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.
This is a significant case that may have real, practical benefit to many people facing drug conspiracy indictments. At a minimum, in the appropriate case in federal drug prosecutions in Texas, or other venues within the Fifth Circuit,it should improve a person’s bargaining position with the Government as it relates to drug amounts.