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United States v. Hopper

United States Court of Appeals, Seventh Circuit

August 20, 2019

United States of America, Plaintiff-Appellee,
v.
Rex A. Hopper, Defendant-Appellant.

          Argued April 4, 2019

          Appeal from the United States District Court for the Southern District of Illinois. No. 4:17-cr-40034-JPG-1 - J. Phil Gilbert, Judge.

          Before Ripple, Hamilton, and St. Eve, Circuit Judges.

          Ripple, Circuit Judge

         In June 2017, a federal grand jury indicted Rex Hopper on one count of conspiracy to distribute methamphetamine, in violation of 21 U.S.C. §§ 841(a)(1), 841(b)(1)(B), 846 and 18 U.S.C. § 2. Mr. Hopper was part of a community of methamphetamine users and sellers in southern Illinois. Several of these individuals signed proffer letters with the Government, agreeing to provide testimony against Mr. Hopper in exchange for leniency. Most of these witnesses subsequently entered plea agreements.[1] Mr. Hopper, however, pleaded not guilty to the single count in the indictment and proceeded to trial before a jury in late February 2018.

         Over the course of three days, the Government presented the testimony of approximately twenty witnesses against Mr. Hopper. The district court denied Mr. Hopper's motion for disclosure of the proffer letters given to these witnesses. Following deliberations, the jury found Mr. Hopper guilty of conspiracy to distribute methamphetamine, as charged in the indictment, and returned a special verdict form finding that the conspiracy involved an amount of 50 grams or more.

         Based on interviews with other participants in the conspiracy, the probation office determined that Mr. Hopper's relevant conduct involved 1.968 kilograms of ice methamphetamine. This drug amount corresponded to a base offense level of 36. At sentencing, the district court determined that Mr. Hopper was subject to a two-level sentence enhancement for maintaining a residence for the purpose of distributing methamphetamine. Based on a total offense level of 38 and a criminal history category of I, the court calculated a guidelines imprisonment range of 235 to 293 months. The district court sentenced Mr. Hopper at the bottom of the guidelines range to 235 months' imprisonment, followed by four years of supervised release.[2]

         Mr. Hopper now challenges both his conviction and his sentence. First, we conclude that the Government presented sufficient evidence to prove that Mr. Hopper engaged in a conspiracy to distribute methamphetamine in southern Illinois, and that there was no material variance between the conspiracy charged in the indictment and the Government's proof at trial. Second, the district court did not err when it denied Mr. Hopper's motion for disclosure of the cooperating witnesses' proffer letters. Third, the district court properly concluded that Mr. Hopper was subject to a two-level sentence enhancement for maintaining his Creal Springs residence for the purpose of distributing methamphetamine. However, we conclude that the district court plainly erred when it calculated Mr. Hopper's relevant conduct and corresponding guidelines range. In context, it is clear that, in their separate interviews, Lucas Holland and Randall Riley were describing the same transactions. By including the amounts described by both Holland and Riley in the calculation of Mr. Hopper's relevant conduct, the presentence report ("PSR"), adopted by the district court, erroneously double-counted those drug quantities.

         For the foregoing reasons, we affirm Mr. Hopper's conviction for conspiracy to distribute methamphetamine. We also affirm the district court's determination that he was subject to a sentence enhancement for maintaining a drug premises. Because the court plainly erred in calculating his relevant conduct, however, we vacate Mr. Hopper's sentence and remand his case to the district court for resentencing.[3]

         I.

         BACKGROUND

         A.

         In April 2017, law enforcement officers executed a search warrant at Mr. Hopper's residence. They sought to recover items involved in a burglary. Officers observed drug paraphernalia and methamphetamine in plain view. Accordingly, the officers obtained and executed a second search warrant for the residence. Upon finding additional drug paraphernalia and methamphetamine in his home, officers took Mr. Hopper into custody. A federal grand jury later returned an indictment charging Mr. Hopper with one count of conspiracy to distribute methamphetamine, in violation of 18 U.S.C. §§ 841(a)(1), 841(b)(1)(B), and 846 and 18 U.S.C. § 2, in the Southern District of Illinois.

