The U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, which governs North Carolina's federal courts, reversed a local judge's decision to impose a life sentence on a drug trafficker. U.S. District Judge Terrence Boyle failed to make required factual findings when attributing two drug seizures to the defendant, the circuit judges ruled.
Boyle serves on the bench for the U.S. District of of Eastern North Carolina, based in Raleigh. The unanimous opinion by the three-judge appeals panel was published last week.
Marco Antonio Flores-Alvarado was an admitted drug trafficker who frequently bought and sold in bulk, relying on sources in Mexico. After a federal investigation using phone wiretaps, Flores-Alvarado pleaded guilty to conspiracy to distribute and to possess with intent to distribute five kilograms or more of cocaine and 1,000 kilograms or more of marijuana; and possession with intent to distribute more than 100 kilograms of marijuana.
Flores-Alvarado's pre-sentence report held him accountable for several drug quantities seized in multiple locations. It included seizures from Stokedale, N.C., and Lexington, Ky., which totaled 3,886 kilograms of pot and 136 kilograms of coke. Based partly on those numbers, Boyle sentenced him to life imprisonment on the conspiracy charge.
But Flores-Alvarado argued that the evidence failed to prove he was responsible for the Stokedale and Lexington stashes, both of which were seized just prior to a major buy. Those seizures should have been eliminated from the prosecutor's pre-sentence calculations, which would have dropped his sentencing range to a period of 30 years to life, Flores-Alvarado maintained.
The Fourth Circuit judges agreed, contending that prosecutors relied on shaky logic to determine who was responsible for the Stokesdale and Lexington seizures. After agents seized the drugs in Stokesdale, Flores-Alvarado stopped using the cell phone of one of the targeted suppliers, prompting agents to surmise that Flores-Alvarado was the intended buyer.
In regard to Lexington, Flores-Alvarado had allegedly coordinated a deal involving thousands of pounds of pot, which ultimately fell through. Two months later, after agents determined that Flores-Alvarado was working on a similar deal, they reasoned that he was the person involved with the drugs that were seized.
Prior to Flores-Alvarado's sentencing, the prosecutor didn't call any witnesses, or present any other evidence related to the Stokesdale and Lexington seizures.
When two or more co-defendants are accused of jointly engaging in a criminal conspiracy, a prosecutor must prove that each co-defendant "reasonably foresaw" and "agreed to" participate in it, according to federal case law. For Flores-Alvarado, those elements may have been true, but Judge Boyle failed to cite facts to prove it, the Fourth Circuit ruled.
The mere fact that he once bought weed from the Stokesdale supplier doesn't sufficiently support the accusation against him, explained Chief Judge William Traxler in last week's opinion. "The bare-bones information in the PSR about the Stokesdale Seizure does not even conclusively establish that the drugs were seized from the same marijuana dealer that Flores-Alvarado had been involved with, much less that the 1,400 pounds of marijuana were within the scope of the criminal activity jointly undertaken by Flores-Alvarado," he added.
The case has been sent back to Judge Boyle for re-sentencing. In a footnote, the circuit judges pointed out that if Boyle could factually attribute the Stokesdale and Lexington seizures to Flores-Alvarado, a life sentence would be constitutionally permissible.