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Ninth Circuit Remands For Resentencing and Consideration of Minor Role Adjustment: Rodriguez

Rodriguez submitted that he played a minor role in the drug trafficking organization and should have his sentence adjusted.

FACTS:  Rodriguez Accused of Drug Smuggling, Denied Minor Role Reduction by Court

In August 2020, Rodriguez was asked if he was willing to smuggle drugs into the United States in return for a few thousand dollars. Rodriguez agreed and was provided with drugs already loaded into it and instructed to cross the border and await further instructions about where to deliver the vehicle. At no time was Rodriguez told the type or quantity of drugs stashed in the car.

As Rodriguez was attempting to cross the border, law enforcement inspected the vehicle and discovered over 33 kilograms of methamphetamine. Rodriguez was subsequently charged with importing methamphetamine, in violation of 21 U.S.C. 952, 960. Rodriguez pled guilty to the charge and urged the district court at sentencing to reduce his offense level because his role in the offense was minor. U.S.S.G. 3B1.2(b). The U.S. Probation Officer agreed, but the government argued against the adjustment. The district court ultimately denied Rodriguez’ request for a minor role adjustment and sentenced him to seven-and-a-half years imprisonment.

On appeal before the Ninth Circuit, Rodriguez argued that the district court erred in failing to apply the two-level downward adjustment for minor role. Comment 5 to U.S.S.G. 3B1.2(b) notes that to be eligible for the reduction, a defendant must be “substantially less culpable than the average participant in the criminal activity.” Further, the U.S. Sentencing Commission passed Amendment 794 which further clarified when a minor role adjustment was proper.

The Commission provided five factors district courts should consider when determining whether to apply the adjustment:

(1) the degree to which the defendant understood the scope and structure of the criminal activity;
(2) the degree to which the defendant participated in planning or organizing the criminal activity;
(3) the degree to which the defendant exercise decision-making authority or influenced the exercise of decision-making-authority;
(4) the nature and extent of the defendant’s participation in the commission of the criminal activity; and
(5) the degree to which the defendant stood to benefit from the criminal activity.

Holding:  Courts Must Consider all Five Factors to Determine Whether to Apply a Mitigating Role Adjustment

Since Amendment 794, the Ninth Circuit has held the district courts must consider all five factors to determine whether to apply a mitigating-role adjustment. Here, the district court analyzed each of the five factors in the case, and concluded that the first, second, and fifth factors weighed against Rodriguez, the third weighed in Rodriguez’ favor, and it was unclear how the court ruled on the fourth factor.

The Ninth Circuit found that the district court first erred by determining that Rodriguez’ recruiter’s culpability was irrelevant to determining whether Rodriguez’ role in the offense was minor. The court found that each co-participant’s culpability affects the minor role analysis, and the district court’s analysis to the contrary was erroneous.

Second, the appellate court concluded that the district court appeared to treat each of the five factors as a binary choice: either the factor was satisfied and it weighed against a reduction or it was not and weighed in favor of a reduction. However, the Ninth Circuit held that the courts must analyze the degree to which each factor applied, not simply whether the defendant “understood the scope and structure,” “participated in planning or organizing,” or “stood to benefit” from the offense.

The court then proceeded to consider each of the five factors and the district court’s analysis. As to the first, second, and fifth factors, the Ninth Circuit held that the district court plainly misunderstood or misinterpreted each factor which the court believed weighed against granting Rodriguez a minor role reduction.

Finding that the district court erred in its minor role analysis, the Ninth Circuit vacated Rodriguez’ sentence and remanded for resentencing for the district court to perform a proper analysis of the 3B1.2(b) factors.

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