         B.

         Mr. Hopper was part of a community of methamphetamine users and sellers in southern Illinois. Around the time of his indictment, the Government also charged other members of this group with conspiracy to distribute methamphetamine. Several of these individuals received proffer letters from the Government and subsequently agreed to provide testimony against Mr. Hopper in exchange for leniency. Most of these witnesses later entered plea agreements. Mr. Hopper, however, pleaded not guilty to the single count in the indictment and proceeded to trial before a jury in late February 2018.

         Before the trial began, counsel for Mr. Hopper renewed a previous motion for disclosure of the proffer letters given to the witnesses who would testify against Mr. Hopper. Referencing our decision in United States v. Weidenburner, 550 Fed.Appx. 298 (7th Cir. 2013) (unpublished), counsel recognized that "[t]he Seventh Circuit has ruled that" proffer letters "are not materials that have to be provided."[4] Nevertheless, counsel wanted "the record to be clear" that he thought he "ought to be provided a copy" of the proffer letters.[5]

         Counsel for Mr. Hopper explained that the proffer letter "is an agreement that sets forth the ground rules" for what testimony "may or may not lead to a plea agreement."[6] He submitted that "this is a very important aspect of the defense" because "no plea agreements are offered until you proffer."[7] In other words, the proffer letters are "part of the process by which men and women ultimately find their way on to the stand to give testimony against a defendant."[8] As a result, counsel asserted, "if the[] jurors don't have some understanding of this process," the defense would be "really hampered in terms of our constitutional right[s] to put on a defense and ... to confront the witnesses through cross examination that are here to accuse Rex Hopper of various crimes."[9]

         Relying on our decision in Weidenburner, the Government responded that "the Seventh Circuit is clear that the proffer letters don't come in," nor does "any information about the proffer/' "because it is a preliminary step in the plea agreement, and then the plea agreement supersedes all that."[10]Turning to defense counsel, the court stated, "I think it is pretty clear that, you know, you are not going to get the documents."[11]

         The Government further noted its objection to defense counsel asking any questions about the process of entering a plea agreement. The court asked defense counsel what kind of questions he intended to ask the cooperating witnesses. Counsel explained that he wanted the jury to know that before entering a plea agreement, a witness had to meet with federal agents and "understood that agents would decide and the prosecutors would decide whether you told the truth, and if they didn't think you told the truth that a plea agreement would not be tendered."[12] Counsel acknowledged that he planned to review the terms of the plea agreements with each witness, but argued that the jury would be "missing a big part of this process" without the proffer letters.[13] Based on our decision in Weidenburner, the Government reiterated that the plea agreement "supersede[] the proffer letter" and is "the document which the defendant is entitled to and entitled to question witnesses about."[14] The court denied the motion for disclosure of the proffer letters and ruled that counsel could ask the witnesses "whether they've entered into a proffer agreement, but going into the terms of it that are super[s]eded by the plea agreement, I'm not going to let you do."[15]

         C.

         Mr. Hopper proceeded to trial before a jury on February 26, 2018. Over the course of three days, the Government presented the testimony of approximately twenty witnesses against Mr. Hopper. Set forth below is a summary of the witnesses and testimony relevant to this appeal.

