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Seventh Circuit Vacates Guilty Pleas Based on Misinformation of Mandatory Minimum

by David M. Reutter

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit vacated the sentences imposed via plea agreements of two defendants due to errors regarding the mandatory minimum sentences they would have faced. The Court held that their prior state convictions were not prior drug convictions under federal law. It affirmed the sentences of three other co-defendants.

Before the Court were appeals of five defendants who faced charges related to their involvement in the Zamudio drug organization, which distributed pounds of methamphetamine and cocaine in the Indianapolis, Indiana, area. Their arrests and indictments came after federal agents executed approximately 40 search warrants. The searches netted over 70 firearms, about 15 pounds of methamphetamine, smaller quantities of cocaine, marijuana, and heroin along with cash. At least 80 people were indicted.

The Seventh Circuit found the district court properly applied the supervisory role enhancement aggravator to Maria Gonzalez. The evidence showed she was a leader who laundered the organization’s money. Her 300-month sentence was affirmed.

Reynold De La Torre challenged on appeal conditions of his supervised release, but the Seventh Circuit found they were waived because he did not object to them in the district court. It also found the below-Guideline 225-month sentence, which was 37 months below the Guidelines, imposed upon Adrian Bennett, was reasonable.

The Seventh Circuit applied a plain error review to the appeals of Christian Chapman and Jeffrey Rush. They argued their guilty pleas were involuntarily entered into because their plea agreements were based on errors regarding the mandatory minimum sentences they would have faced if their prior offenses were not drug offenses under federal law. Initially, they faced mandatory life sentences, but they opted to reach plea agreements with the Government to allege only one prior drug offense, which lowered the mandatory minimum sentence.

Under 21 U.S.C. § 841(b)(1)(A), the mandatory minimum sentence for the offenses Chapman and Rush pleaded to is 10 years, and it increases to 20 years if they were convicted of a “prior conviction for a felony drug offense.” The Seventh Circuit said it applies the categorical approach, wherein it is the elements that matter, not the defendant’s underlying conduct, to determine whether state law meets the federal definition of a “felony drug offense.”

The Government conceded on appeal that Chapman’s two prior 1993 Illinois convictions for felony unlawful possession of controlled substances do not qualify as predicate offenses.

Removing them and counting a 2000 Indiana conviction as a qualifying predicate drug offense lowered the mandatory minimum to 20 years. If the Indiana conviction was disqualified, a 10-year mandatory minimum would apply.

The district court expressed, as he did in Rush’s case, that the 300-month sentence seemed “greater than necessary.” The Seventh Circuit found that removal of the improper mandatory minimum calculation demonstrates that “Chapman may be unnecessarily deprived of his liberty and may spend more time in jail than necessary.”

The Court also found that Rush’s 2001 Indiana conviction for dealing in a Schedule I or III controlled substance was not a predicate felony drug offense under federal law. The difference was that the federal law defines the term “isomer” to mean “the optical isomer.” It also found the Indiana statue reaches at least two other substances not included in federal law. As such, Rush’s Indiana conviction cannot qualify as a prior felony drug offense under federal law since the state law is “categorically broader than the federal definition of felony drug offense,” and as this impacted the applicable mandatory minimum at the plea agreement, his plea was involuntarily entered.

Accordingly, the Court vacated Chapman and Rush’s guilty pleas. The sentences of Gonzalez, De La Torre, and Bennett were affirmed. See: United States v. De La Torre, 940 F.3d 938 (7th Cir. 2019). 

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Related legal case

United States v. De La Torre



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