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United States v. Billings

October 8, 2008

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, PLAINTIFF-APPELLEE,
v.
DARNELL C. BILLINGS, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT.



Appeal from the United States District Court for the Central District of Illinois. No. 05 CR 20041-Michael P. McCuskey, Chief Judge.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Williams, Circuit Judge

ARGUED APRIL 16, 2008

Before EASTERBROOK, Chief Judge, and WOOD and WILLIAMS, Circuit Judges.

Defendant Darnell Billings received a statutory minimum sentence of life imprisonment after pleading guilty to dealing over 50 grams of crack cocaine. He claims the government should have rewarded his cooperation by filing a substantial assistance motion under 18 U.S.C. § 3553(e), which would have freed the district court to sentence him below the statutory minimum. Billings also claims the government should have told him that his incarcerated status would make it more difficult for him to cooperate with authorities. Because the government did not act improperly in withholding the substantial assistance motion and because it had no duty to inform Billings about the negative consequences of his incarceration, we affirm.

I. BACKGROUND

On September 2, 2004, Billings sold crack cocaine to a confidential informant in Champaign, Illinois. He was arrested for this conduct on August 5, 2005, and later indicted on one count of knowingly possessing with the intent to distribute more than 50 grams of crack cocaine, in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 841(a)(1).

At an August 3, 2006, hearing, Billings pled guilty. In doing so, he testified that he understood that because of two prior qualifying drug convictions, he faced a mandatory minimum sentence of life imprisonment unless the government moved for a downward departure based on his cooperation and assistance. See id. § 841(b)(1); 18 U.S.C. § 3553(e). The district judge promised he would sentence Billings to less than life imprisonment if the government moved for a downward departure, but the government stated that Billings had yet to cooperate. After the hearing, Billings and the government entered a cooperation agreement, the contents of which are not in the record.

On January 12, 2007, Billings appeared for his sentencing hearing. Billings's counsel asked to delay sentencing by sixty days to give Billings more time to cooperate. The government did not object to the extension but indicated that time was running out for Billings. The prosecutor in charge of the case described how Billings had failed to take advantage of a previous opportunity to cooperate before he had been incarcerated:

Prior to [filing the complaint], the government took the unusual step of asking agents to arrest the defendant without a warrant on probable cause so that we could speak with him without any public filing of charges about this very issue, the fact that he faced a mandatory sentence of life if he were to be charged and convicted, and we did that so that we could advise him of that likely scenario and to give him the opportunity without any disclosure to the public that we were giving him that opportunity.

And after meeting with him in my office and in, I believe, January of 2005, two years ago, we never heard from him again; and we ended up filing the complaint in February of 2005 and then spent the next six months looking for him, at which point in August of 2005 he was arrested.

The prosecutor also stated that although Billings had "made an attempt to meet with law enforcement once" after pleading guilty, "there was no information that [he] had provided that was of any assistance to [the agents] whatsoever."

On May 25, 2007, Billings appeared for the rescheduled sentencing hearing. A new prosecutor appeared on behalf of the government after being briefed on the case by the prosecutor in charge about an hour before the hearing. The new prosecutor stated that the government would not move for a downward departure because Billings's attempts to cooperate had not "risen to the level of substantial assistance." He remarked on Billings's extensive criminal history and stated that he was "struck" by the fact that Billings "managed at age 27 to have 10 children from six different women, all of whom will now be without a father." The new prosecutor also acknowledged that he could not provide any more details on the case because he was merely standing in for the prosecutor in charge of the case.

The judge then sentenced Billings to the mandatory minimum of life imprisonment. ...


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