USA v. Christopher Ugochukwu
OPINION filed : AFFIRMED, decision not for publication. R. Guy Cole , Jr., Circuit Judge; Raymond M. Kethledge, Circuit Judge and Jane Branstetter Stranch, Authoring Circuit Judge. [11-3976, 13-3062]
NOT RECOMMENDED FOR FULL-TEXT PUBLICATION
File Name: 13a0835n.06
UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS
FOR THE SIXTH CIRCUIT
UNITED STATES OF AMERICA,
Plaintiff S Appellee,
Defendant – Appellant.
Sep 18, 2013
DEBORAH S. HUNT, Clerk
ON APPEAL FROM THE UNITED
STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE
NORTHERN DISTRICT OF OHIO
Before: COLE, KETHLEDGE, and STRANCH, Circuit Judges.
JANE B. STRANCH, Circuit Judge.
This case concerns a multi-kilogram heroin
distribution conspiracy in Cleveland, Ohio. The grand jury indicted Christopher Ugochukwu, a
Nigerian national, and twenty-three others on various drug trafficking charges. At trial, the jury
convicted the defendant of drug conspiracy, possession with intent to distribute heroin, and using
a telephone to facilitate a drug trafficking felony. At sentencing, the district court applied a fourlevel adjustment under USSG § 3B1.1(a) because the defendant was an organizer and leader of the
conspiracy. The court imposed a total sentence of 320 months of imprisonment.
The defendant now appeals, contending: (1) the district court erred in denying his motion
to suppress evidence seized from his apartment; (2) the evidence was insufficient to support
conviction for using a telephone to facilitate a drug trafficking offense; and (3) the district court erred
in applying the adjustment for leadership role in the offense. Finding no reversible error, we
AFFIRM the convictions and sentence.
I. FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY
Criminal investigation of this drug conspiracy took place between January 2009 and July
2012. Law enforcement officers initially focused on the drug trafficking activities of Christopher
Sapp, who distributed kilograms of heroin in Cleveland that were obtained from his source in
Chicago. When that supply dried up, Sapp purchased heroin from Cleveland distributors, Richard
Lanier and Bryant Johnson, whose drug source was the defendant. Lanier and Johnson, through their
close associates, John Dukes and Eric Rosser, supplied Sapp and other distributors with kilograms
of heroin obtained from the defendant.
To investigate the scope of the drug conspiracy, agents utilized various techniques, including
GPS devices, surveillance, video, search warrants, and wiretaps on cell phones and landlines.
Intercepted calls confirmed that the defendant supplied Lanier and Johnson with kilograms of heroin.
During the calls, the defendant and Lanier discussed the quality of the heroin supplied, as well as
Lanier’s efforts to pay the defendant hundreds of thousands of dollars for heroin that the defendant
“fronted” to him for distribution.
On May 24, 2010, agents intercepted a series of telephone calls between Lanier and the
defendant that were focused on arranging a meeting the next day. On May 25, agents watched as the
defendant drove to one of Lanier’s residences, entered briefly, and left carrying a large bag
containing $300,000 in drug proceeds. The defendant’s departure from the residence was captured
on a video, which was played for the jury.
Other intercepted calls revealed that Lanier had difficulty paying the defendant for heroin on
another occasion because Lanier could not open the safe at one of his stash houses in Cleveland.
Lanier assured the defendant that he would pay him after a locksmith opened the safe. Soon
thereafter, agents watched a locksmith enter the home of Lanier’s sister-in-law. In a subsequent
telephone call, Lanier told John Dukes that the locksmith did not appear to observe the cash in the
In late July 2012, agents conducted a series of searches and arrests to take down the drug
organization. The first search occurred at one of Lanier’s residences in Shaker Heights, Ohio, where
agents seized heroin, currency, a money counter, a triple-beam scale, drug ledgers, and evidence of
heroin processing. A search of Lanier’s stash house on East 110th Street in Cleveland revealed
substantial quantities of heroin and evidence of drug cutting and packaging. A search of the safe
Lanier kept at his sister-in-law’s house on South Lotus Avenue in Cleveland yielded $1.2 million
in drug proceeds. Johnson was arrested after he took a large amount of heroin to a stash house on
Elbon Street in Cleveland. A search there disclosed additional quantities of heroin, cutting agents,
scales, sealing devices and packaging materials indicative of heroin processing.
