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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.