. See id. at 409
The Standard of Review
The panel for the Fifth Circuit started by stating “We review the denial of a motion for judgment of acquittal de novo. United States v. Buluc, 930 f.3d 383, 387 (5th Cir.), cert. denied, 140 S.Ct. 544(2019). ‘Courts consistently vacate convictions when the answers to special interrogatories undermine a finding of guilt the jury made on the general questions.’ United States v. Gonzales, 841 F.3d. 339, 348 (5th Cir. 2016)). If the jury’s answer to the second special interrogatory did undermine an essential element of the charged offense, then the district court should have granted Aguirre-Rivera’s motion for the judgment of acquittal. See id. Our task, then, is to determine whether the jury’s answer to the special interrogatory undermined an essential element of Aguirre-Rivera’s conviction.” See Aguirre-Rivera 8 F.4th at 409.
Element versus Enhancement
The opinion then lays out the elements of the offense charged. “The essential elements of a drug conspiracy are (1) an agreement by two or more persons to violate the narcotics laws; (2) a defendant’s knowledge of the agreement; and (3) his voluntary participation in the agreement.” See id. (quoting United States v. Bargas-Ocampo, 747 f.3d 299, 303 (5th Cir. 2014) (en banc)). The Court then stated, “That is all the government needs to prove to sustain a drug conspiracy conviction under 21 USC §§ 841(a)(1) and 846.” See id. at 410. The Court reasoned that an enhancement is different from an element of the primary offense because it only affects punishment, not guilt. Although it must be submitted to the jury as an element, because it increases the mandatory punishment under Alleyne v. United States, 570 U.S. 99, 103 (2013), a finding of fact that affects only the legally prescribed punishment does not become an element of the conspiracy offense. See id. at 410-11. In so holding, the Court cited United States v. Daniels, 723 F.3d 562 , 573 (5th Cir.) 2013, as supporting its position. On that basis, the Court sustained the district court’s denial of the judgment for acquittal. See id. at 411.
The Court then addressed the impact of the jury’s finding that Aguirre-Rivera did not have knowledge of the scope of the conspiracy. The Court held that even though the conviction was not affected by the jury’s finding, “the sentence most certainly was.” The defendant was sentenced under the guideline range for Conspiracy to Possess with Intent to Distribute 100 Gams or More of Heroin in violation of 21 U.S.C. §§ 841(b)(1)(B). This was improper since the jury’s negative answer to the question regarding the amount of heroin involved in the conspiracy negated any enhancements under § 841(b).” See id.
Legal Basis for Sentencing Implications
The Supreme Court has held “that factual determinations that increase maximum or minimum sentences, other than a prior conviction, must be found by a jury beyond a reasonable doubt.” Apprendi v. New Jersey, 530 U.S. 466, 490 (2000); see also Alleyne v. United States, 133 S.Ct. 2151, 2158, (2013); United States v. Haines, 803 F.3d 713, 738 (5th Cir. 2015).
The Aguirre-Rivera Court held: “Because the quantity of heroin involved” in a drug conspiracy case can affect a defendant’s “minimum sentence under §841, it must be found by a jury.” Id. In this case the jury’s answer to the second special interrogatory negated any enhancements under §841(b). Therefore, Aguirre-Rivera could not be subject to any mandatory minimum. He should have been sentenced under §841(b)(1)(C), which gives the sentencing range for drug conspiracy violations not subject to additional enhancements under §841(b)(1)(A), (B), or (D). Aguirre-Rivera, 8 F.4th at 411.
One More Time, in English
Aguirre-Rivera was charged with participating in a conspiracy involving a kilo or more of heroin under 21 U.S.C §§ 841(a)(1), (b)(1)(A)(I), and 846. The jury found that he did not know the conspiracy involved over a kilo of heroin. So, the district court sentenced Aguirre-Rivera under §841(b)(1)(B) for a conspiracy involving 100 grams or more of heroin, which carries a minimum of 5 years. However, the jury did not make a finding that Aguirre-Rivera knew any amount of heroin involved in the conspiracy, so he could not be charged with even that reduced amount of heroin. Aguirre-Rivera should have been sentenced under §841(b)(1)(C), which is the range of punishment for an offense without an enhancement for the amount of drugs involved in the conspiracy.
The district court sentenced Aguirre-Rivera under a statute which had a range of punishment of 5 years to 40 years. He should have been sentenced within a range of punishment of no more than 20 years. The proper statute for sentencing was §841(b)(1)(C), which has no mandatory minimum sentence.
Was there Harm?
Aguirre-Rivera was sentenced to 60 months in prison. This was the minimum sentence under §841(b)(1)(B). The length of the sentence held significance with the Court. “The court then proceeded to sentence Aguirre-Rivera to 60 months in prison and three years of supervised release- a sentence coinciding almost exactly with the mandatory minimum under §841(b)(1)(B).” Aguirre-Rivera, 8 F.4th at 412. Since the Court held that Aguirre-Rivera should have been sentenced without any mandatory minimum under §841(b)(1)(C), the Court found that there was harm. The Court noted that the district court, despite saying that the sentence would have been the same even if any error was made in the calculation of the guidelines, also stated, “[i]f it turns out that [Aguirre-Rivera’s] lawyers are correct, and if we have lower guidelines, I would be the first to be happy to revisit the case in order to make a correction to any mistake that this may have resulted in.” Id. The Court found that this statement confirmed that Aguirre-Rivera may have been harmed by the error. The Court stated, “Given that the district court expressed willingness to revisit the case and correct any errors inherent in Aguirre-Rivera’s sentence, we cannot say that the government has carried its burden of demonstrating beyond a reasonable doubt that the district court would have imposed the same sentence regardless of any error.” Id. at 412-13.
In my opinion, the Aguirre-Rivera case is more important to the trial lawyer than it is to the appellate practitioner. The case is a reminder to the trial lawyer, facing the prospects of trying an unwinnable case or pleading to an outlandish guideline range, that there may be an issue to try if the client held a minor role in the conspiracy. This issue is often present in cases involving “mules” or persons enlisted to perform tasks by the primary conspirators. The results of a jury finding that the defendant lacked knowledge of the scope of the conspiracy at trial could greatly reduce a client’s guidelines just as it did in this case. Winning this issue could go a long way toward earning your client a deduction for his role in the offense. It would be hard for the judge to find your client was a major player in the conspiracy when a jury found that your client did not know the scope of the conspiracy. See USSG §§2D1.1(a)(5) and 3B1.2. A finding that your client played a minor role in the conspiracy could also eliminate the two-level increase for importation in cases involving methamphetamine under USSG § 2D1.1(b)(5). Remand for sentencing under the correct guidelines was made possible in this case because the district court judge was more interested in the correct application of the law than in protecting against a remand.