After executing the initial search warrants, the agents traveled to the defendant’s Cleveland
apartment to arrest him on a federal warrant on July 27, 2010, around 1:50 p.m. The officers
knocked and announced their presence, but no one answered the door. After hearing someone
running around inside the apartment, the officers broke down the door and found the defendant in
the kitchen. A protective sweep verified that the defendant was alone. During the sweep, officers
observed a blender, a food sealer, and packaging materials. Based on the items found in plain view
and the evidence previously developed confirming the defendant’s supplier role in the conspiracy,
agents obtained a search warrant for the apartment.
During the search, agents found bags of heroin in finger form (suggesting recent arrival by
body courier from overseas), currency, a money counter, a scale, a kilo press, a blender, a food
sealer, cutting agents, packaging materials, and receipts for nearly $100,000 in money orders. A kilo
press is used to form heroin into a solid chunk after it has been mixed with cutting agents. Officers
also found on the defendant’s computer a photograph depicting him inside the apartment on May 28,
2010. In the background of the photograph were many of the drug-related items the agents seized
from the apartment, including the kilo press.
The district court denied without a hearing the defendant’s motion to suppress the evidence
seized from his apartment. Thereafter, a jury convicted the defendant of conspiracy with intent to
distribute more than one kilogram of a mixture containing a detectable amount of heroin, in violation
of 21 U.S.C. §§ 841(a)(1), (b)(1)(A) & 846 (count 1); possession with intent to distribute one
kilogram or more of a mixture containing a detectable amount of heroin, in violation of 21 U.S.C.
§§ 841(a)(1) & (b)(1)(A) (count 13); and use of a telephone to facilitate a felony drug trafficking
offense, in violation of 21 U.S.C. §§ 841(a)(1), 843(b) & 846 (count 24).
The Presentence Investigation Report (PSR) recommended a base offense level of 36 based
on the drug quantity and a four-level adjustment under USSG § 3B1.1(a) for the defendant’s role as
an organizer and leader of the heroin distribution conspiracy. The district court applied the
adjustment over the defendant’s objection. With a total offense level of 40 and a criminal history
category of I, the advisory guideline range was 292 to 365 months. The court sentenced the
defendant to 320 months of imprisonment on counts 1 and 13, and 48 months of imprisonment on
count 24, all terms to run concurrently. The defendant filed two notices of appeal: one following
the sentencing hearing, and one after the district court denied the defendant’s motion for a new trial.
We now take up these consolidated appeals. Our jurisdiction exists under 28 U.S.C. § 1291 and 18
U.S.C. § 3742(a).
The defendant challenges the district court’s order denying his motion to suppress, R. 462,
as well as the sufficiency of the government’s proof to convict him of using a telephone to facilitate
a felony drug trafficking crime. The only sentencing issue pertains to the four-level adjustment for
his role in the offense. We address each issue below.
A. Motion to suppress
The suppression issue focuses on whether the affidavit supporting the application for a
warrant to search the defendant’s apartment was sufficient to demonstrate the necessary probable
cause to issue the warrant. According to the defendant, the affidavit did not contain sufficient
information to establish the required nexus between his apartment and drug trafficking. He claims
the searches of residences and stash houses belonging to Lanier and Johnson did not turn up evidence
linking him to the conspiracy, and the blender, food sealer, and packaging materials observed in his
apartment are commonly found in residential households. These items were not indicative of drug
trafficking, he argues, because the arresting agents did not find any drug residue to suggest that the
items had been used to cut and package heroin.
When reviewing the denial of a suppression motion, we uphold the factual findings of the
district court unless they are clearly erroneous, and we consider legal questions de novo. See United
States v. Stubblefield, 682 F.3d 502, 505 (6th Cir. 2012). Where a district court denies a motion to
suppress, we examine the evidence in the light most favorable to the government. Id.
“To find probable cause, a judge issuing a search warrant must have a substantial basis for
thinking that there is a fair probability that evidence of a crime would be found at the premises.”
