7th Circuit vacates pleas in broad drug ring

Two guilty pleas have been vacated in a sweeping drug conspiracy that involved dozens of firearms and multiple illicit substances, though the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals on Thursday declined to also adjust related sentences.

The drug case began in 2016, when federal agents began investigating brothers Jose and Juan Zamudio’s drug trafficking activities in Indianapolis. After phone surveillance, 40 warrants were executed in November 2016 that led to the seizure of dozens of firearms, 15 pounds of methamphetamine and smaller quantities of cocaine, heroin and marijuana, plus cash.

At least 18 people were indicted, including Jose Zamudio, who pleaded guilty to four counts and received a 380-month term. His girlfriend, Maria Gonzalez, was also convicted on conspiracy charges after letting Zamudio store and sell meth from her home and laundering his drug money with the help of her son, his girlfriend and the girlfriend’s sister. She received an enhanced 25-year sentence.

Also convicted in the drug scheme was Reynold De La Torre, who received a 15-year sentence and five years of supervised release, with the Indiana Southern District Court imposing terms prohibiting him from possessing “psychoactive substances” and from being in or associating with a gang.

Two other co-conspirators, Jeffrey Rush and Christian Chapman, each pleaded guilty to involvement in the drug ring in exchange for the government enhancing their sentences based on only one of their prior state-law drug felonies.

Finally, Adrian Bennett received a below-guidelines sentence of 225 months for his role in the operation.

At issue in the 7th Circuit’s Thursday opinion were two groups of appeals: Gonzalez, De La Torre and Bennett’s appeals of their sentences, and Chapman and Rush’s appeals of their guilty pleas.

Judge Amy St. Eve affirmed all of the appeals in the former group, first addressing Gonzalez’s argument that her offense level should not have been adjusted for an “aggravating role” because her son, his girlfriend and his girlfriend’s sister were not “participants” under the Federal Sentencing Guidelines. This argument was different than the one advanced before the district court, St. Eve wrote.

“The record sufficiently supports a finding that at minimum Gonzalez’s son, whom she trusted, knowingly assisted his mother in laundering money,” St. Eve said. And, “at sentencing, Gonzalez argued that she supervised only these three people…,” thus supporting the supervisory element of her “aggravating role” adjustment.

As to De La Torre, the circuit panel determined he waived his challenge to the conditions of his supervised release because he was on notice of those conditions, citing United States v. Flores, 929 F.3d 443, 450 (7th Cir. 2019).

And as to the reasonableness of Bennett’s below-guidelines sentence, the court said “(t)he district judge imposed a sentence that addressed Bennett’s personal history and characteristics, reflected the seriousness of the offense, and was sufficient, but not greater than necessary.”

But turning to Rush and Chapman’s appeals, St. Eve held that their guilty pleas should be vacated. She noted that because each defendant had multiple prior state-law drug felonies, they chose to plead guilty to avoid life sentences that they believed would otherwise be inevitable.

“After the briefing was submitted in this appeal, we decided Najera-Rodriguez v. Barr, 926 F.3d 343 (7th Cir. 2019), which held that 720 ILCS 570/402(c) is not divisible,” St. Eve wrote, referencing the statute that Chapman was convicted under in state court. “In light of this holding, the government conceded at oral argument that Chapman’s Illinois convictions do not qualify as prior felony drug offenses for purposes of the (21 U.S.C.) § 851 enhancement. Accordingly, the government agreed that this error affected Chapman’s substantial rights and that his plea agreement must be set aside.”

As to Rush, the 7th Circuit found that the Indiana statute he was convicted under — Indiana Code § 35-48-2 — is broader than the relevant federal statute. Thus, “Rush’s 2001 Indiana conviction for dealing in a schedule I, II, or III controlled substance cannot serve as a predicate felony drug offense … .”

The 7th Circuit vacated both guilty pleas, writing that “Chapman only agreed to the plea agreement because he believed life in prison was his only alternative. That was not true.” Likewise, “(i)f Rush had known that his 2001 Indiana conviction was not a qualifying felony drug offense, it would have changed the calculus and he likely would have proceeded differently.”

The cases were remanded for further proceedings.

The consolidated appeal is United States of America v. Reynold De La Torre, et al., 18-2009, 18-2218, 18-2286, 18-3003, and 19-1299.

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