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Reduction Denied in Federal Sentence for Drug Courier

Under federal sentencing guidelines, a drug courier is often eligible for a sentencing reduction due to his or her minor role and limited involvement.  The courier may not be aware of even the type of drug transported, the sender’s name or the actual recipient of the delivery.  This is not uncommon in case the courier is stopped so that the identities of others involved are not compromised.

It is rare, however, for the courier to be unaware of the quantity involved. 
In a Nutshell:  Cocaine courier’s sentence not reduced due to large quantity seized, which the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals considered as showing the courier was not a minor participant in the transportation of the cocaine.
In the case of Juan Felipe Rodriguez-Castro (“Rodriguez”), 33.46 kilograms – roughly 73 pounds - of cocaine was seized in the gas tank of a car driven by him over the Mexico-U.S. border.  Rodriguez admitted that he knew the drug was there, but did not know it was cocaine.  However, he also conceded that he accepted $3,500 to courier the drugs, that he was given the vehicle from a co-worker several weeks before for the purpose of moving the drugs across the border and that he crossed back-and-forth across the border to develop a Port of Entry record before the delivery date.

It stands to reason that Rodriguez must have realized that the street value of the drugs was many multiples of the fee he was paid. 

In other words, Rodriguez was not just handed the keys to a car at the last minute and asked to simply drive the car across the border for a couple thousand bucks.  He was involved in the planning, rehearsal and execution of the delivery.  He was an integral part of the delivery, if not the most important part.  He knew or should have known that he was not ferrying across 100 grams of something if he was being paid $3,500.

After being arrested and charged, Rodriguez pled guilty to a violation of 21 U.S.C. §§ 952 and 960 for his illegal importing of the drugs.  He was then sentenced to 57 months in federal prison.

image description
Rodriguez, who had no prior record in Mexico or the United States, appealed his sentence, contending that the U.S. District Court judge in San Diego (federal court) erred in declining to decrease his base offense level.  This meant that his sentence was longer than Rodriguez contended it should be for what he argued was a minor role.

The San Diego federal judge had ruled that during sentencing that Rodriguez failed to show he was a “minor participant,” even though the prosecutor recommended a two-level downward adjustment in the offense level, pursuant to U.S. Sentencing Guidelines § 3B1.2(b), which, if accepted by the judge, could have reduced his sentence to between 41 and 51 months.  The judge, however, rejected the recommendation.

image descriptionNinth Circuit Court of Appeal in Pasadena

Rodriguez then appealed.  The United States Ninth Circuit Court of Appeal, in U.S. v. Juan Felipe Rodriguez-Castro (2011) 641 F.3d 1189 (slip opinion 2011 DJDAR 8044), affirmed the trial court’s ruling.  In coming to this ruling, the Ninth Circuit emphasized Rodriguez’s role in preparing for the offense, as well as the large quantity of cocaine involved, which the Ninth Circuit commented would not normally be entrusted to a minor participant.

The Ninth Circuit also noted, in seemingly defending the trial court, that Rodriguez received 57 months, although he was eligible for between 57 months and 71 months for his offense level.  This suggested that were the Ninth Circuit to set aside the sentence and remand the case for further sentencing, Rodriguez ironically could receive a larger sentence if the trial court found alternate grounds to keep the same offense level instead of reducing it two levels like Rodriguez claimed he was so entitled.  In other words, the Ninth Circuit was hinting that Rodriguez was not only presumptuous, but unwise.

In short, the Ninth Circuit found that there were no grounds for reducing the sentence.  The 57-month prison term was affirmed.

The permanent cite for this case is People v. Juan Felipe Rodriguez-Castro (2011) 641 F.3d 1189.

For more information about sentencing in general, click on the following articles:
  1. Prison Sentence?  It May Be Served in County Jail under a New California Law
  2. Street Terrorism Sentence Stricken When Defendant Already Punished for Underlying Arson and Criminal Threats
  3. Court Vacates Sentence of 150 Years to Life by Dismissing Three Prior Strikes
For case summaries of selected drug offense cases our firm has handled, click here.

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