         Dameon Williams testified that he met Mr. Hopper sometime in 2015 when they were "messing with drugs."[16] He obtained ice methamphetamine from Mr. Hopper "[o]ff and on" for about one year.[17] On these occasions, he received about one to two ounces of methamphetamine at a cost of $900 to $1200 per ounce. Williams stated that sometimes, he bought the drugs outright, while other times Mr. Hopper provided the drugs to him "on credit," or on a "front."[18] He explained that, in this fronting arrangement, Mr. Hopper provided Williams a quantity of drugs, some of which Williams sold to others in order to pay Mr. Hopper back. He further testified that Mr. Hopper called Williams occasionally and asked him to visit the homes of customers who owed Mr. Hopper money and bring them to Mr. Hopper's house to settle the debt. He explained that he helped Mr. Hopper collect money from his customers because Williams "was selling drugs for him" and "to help him out in his drug business."[19]

         Brooke Peyton testified that she met Mr. Hopper in 2016 when she was dating William, also known as "Andy," Karnes. With Karnes, she had visited Mr. Hopper's residence in Creal Springs, where Mr. Hopper provided ice methamphetamine to Karnes. She stated that during the summer of 2016, Mr. Hopper provided Karnes three to five "8-balls," or 3.5 gram quantities of ice methamphetamine, several times a week.[20] Karnes obtained the methamphetamine from Mr. Hopper "[o]n a front," in which he would sell drugs to others in order to pay Mr. Hopper back for the drugs he had obtained previously.[21] Peyton further testified that sometimes, Mr. Hopper came to her home to drop off methamphetamine for Karnes. On other occasions, he sent Williams to deliver the drugs.

         Robert Weir, also known as "Boog," testified that he and Mr. Hopper reconnected around April or May 2015. At some point, he, Mr. Hopper, Lucas Holland, and Randall Riley began an arrangement in which the four of them pooled their money together to purchase methamphetamine from a source in Cape Girardeau, Missouri. Sometimes, Weir gave Mr. Hopper his money, and Mr. Hopper drove to Murphysboro, where he gave Weir's and his money to Riley to purchase the drugs. Other times, Mr. Hopper gave Weir his money, and Weir delivered the money to Riley. Still other times, Weir and Mr. Hopper visited Riley together. After Riley obtained the drugs from Cape Girardeau, the group divided the methamphetamine into equal, one-ounce shares. Weir stated that he paid about $800 to $900 per ounce of methamphetamine. This arrangement lasted about a month, during which the group obtained methamphetamine two to three times per week.

         In March 2016, police arrested Riley. Weir and Mr. Hopper then arranged to pool their money with Holland to purchase methamphetamine. Holland took their money and ran, and they never got their drugs. Additionally, Weir acknowledged that he had personally observed Mr. Hopper distribute methamphetamine to other individuals.

         Lucas Holland testified that, at the beginning of 2016, he had been living at Riley's house for about four or five months. Holland confirmed the details of the pooling arrangement he engaged in with Mr. Hopper, Riley, and Weir to purchase methamphetamine from a source in Cape Girardeau. He reiterated that Mr. Hopper or Weir, or sometimes the two together, came to Riley's house to deliver their money. Holland and Riley then drove to Cape Girardeau to obtain the methamphetamine. When Holland and Riley returned to Illinois, the group of four split up the drugs. According to Holland, this arrangement lasted from about December 2015 to February 2016.

         Holland testified that, on one occasion, he traveled to Cape Girardeau with Riley, Mr. Hopper, and Erin Wright, Mr. Hopper's girlfriend, for a drug deal that Mr. Hopper had arranged. The group pooled their money, and Mr. Hopper gave it to an individual in Cape Girardeau. In addition, Holland confirmed that a few days after police arrested Riley, Mr. Hopper and Weir gave him money to purchase drugs. He acknowledged that he "ran off with it."[22] Holland also testified that he had observed Mr. Hopper sell methamphetamine to individuals, including Kevin Shuman, at his home in Creal Springs.

         Randall Riley testified that he met Mr. Hopper around the end of 2015 or early 2016 through a mutual acquaintance when Mr. Hopper was seeking methamphetamine. Riley confirmed that eventually, he, Mr. Hopper, Holland, and Weir began a pooling arrangement in which they combined their money to purchase methamphetamine from a source in Cape Girardeau. According to Riley, the group bought four ounces of methamphetamine every day and split the drugs between the four of them. Either Mr. Hopper, Weir, or both came to Riley's home with $2, 200 for Mr. Hopper and Weir's shares. Riley and Holland drove to Missouri to obtain the drugs. When they returned, they met either at Riley's home or at Mr. Hopper's residence in Creal Springs to divide up the drugs.

