USA v. Paris Well
OPINION filed : The district court's judgment is AFFIRMED. Decision not for publication. Eugene E. Siler, Jr., Eric L. Clay (AUTHORING), and Julia Smith Gibbons, Circuit Judges.
NOT RECOMMENDED FOR FULL-TEXT PUBLICATION
File Name: 15a0806n.06
UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS
FOR THE SIXTH CIRCUIT
Dec 10, 2015
DEBORAH S. HUNT, Clerk
UNITED STATES OF AMERICA,
ON APPEAL FROM THE UNITED
STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE
WESTERN DISTRICT OF MICHIGAN
SILER, CLAY, and GIBBONS, Circuit Judges.
CLAY, Circuit Judge. Following his plea of guilty to conspiracy to distribute a mixture
or substance containing a detectible amount of heroin, a Schedule I controlled substance, in
violation of 21 U.S.C. § 846, 21 U.S.C. § 841(a)(1), and 21 U.S.C. § 841(b)(1)(C), Defendant
Paris Wells appeals from the district court’s order sentencing him to 240 months of
incarceration. For the reasons set forth below, we AFFIRM Defendant’s sentence.
This case arises from a conspiracy to distribute heroin between Defendant, his girlfriend
Markita Monik Choice, and Ahmed Green. In February 2013, Green was arrested in Grand
Rapids, Michigan. At the time of his arrest, Green had approximately 100 grams of heroin in his
possession that he intended to distribute to persons located in the Western District of Michigan.
As part of his post-arrest cooperation with law enforcement authorities, Green informed police
that he had been securing heroin from Defendant for more than a year by calling Defendant from
Grand Rapids to order heroin, driving to Detroit, Michigan, to pick up the heroin from
Defendant, and bringing the heroin back to Grand Rapids for distribution.
After conducting a controlled purchase of 100 grams of heroin from Defendant at the
direction of federal agents, Green ordered another 100 grams from Defendant on February 27,
2013. Defendant agreed to supply the heroin, and federal agents conducting surveillance at
Defendant’s residence in Detroit observed Defendant and Choice getting into a vehicle, driving
to Defendant’s “stash house,” and then driving to the location where Defendant had arranged to
meet Green. Federal agents stopped and arrested Defendant and Choice on their way to the
meeting place. Pursuant to a search warrant, law enforcement officers also searched Defendant’s
stash house, finding approximately 280 grams of heroin, three hydraulic presses for compressing
and repacking heroin, and “other substantial evidence that the defendant was involved in selling
heroin.” (R. 159, Second Plea Hr’g Tr., PageID #927).
At the sentencing hearing held July 2, 2014, Defendant stated, based on his telephone call
with Green, that there was an agreement between Defendant, Choice, and Green for Green to
purchase heroin from Defendant on February 27, 2013. Defendant also admitted to selling
heroin to Green between late summer 2012 and his arrest on February 27, 2013. Finally, in a
proffer statement made on April 12, 2013, Defendant informed law enforcement authorities that
he sold heroin to “individuals” in Kalamazoo and Grand Rapids, Michigan, in quantities of 10 to
On February 26, 2013, Defendant was indicted in the Western District of Michigan on
one count of conspiracy to distribute one or more kilograms of heroin in violation of 21 U.S.C.
§ 846, 21 U.S.C. § 841(a)(1), and 21 U.S.C. § 841(b)(1)(A)(i). On March 20, 2013, Defendant
moved to change venue from the Western District of Michigan to the Eastern District of
Michigan on the grounds that each of the elements underlying the conspiracy charge against him
occurred in the Eastern District. The government opposed the motion. Observing that neither
Defendant nor the government requested a hearing on Defendant’s motion to change venue, the
district court denied the motion without oral argument on April 16, 2014. In its order, the district
court observed that for drug conspiracy charges, venue is proper in any district where the
conspiracy was formed or where an overt act in furtherance of the conspiracy was performed.
