7th Circuit orders lower court to consider a minor participant reduction

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The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals vacated a man’s lengthy sentence for transporting drug money because the District Court needs to determine whether the man should receive a minor participant reduction since he only transported money one time.

A jury convicted Cruz Saenz, a long-haul truck driver, of conspiring to distribute more than 5 kilograms of cocaine. Saenz was recruited by a cocaine drug ring to transport money owed for drugs that had been fronted. Saenz knew he was picking up the drug money for transport, but didn’t know how much was in the duffle bag. It was the only time he participated with the cocaine distribution network. He was arrested soon after.

The District Court sentenced him to 293 months in prison. He was required to have a minimum 240 months in prison because of a previous felony drug offense, and the court found he was involved in the conspiracy beyond the single incident and denied his request for a minor participant reduction.

But there was no evidence in the record Saenz had any other involvement beyond the one-time transport of the money, the Circuit Court judges found in United States of America v. Cruz Saenz, No. 09-3647. The lower court said he was a “major participant” in the conspiracy, and that he was more than just a courier, but those findings were without supporting evidence.

The minor participant determination is heavily fact-dependent and the question is whether Saenz is less blameworthy than the average defendants in this conspiracy. The judges noted that his sentence is “all the more staggering” when compared to those received by the other co-conspirators. Of those who had been sentence at the time of oral arguments, only one other person received a longer sentence. Others who had transported cocaine and money between Texas and Indiana received sentences of 70 and 78 months. The man who coordinated the operation from Indianapolis received 144 months, although he had cooperated and testified at Saenz’s trial, wrote Judge Ann Claire Williams.

Saenz is also the only defendant who didn’t receive a reduction pursuant to U.S.S.G. Section 5K1.1, in which a defendant has provided “substantial assistance” to an investigation. Granted, a courier who transports drug money once may not be able to offer substantial assistance, but the Circuit judges didn’t know whether the reduction was offered to him before he made the decision to go to trial.

They remanded for the District Court to determine if Saenz should receive a minor participant reduction, which would reduce his offense level by 2. The judges also rejected his speedy trial challenge as the majority of the delays can be attributed to Saenz or his co-conspirators. They also affirmed the obstruction of justice enhancement because the record supports the finding that he willfully lied when he said he didn’t know he was transporting drug money.


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