         Riley confirmed that on one occasion, his source was unavailable, so Mr. Hopper arranged a transaction with his own source. He, Riley, Holland, and Wright drove to Cape Girardeau, where Mr. Hopper gave the source the money they had pooled together.

         Blake Gordon testified that he met Mr. Hopper through Weir. According to Gordon, he sold methamphetamine to Mr. Hopper "more than ten times."[23] On such occasions, he provided Mr. Hopper methamphetamine in amounts ranging from one to fourteen grams. He also stated that "on numerous occasions/' he drove Mr. Hopper around the southern Illinois area to deliver drugs to his customers.[24] Gordon described one occasion in which he, Mr. Hopper, and Weir pooled their money together. Weir drove to Cape Girardeau to obtain the methamphetamine, which they divided among the three of them when he returned to Illinois.

         Crystal Boulton testified that in March 2016, she and her children were living at Riley's home with Riley, her boyfriend, as well as Holland and his girlfriend. She stated that she personally observed Mr. Hopper obtain methamphetamine from Riley at Riley's residence about four or five times. On such occasions, Mr. Hopper paid Riley for the methamphetamine and Riley gave Boulton the money to count. She counted about $1, 000 to $1, 200 per ounce of methamphetamine. Boulton also overheard discussions between Riley and Mr. Hopper about pooling their money together and making trips to Cape Girardeau to obtain methamphetamine.

         Erin Wright testified that she met Mr. Hopper in September 2015 and moved in with him at his home in Creal Springs soon after. She confirmed that Mr. Hopper and Weir went to Riley's house to get drugs. Usually, Mr. Hopper returned with an ounce of methamphetamine. She stated that Mr. Hopper had scales at his Creal Springs home, which he used to weigh drugs. She further testified that, sometimes, Riley and Holland came to the Creal Springs home to do business with Mr. Hopper. She described one occasion on which she and Mr. Hopper went to Kansas City, Missouri, where Mr. Hopper and an individual named Jason Clapp obtained methamphetamine. Wright stated that there were also a few times when Clapp came to the Creal Springs residence to provide Mr. Hopper with methamphetamine.

         William Craig testified that he knew Mr. Hopper through Weir. He bought methamphetamine from Mr. Hopper about ten or fifteen times. On such occasions, he obtained methamphetamine in quantities up to eight ounces. When Craig obtained the methamphetamine for himself, Mr. Hopper would not charge him. When Craig purchased the methamphetamine to deliver to others, he paid Mr. Hopper in cash. Craig stated that on one occasion, after Mr. Hopper and Weir pooled their money together, Craig drove with Weir to Charleston, Missouri, to purchase methamphetamine. They returned to Mr. Hopper's home, where Mr. Hopper and Weir divided the drugs. Craig also confirmed that he had seen Mr. Hopper sell methamphetamine at his home to Kevin Page and to Andy Karnes on multiple occasions.

         Kevin Shuman testified that he had known Mr. Hopper for years. He moved in with Mr. Hopper at his Creal Springs home and lived there in December 2015 and January 2016. Initially, he obtained "small amounts" of methamphetamine, ranging from "seven grams to an 8-ball," from Mr. Hopper.[25] Shuman bought the drugs "on a front," explaining that he sold drugs in order to repay Mr. Hopper for previously purchased quantities of methamphetamine.[26] He recalled two occasions on which he drove Mr. Hopper to Jackson, Missouri, to obtain methamphetamine. When they returned home, Mr. Hopper gave Shuman drugs in return for driving.

