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Seventh Circuit: Unsupported CI Statements Insufficient to Justify Higher Drug Quantity for Sentencing

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit held on January 28, 2020, that the unsupported statements by confidential informants (“CI”) about drug amounts and transactions outside the direct criminal charges were not enough to support a sentence based on a drug total 32 times higher than the actual drugs seized.

There was no dispute in this case that police seized 143 kg of marijuana and two firearms from Joel Helding’s car and apartment. They also found methamphetamine residue on some digital scales. What was in dispute was how the sentencing judge, William Conley of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin, took the word of CIs which the Presentence Report (“PSR”) used to increase the total drug amount for sentencing to impose a higher sentence.

Helding was charged with possessing with intent to distribute more than 100 kg of marijuana, under 21 U.S.C. § 841(a), and possessing a firearm in furtherance of a drug trafficking crime, under 18 U.S.C. § 924(c). The charges were brought after a CI told Wisconsin police that Helding was transporting drugs into the state. Helding pleaded guilty to both counts, which exposed him to a minimum of 15 years in prison – 10 for the drugs, plus five for the firearms, to run consecutively.

However, drug quantities drive sentencing in drug cases, and Helding’s case provided a stark illustration of how things can escalate in drug sentencing. In this case, the CIs said they had received or purchased large amounts of methamphetamine from Helding in the past. This information was then passed on to the probation officer writing Helding’s PSR. That 143 kg of marijuana quickly jumped to 4,679.7 kg of marijuana, once the methamphetamine was converted to the “marijuana equivalent” under the Federal U.S. Sentencing Guidelines (“USSG”). That amount was 32 times higher than what Helding was actually found in possession.

Helding properly objected to the PSR’s use of the uncorroborated statements to push his drug amount through the roof. He argued that the case did not involve any controlled buys with the CIs and that the only methamphetamine tied to the case was the residue on the scales that he said was for personal use.

But Judge Conley disagreed. “Both confidential informants were able to provide specific information related to the defendant’s involvement in sales of drugs, including dates and quantities,” he said. “Absent contrary evidence, therefore, I overrule that objection.”

On appeal, the Seventh Circuit recognized that USSG § 1B1.3(a)(1)(B) allows a sentencing court to consider “relevant conduct” when crafting a sentence. This includes considering drug amounts that are attributed to a defendant by way of CI testimony.

But that CI’s statements must be corroborated. This is usually done by law enforcement describing to the court a CI’s past work with them, the CI’s criminal history, the reliability of the CI in the past, or reasons why law enforcement deems the CI to be trustworthy.

Here, none of that happened, the Seventh Circuit noted. Instead, the district court simply took the CIs’ statements as credible based on the specificity of the information in the PSR. “But specificity alone, in the face of a defendant’s objection, does not make information reliable,” the Court said.

The Government, nonetheless, argued that the error was “harmless” since Helding was a career offender. And indeed the PSR said he was a career offender, and his GSR wasn’t driven by the drug amounts — at least not in the PSR. But, the Seventh Circuit pointed out, the district court imposed a sentence “driven almost exclusively by the guidelines range resulting from the drug quantity finding.” The Court concluded that “we cannot agree that any error with the drug quantity finding was harmless.”

The Court also took a moment to address due process concerns with a sentencing court using uncharged and uncorroborated conduct at sentencing. “Reliability is a central ingredient of the due process analysis,” the Court said. A sentencing judge may rely on a PSR — but only if it is “well-supported and appears reliable.”

The Court reiterated that when a PSR asserts “nothing but a naked or unsupported charge, the defendant’s denial of that information suffices to cast doubt on its accuracy.” In other words, if a defendant objects to uncharged or uncorroborated information in the PSR, the sentencing court must ensure it’s reliable.

Though the threshold is low to prove a PSR’s information is reliable, the Court restated that a CI’s out-of-court statement without any further support is not enough to get over that bar.

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Related legal case

United States v. Helding



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