Articles Posted in Fifth Circuit

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The United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit recently issued an opinion that may significantly impact the way that Federal drug prosecutions are carried out in Texas.  On October 15, 2015 the Court decided United States v. Haines, No. 13-31287, 2015 WL 6080523. The Haines Court held that the Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution requires that a  jury make a defendant specific finding, beyond a reasonable doubt,  of the drug quantity to each individual defendant to establish the  statutory minimum sentence.

Under the law as it existed prior to Haines, the only question for the jury to decide concerning drug quantity was the amount involved in the overall scope of the conspiracy.  The question of the amount applicable as to each individual defendant was a sentencing question for the Court on a lower standard of proof.  In the post Haines world, if the Government seeks to convict someone of  federal conspiracy to possess with the intent to distribute drugs in an amount that carries enhanced statutory minimum sentences, the Government must prove that the individual person involved is personally responsible for an amount of drugs that triggers the statutory enhancement.  For example, under 21 United States Code section 841(b)(1)(A), a conspiracy involving 5 kilograms or more of  a cocaine mixture subjects a person to a mandatory statutory minimum of ten years imprisonment.

Prior to Haines, to subject someone to that mandatory minimum sentence, all the Government would need to prove is that they were guilty of a conspiracy to possess with the intent to distribute, and the the overall scope of the conspiracy involved 5 kilograms or more.  Now, to subject someone to that mandatory minimum, they must proved not only guilt as the the conspiracy, but also that the individual person is personally responsible for an amount sufficient to trigger the enhanced minimum penalty.

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The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit ruled in July that the police do not need a warrant to access mobile phone subscribers cell phone tower data. The Fifth Circuit, which has the final word on matters of Federal law in Texas, held that warrantless access to such information by police is not a violation of the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition against unreasonable search and seizure.

Instead, according the the Fifth Circuit, the information is merely a business record created and maintained by the private cell companies. Further, the Government is not involved in the creation or storage or the accumulated data, and for a variety of reasons, the Court held that an individual has no expectation of privacy in the data.

What does this mean? As a practical matter, the phone in your pocket or purse is a de facto tracking device. If you use a cell phone you may be tracked to a relatively small area by use of the cell phone tower data. This data is now accessible without a warrant.

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A recent decision of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit raised some eyebrows in Federal criminal law circles.  In the case of U.S. v. Rodriguez – Escareno, ___F.3d___, 2012 WL5200190 (5th Cir. Oct. 23, 2012)  the Court vacated and remanded for resentencing,  on a plain error standard, where the District Court imposed a 16 level enhancement for defendant’s previous conviction for a “drug trafficking offense.”

Mr. Rodriguez – Escareno was indicted by a federal Grand Jury for the crime of  Illegal Reentry, and he plead guilty to the charge.  In the Federal system, when an indicted person pleads guilty, a Presentence Investigation Report (PSR)  is prepared.  One of the matters that the PSR addresses is the existence of prior convictions.  Mr. Rosdriguez – Escareno was previously convicted of a conspiracy to distribute methamphetamine. The PSR determined that Rodriguez-Escareno’s previous crime was a “drug trafficking offense,” which permitted the application of a 16-level enhancement under U.S.S.G. § 2L1.2(b)(1)(A)(i).  On the surface, it seems obvious that a drug conspiracy withing the meaning of the Federal criminal statute will be considered a drug trafficking offense within the meaning of the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines; at least that is what everyone in Mr. Rodriguez – Escareno’s case appeared to believe.