         After a brief term in jail in early 2016, Shuman returned, and the quantities he bought from Mr. Hopper increased from grams to ounces of methamphetamine. The two had an arrangement in which Mr. Hopper placed methamphetamine for Shuman in the garage. Shuman, who was no longer living with Mr. Hopper, retrieved the drugs from the garage and left in their place the money he owed Mr. Hopper for previously fronted methamphetamine. Shuman further testified that he drove Mr. Hopper around southern Illinois to deliver methamphetamine to his customers.

         D.

         At the close of the Government's case in chief, counsel for Mr. Hopper moved for a judgment of acquittal under Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 29, which the court denied. Mr. Hopper elected not to testify, and the defense rested its case. Following jury instructions and closing arguments, the jury retired to deliberate. Approximately an hour later, the court received a note from the jury stating, "Pages 17 21 are confusing us as to the definition of 'conspiracy.'"[27] Page 17 of the jury instructions stated that:

A conspiracy is an express or implied agreement between two or more persons to commit a crime. A conspiracy may be proven even if its goal was not accomplished.
In deciding whether the charged conspiracy existed, you may consider all of the circumstances, including the words and acts of each of the alleged participants.[28]

         Page 21 of the jury instructions stated that:

A conspiracy requires more than just a buyer-seller relationship between the defendant and another person. In addition, a buyer and seller of a mixture and substance containing methamphetamine do not enter into a conspiracy to distribute a mixture and substance containing methamphetamine simply because the buyer resells the [] mixture and substance containing methamphetamine to others, even if the seller knows that the buyer intends to resell the [] mixture and substance containing methamphetamine.
To establish that a seller knowingly became a member of a conspiracy with a buyer to distribute a mixture and substance containing methamphetamine, the government must prove that the buyer and seller had the joint criminal objective of distributing a mixture and substance containing methamphetamine to others. I[29])

         After conferring with the parties, the court responded to the jury, "All instructions should be read together. I cannot give you any more instruction other than what you have been given."[30] Following further deliberations, the jury reached a verdict, finding Mr. Hopper guilty of conspiracy to distribute methamphetamine, as charged in the indictment. The jury returned a special verdict form finding that the conspiracy involved an amount of 50 grams or more.

         E.

         Prior to Mr. Hopper's sentencing, the probation office prepared a PSR. To determine the scope of his relevant conduct, the probation office interviewed several witnesses with knowledge of the conspiracy. Based on these interviews, the initial PSR determined that Mr. Hopper had a base offense level of 36, which corresponds to offenses involving "at least 1.5 kilograms but less than 4.5 kilograms of ice."[31] Specifically, according to the PSR, the conspiracy involved 1.968 kilograms of ice methamphetamine.

         To calculate Mr. Hopper's relevant conduct, the PSR totaled the drug amounts described in four separate interviews with other participants in the conspiracy. In particular:

On August 24, 2016, Lucas Holland participated in an interview with investigating agents. Holland divulged that he received four ounces of ice every day for a month from Randall Riley; of the four ounces, he would give the defendant one ounce on each occasion. (30 ounces = 850 grams)[32]
On February 14, 2017, Randall Riley was interviewed by investigating agents. Riley stated that from January through March, he sold one ounce of ice every day to the defendant for $1, 100. (28 days [February] x 28.35 grams = 793 grams)[33]
On May 4, 2017, Erin Wright participated in an interview with agents. ... Wright stated she traveled with Hopper on ten occasions to pick up ice from Gary Mims in Cape Girardeau. She stated on average, they would obtain an ounce of ice per visit (10 ounces or 283.5 grams of ice). [34]
On July 19, 2017, Erin Wright was interviewed] by investigating agents. According to Wright, the defendant purchased ice from Robert Weir from October or November 2015 until Weir was arrested in March 2016. Wright estimated that the defendant would purchase 3.5 grams to 28 grams per week, conservatively. (12 weeks [December-February] x 3.5 grams = 42 grams)[35]

         The PSR explained that Mr. Hopper's "relevant conduct is outlined in bold above and involves the amounts obtained by the defendant, which he then distributed to others."[36]Further, the PSR noted that "[t]he amount of ice that the defendant distributed was not counted to avoid double counting."[37] Adding the drug amounts described above, the PSR totaled Mr. Hopper's relevant conduct to be 1.968 kilograms of ice methamphetamine.