United States v. Rose, 714 F.3d 362, 366 (6th Cir. 2013). We require “a nexus between the place
to be searched and the evidence sought,” which entails a showing of reasonable cause to believe that
the suspected evidence is located at the property to be searched. Id. When deciding whether to issue
a search warrant, the judge’s evaluation is limited to the four corners of the affidavit. Id. We “give
great deference to a magistrate judge’s determination of probable cause,” id. (citing United States
v. Allen, 211 F.3d 970, 973 (6th Cir. 2000)), and we determine, under the totality of the
circumstances, whether the issuing judge had a substantial basis to conclude that a search of the
apartment would uncover evidence of criminal conduct. See United States v. Miggins, 302 F.3d 384,
393 (6th Cir. 2002).
The affidavit of John Dlugolinski, a member of the Northern Ohio Law Enforcement Task
Force, provided more than sufficient evidence to establish probable cause to support issuance of a
search warrant for the defendant’s apartment. The affidavit set out at length the officer’s training,
knowledge, and experience related to the investigation of drug trafficking crimes, including Title III
wiretap cases. The affidavit detailed the facts of the defendant’s arrest at his apartment pursuant to
a federal arrest warrant, and specifically identified the apartment to be searched as 12401 Larchmere
Avenue, Apartment #4, Cleveland, Ohio. The affidavit listed the items the agents saw in plain view
during the arrest, and tied the defendant to the drug trafficking conspiracy by reiterating the
substance of an intercepted telephone conversation between Lanier and the defendant discussing
heroin supply and payment. Importantly, the affidavit incorporated by reference the Criminal
Complaint and 56-page affidavit in Support of Complaint, which detailed the extensive evidence
linking all of the co-conspirators, including the defendant as supplier, to the drug trafficking
organization. That same affidavit supported issuance of the federal warrant for the defendant’s
arrest. The totality of this information was sufficient to permit the magistrate judge to draw the
conclusion that the defendant held a position at the top of the drug supply chain and that evidence
of drug trafficking would likely be found at his apartment. See Miggins, 302 F.3d at 393–94 (noting
courts have repeatedly held that it is reasonable to believe drug dealers store evidence of their crimes
where they reside, citing cases).
Because the search warrant for the defendant’s apartment was adequately supported by
probable cause, as stated in the affidavit and exhibits accompanying the warrant application, we
affirm the denial of the motion to suppress. We need not reach the government’s argument that the
agents who executed the search warrant relied on the warrant in good faith. See United States v.
Leon, 468 U.S. 897 (1984).
B. Sufficiency of the evidence to support count 24
The next issue concerns the facilitation offense. Count 24 of the indictment charged that, on
or about May 12, 2010 at 9:47 p.m., the defendant knowingly and intentionally used a
communication facility, i.e., a telephone, to facilitate acts constituting a drug felony under 21 U.S.C.
§§ 841(a)(1) and 846, in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 843(b). The indictment specified that the telephone
call at issue was between Lanier and the defendant.
The proof demonstrated that the call occurred on May 12, 2010, as charged, but the time
varied by twelve hours. The call took place at 9:43 a.m., rather than 9:47 p.m. During Lanier’s
testimony, the prosecutor identified the call as “Session Number 432,” Government Exhibit 10A-1,
and played the call for the jury. Lanier identified the two voices heard on the call as his and the
defendant’s, and he explained that they were discussing a heroin transaction. Although the
prosecutor referred to “May 10 of 2010” when questioning Lanier, a detective later testified that the
call occurred on May 12, 2010, at 9:43 in the morning.
When the court instructed the jury, it stated that count 24 charged a telephone call that took
place “on or about” May 12, 2010 at 9:47 p.m., as provided in the indictment. During deliberations,
the jury sent out a note asking, “Does count 24 only pertain to May 12 @ 947 pm or is it associated
w/ all the phone calls.” During a conference with the court, the prosecutor apparently did not realize
the time discrepancy between the indictment and the proof. With the agreement of both parties, the
district court answered the jury, “Count 24 only pertains to May 12 @ 9:47 pm.”
Thirty minutes later, the jury sent out a second note asking, “What track on the CD is from
May 12th @ 947 pm. for Count 24.” The prosecutor explained that she had reviewed the matter after
the jury’s first question and found a “typographical error” in count 24, which should have read, “May
12 at 9:43 a.m.” She confirmed that the CD given to the jury did not include a call for May 12, 2010
at 9:47 p.m., because no such call existed. Defense counsel agreed the jury should be informed that
no call would be found on the CD. The court remained troubled, however, that its jury instruction
had specified the time as 9:47 p.m. The prosecutor pointed out the charge itself stated that the crime
occurred “on or about” the date and time specified. Without objection by the parties, the court told
the jury, “That call is not on the CD.”