Additionally, the court noted that telephone calls may constitute overt acts in furtherance of a
Based on the government’s representations that it would show, at trial, that
(1) Defendant supplied heroin to one or more unindicted co-conspirators who distributed the
narcotics in the Western District, and (2) Defendant’s unindicted co-conspirators placed
telephone calls to Defendant from the Western District in order to secure heroin, the court denied
The charges in the indictment were punishable by a minimum sentence of 120 months’
imprisonment and a maximum sentence of life imprisonment. However, pursuant to a plea
bargain promulgated under Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 11, Defendant and the
government agreed that a sentence of 180 months’ imprisonment, along with any fines, costs, or
terms of supervised imposed by the district court, was appropriate. At a change of plea hearing
held August 19, 2013, Defendant pleaded guilty to count one of the indictment. The district
court accepted the guilty plea and told the parties that it would take the plea agreement under
advisement. The court also informed Defendant, “If I decide not to accept the . . . plea, you
would have the absolute right to withdraw your plea of guilty.” (R. 149, First Plea Hr’g Tr.,
PageID #720). When asked whether he understood this contingency, Defendant responded,
At the sentencing hearing held January 14, 2014, the district court rejected the parties’
plea agreement. The court stated that it had “substantial concerns” about the proposed sentence,
noting that there was a significant disparity between the presentence officer’s advisory guideline
calculation provided in the presentence report (“Initial PSR”)—360 months to life
imprisonment—and the parties’ proposed sentence of 180 months. Both the government and
Defendant argued that an 180-month sentence was appropriate based on several considerations,
including (1) Green’s unreliable and inflated estimate of the amount of heroin he purchased from
Defendant, (2) Defendant’s decision to provide the government with valuable information he had
learned from his cellmates while in custody, and (3) the fact that Defendant was already
45-years-old on the day of the hearing.
Unpersuaded, the district court characterized the parties’ plea agreement as a
“sledgehammer,” maintaining that although the United States Sentencing Guidelines are
advisory, “they are the starting point for the Court.” (R. 155, Omnibus Hr’g Tr., PageID #809).
The court also opined that the parties’ proposed sentence, “which [wa]s 50 percent lower than
the low end of the guideline range,” was “a bridge too far.” (Id. at 809, 814). Ultimately, the
I’m not going to accept the . . . plea. That obviously gives the defendant the
opportunity to withdraw his plea, if that’s what he wants to do. I recognize this is
a major decision for him. It could be that in light of the Court’s position that
counsel for the government and counsel for the defendant want to rework the
agreement here, that’s fine with me, take the appropriate amount of time.
But for now, I’m not going to accept the plea.
(Id. at 814).
On July 2, 2014, the government filed a superseding felony information charging
Defendant with conspiring with Choice, Green, and other, unidentified persons to distribute
heroin in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 846, 21 U.S.C. § 841(a)(1), and 21 U.S.C. § 841(b)(1)(C). The
same day, Defendant pleaded guilty to the superseding information—without a plea agreement—
before a magistrate judge. The magistrate judge informed Defendant that the maximum penalty
Defendant could receive based on the charge in the superseding information was 240 months’
imprisonment. In accordance with the magistrate judge’s recommendation, the district judge
accepted Defendant’s guilty plea on August 4, 2014.
The final presentence report (“Final PSR”) was filed September 10, 2014. As in the
Initial PSR, the presentence officer scored Defendant’s case at Criminal Offense Level 39 and
Criminal History Category VI, resulting in an advisory sentencing range of 360 months to life.
The district court arrived at the same figures. However, because 21 U.S.C. § 841(b)(1)(C)
imposes a maximum penalty of 240 months’ imprisonment, the Final PSR recommended a
sentence of 240 months.
