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United States v. Collins

United States Court of Appeals, Seventh Circuit

December 12, 2017

United States of America, Plaintiff-Appellee,
Maurice Collins, Defendant-Appellant.

          Argued November 17, 2015

         Appeal from the United States District Court for the Central District of Illinois. No. 14-cr-20032-01 - Colin S. Bruce, Judge.

          Before Flaum, Easterbrook, and Hamilton, Circuit Judges.


         Maurice Collins pled guilty to distributing cocaine and at least 28 grams of crack cocaine in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 841(a)(1). He was sentenced to 120 months in prison-the statutory minimum in light of a prior felony drug conviction. See § 841(b)(1)(B). On appeal Collins challenges the district court's decision at sentencing to add to his Sentencing Guidelines calculation two offense levels under U.S.S.G. § 3Bl.l(c) for his supervisory role in the offenses. While the guidelines have been advisory since United States v. Booker, 543 U.S. 220 (2005), this guideline decision had significant consequences under the terms of a statute that is mandatory not advisory. The supervisory role enhancement disqualified Collins from safety-valve relief from the statutory minimum sentence. See 18 U.S.C. § 3553(f)(4). We generally review a district court's determinations on the guidelines for aggravating and mitigating roles for clear error, e.g., United States v. Robertson, 662 F.3d 871, 876 (7th Cir. 2011); United States v. Herrera, 878 F.2d 997, 1000 (7th Cir. 1989), but if the court acted on the basis of a misunderstanding of the legal standard, we may need to remand for reconsideration under the proper legal standard. See Robertson, 662 F.3d at 876.

         This is an atypical drug case in which the judge based the role enhancement for defendant Collins on a legal error. Without any criminal organization or hierarchy, Collins's isolated, one-time request to another independent dealer to cover for him on a sale did not make him a supervisor or manager within the meaning of the guideline. See United States v. Figueroa, 682 F.3d 694, 697-98 (7th Cir. 2012); United States v. McGregor, 11 F.3d 1133, 1138-39 (2d Cir. 1993). We vacate the sentence and remand for resentencing.

         I. Factual and Procedural Background

         Over several months in 2013 and 2014, law enforcement used a confidential source to carry out three controlled buys of powder cocaine and one of crack cocaine after contacting Collins. He was charged with distributing cocaine and crack cocaine. Two of the controlled buys were very simple: the confidential source, monitored at all times by law enforcement agents, called Collins to buy cocaine, arranged to meet him, and bought the requested cocaine from him. There was no indication that anyone else was involved in those buys, and they do not affect the supervisory role issue.

         Our focus is on the other two controlled buys, which each involved one other person. At the time of the first, in November 2013, Collins was out of town. He wanted to accommodate the confidential source's request for one ounce of cocaine. He turned to a friend, Robert Palmer, apparently another street-level drug dealer. Palmer owed Collins an unspecified favor but operated independently on all other occasions. On this one occasion, Collins asked Palmer to do him a favor by picking up the cocaine, delivering it to the confidential source, and accepting payment for him. In his recorded proffer interview, Collins said that Palmer helped him "just that one time" - "It was a favor for a favor." The government did not offer evidence to contradict Collins's account.

         The last controlled buy occurred in April 2014. On that occasion, the source asked Collins for crack cocaine. Collins did not sell crack, but he knew someone who did. He sent the source to another dealer, T.G., in Danville, Illinois. Collins gave the confidential source the address and driving directions to T.G.'s house, and the source bought crack from T.G. There is no evidence that Collins profited from the sale or referral.

         Collins pled guilty to all counts without a plea agreement. The probation officer calculated a guideline sentence of 120 months-the statutory minimum under 21 U.S.C. § 841(b)(1)(B). Without the statutory minimum, Collins's guideline range would have been well below the statutory minimum.

         The court's calculation of Collins's guideline offense level included a two-level enhancement under U.S.S.G. § 3Bl.l(c) because the court found that "the defendant was an organizer, leader, manager, or supervisor in any criminal activity ... ." Under the statutory "safety valve, " a guideline adjustment for a supervisory role bars relief from a statutory mandatory minimum sentence. See 18 U.S.C. § 3553(f)(4). The statutory provision means that this supervisory role issue presents one of the few remaining situations after Booker where a guideline determination produces consequences that the sentencing court does not have discretion to reject or modify.

         The probation officer recommended a two-level upward adjustment under § 3B 1.1(c) because Collins "directed" both Palmer and T.G. to sell drugs to the confidential source. The probation officer also noted that Collins had given a safety-valve proffer interview, but that the case agents concluded that Collins had provided false information and minimized his actions. Because of his supervisory role and dishonesty, the probation officer recommended that Collins was not eligible for safety-valve relief. If that is correct, the statutory mandatory minimum applies and is also the guideline sentence for Collins.

         Collins objected to the role adjustment and denial of the safety valve. He argued that he did not "direct" either Palmer when he called upon him for a single favor or T.G. when he referred the confidential source to her on one occasion. These two incidents, he argued, were isolated and did not show that he exercised the necessary control or authority over either Palmer or T.G. needed for the role adjustment. Collins said that he lacked an ongoing relationship with either of the two; that neither worked for him; that he did not manage any larger "scheme"; and that, with regard to the referral to T.G., no evidence indicated that he profited in any way. Collins ...

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