Within fifteen minutes, the jury sent out a third note: “Can we please get the call for May 12
@ 947 pm for count 24?” With the agreement of both sides, the court answered, “No.” Twenty
minutes later, the jury returned its guilty verdicts on all three counts.
In the motion for a new trial, the defendant argued that the time discrepancy resulted in a
constructive amendment of the indictment rendering him factually innocent of the charge. The
district court disagreed, reasoning that count 24 charged the offense occurred “on or about” a certain
date and time, and the defendant could not show he was factually innocent of the crime charged. On
appeal, the defendant changes the perspective slightly, asserting that he made a general motion for
judgment of acquittal under Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 29 at the close of the government’s
case, and the court should have acquitted him on count 24 because the evidence was insufficient to
convict him on the crime charged.
Reviewing this issue de novo, we may affirm the conviction as long as any rational jury could
have found that the evidence, viewed in the light most favorable to the government, was sufficient
to establish proof beyond a reasonable doubt. See Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U.S. 307, 319 (1979);
United States v. Stafford, 721 F.3d 380, 390 (6th Cir. 2013). We do not weigh the evidence,
consider witness credibility, or substitute our judgment for that of the jury. United States v. M/G
Transp. Servs., Inc., 173 F.3d 584, 588–89 (6th Cir. 1999).
To establish a violation of 21 U.S.C. § 843(b), the government was required to prove three
elements beyond a reasonable doubt: “(1) a knowing or intentional (2) use of a communication
facility (3) to facilitate the commission of a drug offense.” United States v. Dotson, 871 F.2d 1318,
1321 (6th Cir. 1989). The court’s jury instruction on count 24 tracked these elements, and the
government proved all three.
When an indictment uses the phrase “on or about” a certain date, the government does not
have to prove the exact date of the offense as long as the date is reasonably near the one specified
in the indictment. United States v. Ferguson, 681 F.3d 826, 831 (6th Cir. 2012) (citing United States
v. Manning, 142 F.3d 336, 339–40 (6th Cir. 1998) (proof of a meeting on August 4 was not a
constructive amendment, even though the indictment specified a conspiracy “on or about”
September 6–12), and United States v. Hettinger, 242 F. App’x 287, 295 (6th Cir. 2007) (proof that
the defendant manufactured a drug on August 8 was not a constructive amendment, even though the
indictment specified “on or about” August 22)). The government’s proof showed that Lanier and
the defendant discussed a heroin transaction by telephone on May 12, 2010, at 9:43 a.m., even
though the indictment erroneously listed the time of the call as 9:47 p.m. The jury heard the call
played in the courtroom and, during its deliberations, had access to the CD containing the call,
Government Exhibit 10A-1.
The court’s responses to the jury questions did not constitute evidence the jury could consider
in deciding whether the government proved that “on or about” May 12, 2010, Lanier and the
defendant used a telephone to facilitate a drug felony. After the court explained to the jury that there
was not a call in evidence for May 12, 2010, at 9:47 p.m., and no such call would be sent into the
jury room, the jury rationally could have determined that the precise time of the call was immaterial
because time was not listed in the jury instructions as one of the three elements necessary to convict
the defendant of the offense. The proof showed the call took place on May 12, 2010, as charged, and
the jury reasonably could have found that the call occurred sometime during that day, fitting well
within the “on or about” language of count 24 and the pertinent jury instructions. See United States
v. Roberge, 565 F.3d 1005, 1008 (6th Cir. 2009) (a date within two months of the charged date is
“reasonably near” and within language charging “on or about”).
This is not a case where the government proved an uncharged offense that occurred in close
temporal proximity to the charged offense. See United States v. Nance, 481 F.3d 882, 886 n.2 (6th
Cir. 2007). Nor is it a case like United States v. Kegler, 724 F.2d 190, 192–95 (D.C. Cir. 1983),
cited by the defendant, where the district court literally amended the indictment at the government’s
request to correct a typographical error. Even in that case, the court held that correcting the error in
the indictment did not prejudice the defendant’s substantial rights and it did not result in the charging
of a different offense. Id. at 195.