         The initial PSR awarded Mr. Hopper a two-level sentence reduction for acceptance of responsibility. Based on a total offense level of 34 and a criminal history category of I, the PSR calculated a guidelines imprisonment range of 151 to 188 months. Mr. Hopper filed an objection to the initial PSR, challenging the sentence reduction for acceptance of responsibility.[38] He asserted that he had "neither denied, nor admitted, any ... involvement" in the conspiracy.[39] He also stated that he "understood] that this objection [would] doom any opportunity he might have at the two-level [acceptance of responsibility] reduction."[40] He submitted that, as a result, his total offense level was 36 and the proper guidelines range was 188 to 235 months' imprisonment.

         Consequently, the probation office filed a revised PSR, which removed the acceptance of responsibility reduction. Based on a total offense level of 36 and a criminal history category of I, the revised PSR calculated a guidelines imprisonment range of 188 to 235 months. The Government filed an objection to the revised PSR, contending that Mr. Hopper was subject to a two-level sentence enhancement for maintaining a residence for the purpose of distributing methamphetamine. See XJ.S.S.G. § 2D1.1(b)(12).

         Accordingly, the probation office filed a second revised PSR, adopting the Government's recommendation that Mr. Hopper was subject to the two-level sentence enhancement for maintaining a drug premises. Based on a total offense level of 38 and a criminal history category of I, the second revised PSR calculated a guidelines imprisonment range of 235 to 293 months. Mr. Hopper filed an objection to the second revised PSR, challenging the application of the drug premises enhancement. He maintained that, consistent with the first revised PSR, his total offense level was 36 and his guidelines imprisonment range was 188 to 235 months.

         The district court conducted a hearing to impose its sentence. At the outset, the court asked whether there were any objections to the PSR other than Mr. Hopper's challenge to the application of the drug premises enhancement. Both sets of counsel stated that there were not. The court then turned to the sentence enhancement.

         The Government introduced additional testimony from Wright, Mr. Hopper's former girlfriend. She testified that she had lived with Mr. Hopper at his Creal Springs home from about October 2015 until May 2017. She acknowledged that, during this time, she saw methamphetamine at the residence. She elaborated that "[i]t was always there" and that she saw drugs in the home "[p]retty much every day."[41] Wright testified that after Mr. Hopper obtained methamphetamine from others, he brought it back to the Creal Springs house. She further stated that she saw Mr. Hopper distribute methamphetamine from the residence. She said that this occurred "[t]hroughout the week" and that "each week there was some sort of activity going on" involving methamphetamine.[42] Wright acknowledged that Mr. Hopper collected money from individuals who bought methamphetamine at his home. She testified that he had drug scales at the house, which he used "[t]o weigh out the product."[43] She estimated that, while she lived with him, Mr. Hopper distributed methamphetamine from his residence approximately "[w]eekly."[44] She added, however, that toward the end of their time living together, Mr. Hopper's drug selling diminished and he was "just using."[45]

         The court inquired what Mr. Hopper did for a living. Wright explained that Mr. Hopper had received a monetary settlement after working in the coal mines. Subsequently, he had a "side business" buying and selling cars, and he dealt drugs.[46] Wright acknowledged that Mr. Hopper did not "officially work."[47]

         Based on the testimony introduced at trial and at sentencing, the court concluded that Mr. Hopper stored methamphetamine at and distributed it from the Creal Springs residence. Given Wright's testimony that this occurred weekly over an extended period of time, the court determined that the distribution was "more than just incidental or collateral."[48] Accordingly, the court overruled Mr. Hopper's objection and concluded that he was subject to the two-level enhancement for maintaining a residence for the purpose of distributing methamphetamine.

