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United States v. Syms

United States Court of Appeals, Seventh Circuit

January 17, 2017

United States of America, Plaintiff-Appellee,
Steven Syms, Defendant-Appellant.

          Argued September 27, 2016

         Appeal from the United States District Court for the Southern District of Illinois. No. 3:13-cr-30125-DRH-5 - David R. Herndon, Judge.

          Before BAUER, ROVNER, and HAMILTON, Circuit Judges.

          BAUER, Circuit Judge.

         This case involves a conspiracy to distribute cocaine in St. Louis, Missouri, and the surrounding area. One of the conspirators, Steven Syms, pleaded guilty to conspiracy to distribute and possess with intent to distribute cocaine, in violation of 21 U.S.C. §§ 841(a)(1), (b)(1)(A)(ii), and 846. The district court sentenced Syms to 151 months' imprisonment. On appeal, Syms argues that the mandatory minimum sentence contained in 21 U.S.C. § 841(b)(1)(A)(ii) violates the separation-of-powers doctrine. He also argues that the district court improperly based its drug-quantity calculation and sentencing enhancement on speculative and unreliable evidence, and further contends that he qualified for a safety valve reduction in his sentencing, and that his sentence violates the Eighth Amendment. For the reasons that follow, we affirm Syms' sentence.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Beginning in April 2011, multiple law enforcement agencies, including the Drug Enforcement Administration, Internal Revenue Service, and United States Marshals Service, began investigating a drug-trafficking operation based on information that Tyrone Carraway of St. Louis, Missouri, was supplying cocaine to brothers Cortez and Richard Yarbough of East St. Louis, Illinois. During the course of the investigation, agents gathered information and collected evidence through confidential informants, controlled buys of cocaine, witness interviews, surveillance, and searches. The investigation revealed that Carraway and coconspirator Richard Graham distributed cocaine to the Yarbough brothers, and other defendants and unidentified individuals.

         The ultimate source of Carraway and Graham's supply was Huey Jones of Houston, Texas. The intermediaries between Jones, Carraway, and Graham were Syms and coconspirator Antoine Meeks. Syms, Meeks, and an unindicted coconspirator, traveled to Houston to obtain cocaine from Jones. Syms also recruited Keith Harris to transport drugs and money between Houston and St. Louis; Harris transported the cocaine and money in the gas tank of the vehicles he drove to retrieve the drugs.

         On April 27, 2012, Harris' vehicle was searched during a traffic stop. The search revealed 40 packages that each contained around .5 kilograms of cocaine, for a total of 19.91 kilograms. A fingerprint analysis of the packages showed latent prints belonging to Syms, Meeks, Jones, and others.

         On October 14, 2012, agents conducted surveillance on Syms, Meeks, and another individual. Syms drove to a residence in St. Louis, at which time agents searched the vehicle, residence, and garage and recovered two packages that contained 982 grams of cocaine. At a post-arrest interview, Meeks revealed that he and Syms had traveled to Houston to obtain the drugs.

         On June 18, 2013, a grand jury charged Syms with conspiracy to distribute, and possession with intent to distribute five kilograms or more of cocaine in violation of 21 U.S.C. §§ 841(a)(1), 841(b)(1)(A)(ii), and 846. On June 27, 2013, Syms was arrested and released on a $10, 000 unsecured appearance bond. In a September 6, 2013, interview, Jones implicated Syms in several additional trips to Houston throughout 2011 obtaining a total of 41 kilograms of cocaine. Jones advised that the final shipment of cocaine was 19.91 kilograms that was seized by law enforcement, a shipment that Syms helped to deliver. Jones also stated that Syms sought to increase his role in the conspiracy and the amount of cocaine that was being transported so that he could sell it in St. Louis.

         Agents interviewed Harris on September 10, 2013, who described how Syms recruited him to be a courier for the drug-trafficking operation, and of Syms' involvement in the trips to Houston to obtain cocaine.

         Syms pleaded guilty to the one-count charge against him on August 28, 2014. The United States Probation Office prepared Syms' Presentence Investigation Report. It detailed the interview notes from Jones and Harris. Syms' PSR determined that he was responsible for conspiring with multiple defendants and others to possess and/or distribute 61.8 kilograms of cocaine. Although the amount contained in the indictment was 5 kilograms or more, the PSR, relying in part on statements from coconspirators, determined that Syms' relevant conduct was 61.8 kilograms of cocaine.

         Using the 2013 Guidelines Manual, the PSR recommended a base offense level of 36. The PSR applied a three-level enhancement, pursuant to U.S.S.G. § 3Bl.l(b), for being a manager or supervisor of a criminal activity involving five or more participants. Syms was credited for acceptance of responsibility, ...

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