7th Circuit remands one drug sentence enhancement, lets another stand

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One of two men convicted as conspirators in an Indiana meth ring will be resentenced as a result of his appeal while the other man convicted in the scheme will serve his full 25-year sentence, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals held Wednesday.

The appellate panel remanded for resentencing in United States of America v. Jose Trinidad Garcia, Jr., 18-1890, but affirmed the sentence of his fellow drug trafficker in USA v. Alfonso Pineda-Hernandez, also known as Flaco, 18-2261.

Jose Garcia pleaded guilty to his role in a methamphetamine ring after he was among a dozen people indicted as a result of a law enforcement operation called “Code Red,” taking its name from the color of 80 grams of meth found in a car. Garcia admitted he participated in or could have reasonably foreseen the distribution of about 3.5 kilograms of a mixture containing meth and at least 1 kilogram of heroin.

Eligible for a sentence of 20 years to life in prison because the U.S, District Court for the Southern District of Indiana found he had a prior felony drug offense, Garcia, who cooperated with prosecutors, ultimately was sentenced to the mandatory minimum of 20 years in prison.

On appeal, the 7th Circuit agreed with Garcia that the district court’s ruling that he had a qualifying prior felony drug conviction was plain error. Garcia’s state law conviction was under Indiana Code § 35-48-4-10, which covers dealing marijuana, hashish, hash oil and salvia — the latter of which is not included in federal drug offenses.

“Thus, Garcia’s prior conviction under I.C. 35-48-4-10 is not a ‘felony drug offense’ and does not support the sentencing enhancement here. Application of this enhancement was plain error,” Judge Daniel Manion wrote for the court. “… We remand to the district court for resentencing without this prior conviction as an enhancer under 21 U.S.C. § 841(b)(1)(A) but we do not remove the prior conviction from the 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a) analysis.”

But Garcia’s cohort, Alfonso Pineda-Hernandez, did not fare so well before the 7th Circuit. He stood trial, was convicted and sentenced to 25 years in prison on two trafficking counts that were upheld on appeal.

Among other things, Pineda-Hernandez argued that he was prejudiced by a botched Spanish language interpreter, that the problem was compounded when the judge recalled the witness the following day to testify again, and that he was therefore entitled to a new trial. But the 7th Circuit noted Pineda-Hernandez did not object to the witness being recalled nor to his court-appointed translator’s interpreting.

“The alleged interpretation debacle involves no reversible error. Pineda-Hernandez’s claims of grave, widespread misinterpretations are unsubstantiated. The few particulars he points to are insignificant at most. The recall was not ideal, but it made the best of a potentially difficult situation,” the panel found.

Likewise, the district court did not err in enhancing Pineda-Hernandez’s sentence because of his leadership role in the trafficking ring, the appellate court said.

“Pineda-Hernandez makes colorable arguments he was not the leader or organizer. But these arguments do not overcome the bulk of the evidence showing he exercised some significant control and was responsible for some significant organization of others. We are not left with anything close to a definite and firm conviction a mistake has been made,” Manion wrote.

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