The government presented sufficient evidence to prove all three elements of the § 843(b)
offense. Despite the defendant’s claim that insufficient evidence existed to prove count 24, the
district court did not err in denying the defendant’s Rule 29 motion. We affirm the defendant’s
conviction on that count.
C. Role in the offense
Finally, we consider the challenge to the four-level adjustment for role in the offense. The
enhancement is permitted where “the defendant was an organizer or leader of a criminal activity that
involved five or more participants or was otherwise extensive.” USSG § 3B1.1(a). Application
Note 2 to § 3B1.1 provides that “the defendant must have been the organizer, leader, manager, or
supervisor of one or more other participants.” “The defendant need not have directed the activities
of five or more persons; rather, five persons must have been involved in the conspiracy.” United
States v. Stewart, 306 F.3d 295, 316 n.11 (6th Cir. 2002). Application Note 4 to § 3B1.1(a) states
that factors the court may consider in “distinguishing a leadership and organizational role from one
of mere management or supervision” include:
the exercise of decision making authority, the nature of participation in the
commission of the offense, the recruitment of accomplices, the claimed right to a
larger share of the fruits of the crime, the degree of participation in planning or
organizing the offense, the nature and scope of the illegal activity, and the degree of
control and authority exercised over others.
Here, the defendant argues there was no evidence before the court to support any of these
factors to warrant application of the four-level enhancement. He characterizes his conduct as merely
fronting drugs to multiple individuals without exercising any control over the subsequent distribution
of the drugs. See, e.g., United States v. Swanberg, 370 F.3d 622, 629 (6th Cir. 2004); United States
v. Ward, 37 F.3d 243, 248 (6th Cir. 1994).
Under the reasoning of Buford v. United States, 532 U.S. 59 (2001), we review the district
court’s “legal conclusion that a person is an organizer or leader under § 3B1.1” deferentially. United
States v. Washington, 715 F.3d 975, 983 (6th Cir. 2013). “The trial judge is most familiar with the
facts and is best situated to determine whether someone is or is not a ‘leader’ of a conspiracy that
the jury found existed.” Id.
Having heard the trial evidence, the district court found that the four-level adjustment
applied, either because the defendant qualified as an organizer or leader of a criminal activity that
involved five or more participants or was otherwise extensive, § 3B1.1(a), or because an upward
departure was warranted where the defendant “did not organize, lead, manage, or supervise another
participant, but . . . nevertheless exercised management responsibility over the property, assets, or
activities of a criminal organization.” USSG § 3B1.1, comment. (n.2). The court’s decision rested
on findings that: (1) the defendant initiated the drug conspiracy by approaching Lanier to sell drugs;
(2) the defendant alone planned, organized, and controlled the means and price of supply; (3) the
defendant directly supervised Lanier and Johnson; and (4) Lanier, Johnson, and Sapp utilized the
services of more than eighteen other co-conspirators to distribute the heroin in Cleveland. The court
expressly rejected the defendant’s argument that his arrangement with Lanier and Johnson was
simply a buyer-seller relationship.
We defer to the district court’s decision because the court was in the best position, after
hearing the evidence, to determine whether the defendant qualified for the four-level adjustment.
See Washington, 715 F.3d at 983–84. In our view, the evidence fully supported the district court’s
determination that the defendant was an organizer or leader of a criminal activity that involved five
or more participants or was otherwise extensive, USSG § 3B1.1(a) & comment. (n.4); or,
alternatively, that an upward departure was warranted because the defendant exercised management
responsibility over the property, assets, or activities of a criminal organization, USSG § 3B1.1,
comment. (n.2). See United States v. Baker, 559 F.3d 443, 448–49 (6th Cir. 2009) (upholding fourlevel adjustment where defendant acted as supplier for drug trafficking organization involving more
than twelve people); United States v. Moncivais, 492 F.3d 652, 660–62 (6th Cir. 2007) (upholding
same adjustment where defendant supplied drugs and gave orders to others). Consequently, we reject
this challenge to the defendant’s sentence. See United States v. Young, 553 F.3d 1035, 1052–55 (6th
The district court did not err in denying the defendant’s motion to suppress or in denying the
defendant’s Rule 29 motion where sufficient evidence supported conviction on count 24. We will
not set aside the 320-month sentence because the court properly applied a four-level adjustment for
role in the offense pursuant to USSG § 3B1.1. Accordingly, we AFFIRM the convictions and
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