Federal drug conspiracy sentence reversed due to court’s improper application of the federal sentencing guidelines

The Eleventh Circuit recently vacated the sentence of a defendant after determining that the district court improperly found that he was a leader in a drug conspiracy for purposes of the Sentencing Guidelines. That erroneous finding had increased his sentence by four levels.

In US v. Martinez, the defendant, Martinez, pled guilty to conspiring to distribute and to possess with the intent to distribute 100 kilograms or more of marijuana. Specifically, he made weekly shipments of pounds of marijuana from Texas to Florida, used fictitious return addresses and used wire transfers to receive drug proceeds. When sentencing Martinez, the district court found that he took a leadership role in shipping the marijuana. This led to an increase in his sentence by four levels under the United States Federal Sentencing Guidelines and resulted in a 78 month sentence. To have this four level increase, a court has to find that the defendant was either an organizer or a leader, and that the criminal activity involved either five or more participants or was otherwise extensive. The Sentencing Guidelines put forth seven factors which a court considers when determining if a defendant is a “leader” or an “organizer”: decision making authority, nature of participation, recruitment, right to a larger share of the proceeds, degree of participation in planning, scope of illegal activity and degree of control over others.

The increased sentence was largely due to the judge’s reliance on Martinez’s Presentence Investigation Report (PSI) which had been prepared by a probation officer. The PSI stated that he “orchestrated” weekly shipments of marijuana and recruited others. Martinez strenuously objected to the idea that he orchestrated shipments, recruited others or was a leader in any way. If a defendant objects to a fact contained in a PSI, the government bears the burden of proving the fact in dispute by a preponderance of the evidence. However, during the guilty plea, Martinez admitted to orchestrating drug shipments and that he used others in the scheme. When a defendant admits a fact during a guilty plea, the government does not have to provide evidence of those facts.

However, even with Martinez’s admissions, the appellate court found that his actions did not fit within the seven elements which would make him a “leader.” First, the term “orchestrate” is not synonymous with control. Moreover, there was no evidence that he recruited any of his co-conspirators, or that they were his subordinates. He also did not claim a larger share of the proceeds and was in fact destitute. In addition, it was unclear where he was in the chain of command. And finally, the fact that he “utilized” others did not show control over others. Instead, Martinez had always maintained that he was equally involved with his co-conspirators. Since the government failed to provide evidence of a leadership role, the 11th Circuit vacated the sentence and instructed the district court judge to resentence Martinez.

Obviously, it is important for people convicted in federal court to understand that they generally have the right to appeal their sentence if they were convicted at trial. In most cases, the United States Federal Sentencing Guidelines will determine how a convicted person is sentenced, but district court judges can and do make mistakes when employing the Guidelines.

An experienced criminal appeals attorney will analyze a sentence for any inconsistencies with the Guidelines and relevant statutes (usually, 18 U.S.C. Section 3553) and can raise any sentencing issues on appeal. In fact, our lawyers have won several recent federal appeals and have reduced our clients’ sentences by a few months to many years.

Pate & Brody is an accomplished Georgia law firm with offices in Atlanta, Macon and Madison. Our lawyers are dedicated to pursuing justice for people charged with serious crimes. We have successfully represented clients facing serious federal criminal charges and state criminal charges in courts across Georgia. Our lawyers have been recognized on the list of Georgia’s “Super Lawyers”, and included among Georgia’s “Legal Elite” by Georgia Trend Magazine. Page Pate was recently the Chairman of the Criminal Law Section of the Atlanta Bar Association.


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