“Confirmed Judges, Confirmed Fears” is a blog series documenting the harmful impact of President Trump’s judges on Americans’ rights and liberties. Cases in the series can be found by issue and by judge at this link.
Trump Ninth Circuit judges Eric Miller, Bridget Bade and Daniel Bress cast the deciding votes to make it easier to convict people of aggravated drug crimes that carry harsher penalties, including mandatory minimum sentences of ten years and possible life imprisonment, overruling prior precedent. The December 2020 decision is United States v Collazo.
Under federal law that prohibits distribution of illegal drugs, there are specified aggravated offenses that carry harsher penalties depending on the particular drug and quantity. For example, distribution of 50 or more grams of methamphetamine is an aggravated offense subject to a mandatory minimum sentence of ten years and a possible life sentence, and distribution of more than 100 grams of a substance containing heroin carries a five-year mandatory minimum and a forty-year maximum sentence. In comparison, a general drug trafficking offense carries a maximum penalty of twenty years with no mandatory minimum. Since the 1990s, it has been clear in the Ninth Circuit and other courts that in order to be convicted of such aggravated offenses, a person must have knowledge or intent (referred to as mens rea) of the drug type and amount.
In a case involving prosecution of five Hispanic men accused of distribution of drugs, however, Trump Ninth Circuit judges Miller, Bade, and Bress cast deciding votes in a 6-5 decision to explicitly “overrule” prior precedent and rule that people convicted of participating in a “conspiracy” to distribute drugs, including drugs of the type and quantity specified in aggravated offenses, are automatically subject to the enhanced penalties of the aggravated offenses. This is true, the majority held, even if there is no proof that those individuals had any knowledge or intent of the type and quantity of drug specified in the aggravated offense. According to the majority, this better reflects Congress’ intent in enacting the drug laws. (The ruling was 6-5 because the large Ninth Circuit does not hear cases including every judge on the Circuit when it decides to hear a case en banc, but instead in panels of 11 judges.) As one commentator put it, the result is that in a drug case in the Ninth Circuit, the “lookout” can now be punished “the same as the kingpin.”
Judge William Fletcher, joined by four other judges, strongly dissented. The effect of the majority’s ruling, Fletcher explained, is that punishment for participating in a drug conspiracy is “dramatically and mandatorily increased” without any proof of knowledge or intent “as to drug type or content.” This violates not only the Ninth Circuit’s previous precedent, the dissent continued, but also the structure of federal drug laws and the Supreme Court’s rulings on the importance of proving mens rea, including with respect to the identity of the “specific controlled substance and its quantity” as “elements of the aggravated crimes created” by federal drug laws. It is clear, Fletcher wrote, that “Congress did not intend” to “impose mandatory sentences” of five and ten years and “maximum sentences of life, based on mistakes of fact and unintentional acts,” as the majority’s ruling permits.
The dissent explained that the proper result in the case would have been to hold that “when the government seeks enhanced penalties” for aggravated drug crimes, “it must prove” to a jury beyond a reasonable doubt that a defendant “’knowingly or intentionally’ distributed the actual controlled substance and quantity” required under the law. As a result of the deciding votes of Trump judges Miller, Bade, and Bress, however, this is not the case, and people can be subjected to these enhanced penalties for even peripheral participation in an alleged “conspiracy” to distribute such drugs without actual knowledge or intent.