         Noting that there were no other objections, the court adopted the findings of the PSR as the findings of the court. This included the finding that the conspiracy involved between 1.5 and 4.5 kilograms of ice methamphetamine, specifically 1.968 kilograms, which corresponded to a base offense level of 36. Given its conclusion regarding the two-level drug premises enhancement, the court determined that Mr. Hopper had a total offense level of 38. With a criminal history category of I, the court concluded that his corresponding guidelines imprisonment range was 235 to 293 months.

         Neither party objected to the court's guideline range findings. The Government recommended a sentence near or at the top of the guidelines range, while counsel for Mr. Hopper recommended a sentence of 188 months. Based on the information in the PSR, the factors set forth in 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a), and the arguments of Mr. Hopper's counsel, the court sentenced Mr. Hopper at the bottom of the guidelines range to 235 months' imprisonment, followed by four years of supervised release. At the conclusion of the hearing, the court asked defense counsel, "Are there any other arguments I have not considered?"[49] Counsel for Mr. Hopper responded that there were not. Following the entry of final judgment, Mr. Hopper filed a timely notice of appeal.

         II.

         DISCUSSION

         Mr. Hopper raises four arguments on appeal. First, he asserts that the evidence presented at trial was insufficient to support his conviction for conspiracy to distribute methamphetamine and that, even if the Government established the existence of multiple, smaller conspiracies, there was a fatal variance between the single, overarching conspiracy alleged in the indictment and the Government's proof at trial. Second, he contends that the district court erred when it denied his motion for disclosure of the cooperating witnesses' proffer letters. Third, he challenges the district court's application of a two-level sentence enhancement for maintaining a drug premises. Finally, he submits that the district court erred in calculating his guidelines range because, in determining Mr. Hopper's relevant conduct, it double-counted the drug transactions described by Holland and Riley.

         A.

         1.

         We begin with Mr. Hopper's attack on the sufficiency of the evidence. United States v. Douglas, 874 F.2d 1145, 1150 (7th Cir. 1989), abrogated on other grounds by United States v. Durrive, 902 F.2d 1221 (7th Cir. 1990).[50] He contends that there was insufficient evidence to support his conviction for conspiracy to distribute methamphetamine because the Government proved only a series of buyer-seller relationships. He preserved this argument by moving for a judgment of acquittal at the close of all evidence, so we review his claim de novo. United States v. Claybrooks, 729 F.3d 699, 704 (7th Cir. 2013).

         A defendant's burden in showing the evidence was insufficient to support a conviction is indeed a high one. See United States v. Rollins, 544 F.3d 820, 835 (7th Cir. 2008). In attempting to describe that burden, we often have said that the burden is a direct function of the strength of the Government's case. See United States v. Garcia, 919 F.3d 489, 496-97 (7th Cir. 2019); United States v. Jones, 713 F.3d 336, 339 (7th Cir. 2013). Because "[w]e accord great deference to jury verdicts," United States v. Brown, 726 F.3d 993, 1004-05 (7th Cir. 2013) (internal quotation marks omitted), "[w]e will overturn a conviction on sufficiency-of-the-evidence grounds only if no rational jury could have found the essential elements of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt," United States v. Johnson, 592 F.3d 749, 754 (7th Cir. 2010). "In making this determination, we view all evidence and draw all reasonable inferences in the light most favorable to the prosecution." Id. See Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U.S. 307, 319 (1979), superseded on other grounds by statute, Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, Pub. L. No. 104-132, 110 Stat. 1214 (1996) (stating standard of proof in criminal cases). C.f. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 252-53 (1986) (comparing methodology in adjudicating a motion for judgment of acquittal in a criminal case with a motion for summary judgment in a civil case).

         "To convict a defendant of conspiracy, the government must prove that (1) two or more people agreed to commit an unlawful act, and (2) the defendant knowingly and intentionally joined in the agreement." Johnson, 592 F.3d at 754. "For a drug-distribution conspiracy, the government must prove that the defendant knowingly agreed -either implicitly or explicitly-with someone else to distribute drugs." Claybrooks, 729 F.3d at 704 (internal quotation marks omitted).

