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Defendant Not Entitled to Reduce 40-Year Sentence for Managing Drug Crimes - U.S. v. Garza

Drug crimes are taken very, very seriously by the federal courts—arguably, a little too seriously. Advocates say long sentences for drug defendants are an important reason why the United States has one of the world’s largest prison populations. And those defendants are often serving long sentences not just because of their base crimes, but because of sentence enhancements for particular roles they played in the crime. That was the case for Jesus Garza, who is serving 40 years in federal prison for conspiring to distribute cocaine. Prosecutors added a three-level enhancement to Garza’s sentence for his alleged role as a manager or supervisor of a conspiracy with five or more participants. Garza challenged that enhancement in U.S. v. Garza, but the Eleventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected the challenge.

Garza’s indictment says he conspired with at least five other known people to distribute cocaine and marijuana in central Florida, southern Georgia, Mexico and elsewhere. Garza ultimately pleaded guilty in 2012 to the first count of the indictment, which was only the conspiracy to distribute 5 kilograms or more of cocaine. He was sentenced to 480 months in prison, which included a three-level sentence enhancement for being a manager or supervisor of the conspiracy. (He was also ordered to get substance abuse treatment and permit collection of his DNA. In addition, the court permitted forfeiture of certain property not discussed in the appeal.) On appeal, Garza challenged only the sentence enhancement, arguing that he did not act in a supervisory or managerial role.

The Eleventh Circuit disagreed. There was no dispute that the drug enterprise involved five or more people, so the only dispute was over Garza’s role. The enhancement applies, the court said, if Garza was the organizer, leader, manager or supervisor of one or more participants. By those standards, the court found no clear error in applying the sentence enhancement. Garza served as a distributor of cocaine for several others in the conspiracy and required them to bring him the proceeds. Conspirators testified that Garza set prices and decided how much and where to distribute the cocaine. He had a ledger where he recorded receipts and property used to store the cocaine. Garza argued that he was subordinate to another person, but the court found that the other person could be circumvented and indeed, that Garza took over the conspiracy after that person was deported. Thus, it found no clear error by the district court.

In an ordinary business, there would be no confusion over whether someone acted as a manager: the person’s title, salary and duties would likely establish that clearly. But because a drug enterprise is necessarily an underground operation, people like Garza have the disadvantage of having to prove something that may never have been clear to start with. Note that Garza is also serving a huge amount of time: 40 years in prison. I have argued before that the lengthy sentences mandated for drug convictions doesn’t make society safer, particularly for offenses that did not involve violence. But because that’s the reality, it’s vitally important for defendants facing this kind of charge to call an experienced criminal defense attorney right away, to help mount the best possible defense.

If you’re charged with a crime—or believe you might be soon—and you’d like to talk to someone about your rights and your options, don’t wait to call Seltzer Mayberg, LLC. We answer the phone 24 hours a day and seven days a week, because we know law enforcement also works 24 hours a day. You can send us a message online or call us toll-free at 1-888-THE-DEFENSE (1-888-843-3333).

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