Thursday, May 5th, 2005

Does a District Court Have the Authority to Use the Beyond-a-Reasonable-Doubt Standard at Sentencing after Booker?

United States v. Evelyn Gonzalez, Docket No. 04-1956-cr (2d Cir. May 3, 2005) (Meskill, Calabresi, Wesley) (Op. by Meskill): This odd case has already received a good deal of attention from Professor Berman and others. And rightly so, for it seems to suggest — if only in dicta and only by silence — that a district court has the authority, after Booker, to use the beyond-a-reasonable-doubt (“BRD”) standard of proof to determine facts relevant to Guidelines enhancements.

The facts are simple. The defendant was charged with conspiracy to distribute 5 kilograms of cocaine. She was convicted at trial by a jury. However, in response to two questions, the jury specfically found that Ms. Gonzalez’s offense did not involve either 5 kilograms or more, or 500 grams or more, of cocaine.

At the pre-Booker sentencing, the Government relied on Watts to argue that in determining the appropriate offense level, the district court should overlook the jury’s verdict and find by a preponderance of the evidence that the defendant had conspired to distribute at least 5 kilograms of cocaine. The district court, “refusing to vitiate the jury’s drug weight finding,” Op. at 5, rejected this argument and determined — consistent with the jury’s verdict — that the defendant had conspired to distribute at least 400 grams but less than 500 grams of cocaine. It did so despite “stat[ing] that the two kilograms of cocaine that Gonzalez’s husband possessed when he was arrested was foreseeable to Gonzalez and could theoretically form the basis of its sentencing calculation.” Id.

The defendant appealed (challenging her conviction & sentence on other grounds), but the Government did not. Regarding the sentence, the Panel of course ruled that a Crosby remand was appropriate. Op. at 10-11.

In addition, the Court rejected the defendant’s very odd “rule of lenity” argument; she claimed that the “factual ambiguity” regarding the amount of drugs for which she should be held responsible should be resolved in her favor. The Court quickly rejected this argument, pointing out that the rule applies only to the resolution of ambiguous statutes (and Guidelines), not ambiguous facts.

Moreover, the Court pointed out that using such a rule to resolve factual ambiguities would “straightjacket a district court in exercising its authority — that endures post-Booker — to resolve disputed facts by a preponderance of the evidence when arriving at a Guidelines sentence.” Op. at 13. The opinion essentially ends there.

Quite surprisingly, the opinion says nothing about the district court’s apparent refusal to use the preponderance standard to determine the appropriate Guidelines range. As noted, the district court — contrary to Watts — clearly deferred to the jury’s conclusion that the Government had not established BRD that the defendant was responsible for more than 500 grams of cocaine when it sentenced the defendant. And if the district court did not have the authority to disregard the preponderance standard in favor of the BRD standard, one would have expected the Circuit to say something about this. It did not, however.

The most logical reading of this case, then, is that while the district court has the “authority” to use the preponderance standard to resolve sentencing disputes, Op. at 13, it also has the authority to use the higher, BRD standard. This is only dicta, however, and only by implication. Nonetheless, the opinion should be of value to attorneys trying to convince a district court to use the BRD standard at sentencing.

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