Seventh Circuit Vacates and Remands Sentence for Failure to Make Findings on Drug Dispute and Imposing a Sentence Above the Statutory Max: Barfield
Barfield pled guilty to drug trafficking and money laundering conspiracies. He was sentenced to concurrent terms of 27 years and 20 years on each conspiracy count. At sentencing, the parties disputed the total quantity of heroin sale attributed to Barfield. The PSR recommended that he be held accountable for 16 kilograms of heroin, which the probation officer adopted from the government’s version of the offense based on a codefendant’s grand jury testimony and plea agreements of other codefendants.
The crux of the government’s calculation was its conclusion that two bundles of heroin were sold at Barfield’s drug spot each day for the four-month conspiracy. Barfield objected and argued that the calculation was not supported by any reliable evidence. He argued that for each day of the conspiracy, he was responsible for only one bundle of heroin which amounted to no more than a total of 10 kilograms of heroin.
The district court summarily overruled Barfield’s objection to the heroin quantity proposed in the PSR, and concluded that there was enough information to support the 16-kilogram finding. Barfield appealed his sentence to the Seventh Circuit.
The court of appeals noted that district judges must support their rulings on factual disputes at sentencing with findings on the record. This rule is meant to protect a defendant’s right to be sentenced based on accurate information and provides a record of the disposition and resolution of controverted facts. The judge need only make an adequate record to satisfy the rule and afford adequate appellate review.
Here, however, the district court made no factual findings on the disputed heroin quantity, and the Seventh Circuit held the court’s ruling was otherwise insufficient to enable meaningful appellate review.
Judges need not “belabor the obvious” when ruling on factual disputes at sentencing, but they are required to explain why the government’s proffered evidence is accurate and reliable.” United States v. Jones, 56 F.4th 455, 510 (7th Cir. 2022). The Seventh Circuit further noted that its uncertainty about the judge’s drug-quantity ruling was furthered by a series of exchanges at the sentencing hearing suggesting confusion about the basic facts of the case. “These passages in the transcript g[a]ve [the Seventh Circuit] pause about [the district court’s] familiarity with parts of the record fundamental to the drug-quantity ruling-thus calling into question whether his inquiry into the reliability of the evidence was adequate.
In addition to the insufficient ruling on the drug quantity, the district court also erred in sentencing Barfield to 20 years on the money laundering conspiracy, which carries a statutory maximum sentence of 10 years. 18 U.S.C. 1956(h).
Barfield’s sentence was vacated and remanded to the district court for resentencing.