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United States v. Cortes-Medina

United States Court of Appeals, First Circuit

May 12, 2016

HÉCTOR CORTÉS-MEDINA, Defendant, Appellee.


Heather Clark, with whom Law Office of Heather Clark was on brief, for appellant.

Francisco A. Besosa-Martínez, Assistant United States Attorney, with whom Rosa Emilia Rodríguez-Vélez, United States Attorney, and Nelson Pérez-Sosa, Assistant United States Attorney, Chief, Appellate Division, were on brief, for appellee.

Before Lynch, Selya and Lipez, Circuit Judges.

SELYA, Circuit Judge.

In this sentencing appeal, defendant-appellant Héctor Cortés-Medina insists that his 168-month sentence is both procedurally flawed and substantively unreasonable. After careful consideration, we affirm the sentence.[1]

This appeal has its roots in an indictment returned by a federal grand jury sitting in the District of Puerto Rico. The indictment alleged that the defendant served as an "enforcer" for a drug-trafficking ring and charged him as a participant in a conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute controlled substances within 1, 000 feet of a protected location. See 21 U.S.C. §§ 841(a)(1), 846, 860.

In due course, the defendant entered into a non-binding plea agreement (the Agreement) with the government. The Agreement provided that, in exchange for his guilty plea to the conspiracy charge and to a related forfeiture allegation, the government would recommend a 121-month prison term; provided, however, that the defendant's criminal history category (CHC) was IV or lower. The district court accepted the plea, and the probation office prepared a presentence investigation report (PSI Report). Neither side objected to anything contained in the PSI Report, which (among other things) recommended a series of guideline calculations culminating in a total offense level of 30, a CHC of IV, and a guideline sentencing range (GSR) of 135 to 168 months.

At the disposition hearing, the government recommended the agreed 121-month sentence, even though that sentence was below the nadir of the GSR. The district court heard statements from defense counsel and the defendant himself, and the court acknowledged the parties' joint sentencing recommendation. The court then engaged in a dissection of the defendant's criminal history.

To begin, the court examined the four convictions on which the defendant's CHC was premised. It then catalogued several arrests that had terminated either in acquittals or in dismissals. These included two charges for first-degree murder, two charges relating to destruction of evidence, and an assortment of charges for drug and firearm violations.[2] Noting that none of these charges had resulted in any punishment, the district court expressed frustration. The court said: "This is what I just don't understand, how these things are happening." It then added, cryptically, that "lightning doesn't strike twice in the same place."

The district court proceeded, without objection, to ratify and adopt the guideline calculations limned in the PSI Report. It stressed that the defendant was an enforcer in the drug-trafficking organization, adding "[w]e know what that means." In the end, the court sentenced the defendant to a term of immurement at the apex of, but within, the GSR: 168 months.

This timely appeal ensued. Although the Agreement contains a waiver-of-appeal provision, that provision, by its terms, is operative only if the court sentences the defendant in accordance with the Agreement's "terms, conditions and recommendations." Because the sentence imposed by the district court exceeded the sentence recommended in the Agreement, the waiver-of-appeal provision is a dead letter. See, e.g., United States v. Fernández-Cabrera, 625 F.3d 48, 51 (1st Cir. 2010).

Overall, "[a]ppellate review of federal criminal sentences is characterized by a frank recognition of the substantial discretion vested in a sentencing court." United States v. Flores-Machicote, 706 F.3d 16, 20 (1st Cir. 2013). The "process is bifurcated: we first determine whether the sentence imposed is procedurally reasonable and then determine whether it is substantively reasonable." United States v. Clogston, 662 F.3d 588, 590 (1st Cir. 2011). Generally, both aspects of this review are for abuse of discretion. See Gall v. United States, 552 U.S. 38, 46 (2007); United States v. Martin, 520 F.3d 87, 92 (1st Cir. 2008). When assessing the procedural reasonableness of a sentence, however, appellate review is more nuanced: we afford de novo consideration to the sentencing court's interpretation and application of the sentencing guidelines and assay the court's factfinding for clear error. See Flores-Machicote, 706 F.3d at 20.

These standards of review are altered when an objection is not preserved in the court below. In that event, review is for plain error. See United States v. Duarte, 246 F.3d 56, 60 (1st Cir. 2001). Plain error review is not appellant-friendly. It "entails four showings: (1) that an error occurred (2) which was clear or obvious and which not only (3) affected the defendant's substantial rights, but also (4) seriously impaired the fairness, integrity, or public reputation of judicial proceedings." Id.

Against this backdrop, we turn to the defendant's claims of error: three procedural objections and a plaint of substantive unreasonableness. We address these matters sequentially.

The defendant first argues that the district court erred by taking into account several dismissed or acquitted charges because the facts underlying those charges were not proven by a preponderance of the evidence. He says that he preserved this argument by means of a statement contained in the "Background of the Defendant" section of his sentencing memorandum:

As evidence showed in the court files, that were examined, many of the indictments got dismissed because of lack of proof related to the supposed direct participation of the defendant and in others there was no proof at all.
During the investigations as is shown as well in the Pre-Sentence Report the defendant has been accused of many different illegal acts as, for which many of these accusation [sic] were dismissed because of insufficient evidence.

However, no mention of the dismissed or acquitted charges was made in the "Application of Law and Arguments" section of the defendant's sentencing memorandum.

At the outset of the disposition hearing, the district court confirmed with defense counsel that the defendant had no objections to the PSI Report. During that hearing, defense counsel did not ...

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