Seventh Circuit Refuses to Impose Minimum Mandatory Sentences

Sentencing for crimes typically involve mandatory minimums imposed by following certain guidelines.  It is a hallmark of the justice system to treat everyone fairly and consistently.  The flip side of this, however, is that some defendants are not afforded fair treatment if circumstances of their case are not considered.  The Seventh Circuit, for which Illinois is a part, has recently decided that this is improper.

U.S. v. Walker, decided earlier this month, involved 5 alleged drug dealers accused of conspiracy to distribute heroin.  In this case, the distribution of heron was also linked to 5 overdose deaths.  The 5 defendants entered guilty pleas, which led the government to seek the 20-year minimum mandatory sentence imposed on offenders guilty of drug distribution that results in “death or serious bodily injury.”

Although minimum mandatory sentences are widely relied upon, this Court refused to uphold the sentenced metered out by the lower court.  In reversing the lower court decision and vacating the sentences as to two of the defendants, the Court opined that minimum mandatory sentences do not apply equally to all defendants involved because they all had different roles in the distribution chain and thus are not subject to the same penalty.

In so holding, the Court breaks alignment with 6 other circuit courts in favor of the Sixth Circuit reasoning deployed in U.S. v. Swiney.  In Swiney, two alleged drug dealers were also involved in the distribution of heroin that led to a user death.  The Swiney Court refused to imposed the requested 20-year minimum mandatory sentence because in reading the controlling statute with respect to conspiracy, findings of fact must be made as to each defendant’s involvement in the distribution chain.

Criminal liability for conspiracy basically requires two things:  the conduct of co-conspirators was reasonably foreseeably as to the defendant conspirator, and the conduct was committed in furtherance of the conspiracy.  Although this language seems broad and widely inclusive, the Seventh Circuit reasoned that while this is a correct summation of the law as it pertains to a conspiracy charge, the scope of liability for minimum mandatory sentencing may be narrower.  As such, the prosecuting court must prove that the actual defendant was actually responsible for the resulting death by participation in the distribution chain.

This argument tends to treat defendants fairly under the law by not treating everyone the same, regardless of what the defendant actually did or did do.  The Seventh Circuit took a reasonable, but bold stance in refusing to apply the law in such a broad manner.  The Court addressed this very issue, by stating holding differently would have far-reaching implications.  Using a 2001 case where a child died as a result of ingesting methamphetamine carelessly left out, the Court noted that if it used the reasoning the government was asking for in this case, everyone from the manufacturer of the drugs who ultimately caused the death of the child would receive the minimum mandatory, but every other person even tangentially involved would be held to the same standard—from the street look-out to the shot-caller.

The defendant’s in Walker undoubtedly owe this lawful victory to carefully crafted legal strategy by a skilled defense attorney.  Do not leave your freedom and right to justice and fair treatment under the law to chance, secure the representation of a qualified Illinois Criminal Defense Attorney immediately.

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