         Our cases "have underscored that ordinary drug transactions do not entail or reflect a conspiracy, for the buyer's only purpose is to buy and the seller's only purpose is to sell: the buyer and seller lack a shared criminal goal." United States v. Neal, 907 F.3d 511, 515 (7th Cir. 2018) (per curiam). In other words, "evidence of a buyer-seller relationship, standing alone, is insufficient to support a conspiracy conviction." United States v. Townsend, 924 F.2d 1385, 1394 (7th Cir. 1991). Instead, we require "[e]vidence of an agreement to advance further distribution-beyond the initial transaction." United States v. Vulgar, 789 F.3d 807, 812 (7th Cir. 2015). "The government may prove the existence of this agreement through circumstantial evidence." Claybrooks, 729 F.3d at 704-05.

         A "nonexhaustive list of characteristics that strongly distinguish a conspiracy from a buyer-seller relationship" includes:

"sales on credit or consignment, an agreement to look for other customers, a payment of commission on sales, an indication that one party advised the other on the conduct of the other's business, or an agreement to warn of future threats to each other's business stemming from competitors or law enforcement authorities."

United States v. Pereira, 783 F.3d 700, 704 (7th Cir. 2015) (quoting Johnson, 592 F.3d at 755-56). "We employ a totality-of-the-circumstances approach in these cases/' "'tak[ing] into account all the evidence surrounding the alleged conspiracy and mak[ing] a holistic assessment of whether the jury reached a reasonable verdict.'" Vulgar, 789 F.3d at 813 (quoting Brown, 726 F.3d at 1002).

         In this case, the Government presented sufficient evidence for a reasonable jury to conclude that Mr. Hopper entered an agreement to distribute methamphetamine in southern Illinois. Our conclusion is supported by evidence that Mr. Hopper sold methamphetamine on credit, or "fronted" it, to his co-conspirators and that he engaged in pooling arrangements with other co-conspirators to purchase large quantities of methamphetamine for further distribution.

         Evidence of repeated, "fronted" transactions can be compelling circumstantial evidence of an agreement to distribute drugs because it demonstrates that the defendant "had knowingly thrown his lot in" with other members of the conspiracy. United States v. Dortch, 5 F.3d 1056, 1070 (7th Cir. 1993) (internal quotation marks omitted). In a fronting arrangement, "the seller becomes the buyer's creditor, adding a dimension to the relationship that goes beyond a spot sale for cash." United States v. Colon, 549 F.3d 565, 569 (7th Cir. 2008). Such a relationship indicates that the defendant "had a keen interest" in his co-conspirators' "success at reselling" the drugs. Dortch, 5 F.3d at 1070. Although "not all credit sales can support an inference that there was an agreement to distribute," "when a credit sale is coupled with certain characteristics inherent in an ongoing wholesale buyer-seller relationship-i.e., large quantities of drugs, repeat purchases[, ] or some other enduring arrangement-the credit sale becomes sufficient evidence to distinguish a conspiracy from a nonconspiratorial buyer-seller relationship." Johnson, 592 F.3d at 756 n.5 (internal quotation marks omitted).

         At Mr. Hopper's trial, the Government presented evidence that he fronted methamphetamine to Williams, Shuman, and Karnes. Williams testified that he obtained about one to two ounces of ice methamphetamine from Mr. Hopper "[o]ff and on" for about one year.[51] He stated that sometimes, he bought the drugs outright, while other times, Mr. Hopper provided the drugs to him "on credit," or on a "front."[52] Williams explained that, in this fronting arrangement, Mr. Hopper provided him a quantity of drugs, some of which Williams sold to others in order to pay Mr. Hopper back for previously fronted drugs. Williams further testified that occasionally, Mr. Hopper called Williams and asked him to bring customers who owed Mr. Hopper money to Mr. Hopper's house to settle their debt. ...


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