At the final sentencing hearing held September 18, 2014, the district court acknowledged
receipt of Defendant’s objections to the Final PSR, sentencing memorandum, and motion for
downward variance. Both in writing and at the final sentencing hearing, Defendant raised
objections to (1) the quantity of heroin the presentence officer used to calculate his base criminal
offense level, (2) the inclusion of a firearm enhancement based on two unloaded firearms stored
in the attic of Defendant’s “stash house,” and (3) the inclusion of an organizer enhancement
based on Defendant’s alleged recruitment of Choice into the conspiracy.
expressed his belief that his criminal history category was overstated because “[a] large number
of [the] total criminal history points he ha[d] . . . were received not because of drug dealing and
not because of other conduct of that nature, but because he [was] an alcoholic and kept driving
and kept ending up in front of judges because of that.”1 (R. 157, Sentencing Hr’g Tr., PageID
#865). Based on the government’s concessions regarding (1) the difficulty of defending a
firearm enhancement based on the two unloaded weapons that Defendant had apparently
received in exchange for heroin, and (2) the parties’ representations regarding the relatively
small amount of heroin at issue in the conspiracy, the district court sustained Defendant’s
objection to the firearm enhancement and accepted the parties’ lower quantity figure for
purposes of calculating Defendant’s sentence.
With regard to the organizer enhancement,
however, the government represented that Choice’s education and reduced role in the conspiracy
indicated that Defendant “clearly recruited [Choice] and brought her into this.”
Sentencing Hr’g Tr., PageID #868).
Ultimately, the district court overruled Defendant’s
objection to the organizer enhancement and concluded that Defendant’s alcohol-related
convictions were properly weighted as part of his criminal history category.
Having sustained two of Defendant’s objections, the court arrived at an advisory
guideline range of 292 to 365 months’ imprisonment, but observed that the 240-month maximum
sentence under 21 U.S.C. § 841(b)(1)(C) was controlling.
The government requested the
imposition of a 240-month sentence.
Indeed, of the 15 points comprising Defendant’s criminal history score, nine arose from
incidents in which police officers observed that Defendant was intoxicated, including several
convictions for operating a vehicle under the influence of liquor.
In determining whether the 240-month maximum constituted an appropriate sentence, the
court noted that “[t]he offense to which the defendant was allowed to plead [pursuant to the
superseding information] g[ave] him a very significant benefit to begin with,” and that such a
benefit “trump[ed] any further consideration of a [downward] variance by the Court” based on
Defendant’s cooperation with the government. (R. 157, Sentencing Hr’g Tr., Page ID #883–84).
The court also found that neither the financial penalty Defendant incurred as a result of forfeiting
his drug-related proceeds, nor Defendant’s statements that he would miss his children, who were
present at the time he and Choice were arrested, warranted a reduced sentence. Focusing on the
need to specifically deter Defendant, who had a “long history of criminality,” and the need to
generally deter other individuals “who might contemplate similar” drug-related activities, the
court denied Defendant’s motion for a downward variance.
(Id. at 886).
Based on these
considerations, the district court concluded that the maximum sentence permitted under
21 U.S.C. § 841(b)(1)(C) was appropriate and sentenced Defendant to 240 months of
incarceration. Defendant timely appealed.
Defendant seeks reversal of his sentence on three separate grounds. First, Defendant
asserts that the district court abused its discretion by denying his pre-sentence motion to change
venue. Second, Defendant argues that the district court improperly rejected his plea agreement
by failing to comply with the procedures set out in Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 11(c)(5).
Third, Defendant contends that his 240-month sentence is unreasonable because the district court
failed to adequately consider the sentencing factors under 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a). We address each
of these arguments in turn.
Defendant’s Motion for Change of Venue
We review the grant or denial of a motion to change venue for abuse of discretion.
United States v. Jamieson, 427 F.3d 394, 412 (6th Cir. 2005); United States v. Turner, 936 F.2d
221, 226 (6th Cir. 1991).
The government asserts that Defendant’s venue challenge must fail because Defendant
waived all non-jurisdictional errors, including improper venue, when he pleaded guilty to the
superseding information. Appellee Br. at 10. Indeed, this Court has held that “[a] voluntary and
unconditional guilty plea waives all non-jurisdictional defects in the proceedings.” United States
v. Ormsby, 252 F.3d 844, 848 (6th Cir. 2001) (citation omitted). Venue is a non-jurisdictional
issue that can be waived by virtue of a guilty plea. United States v. Micciche, 165 F. App’x 379,
386 (6th Cir. 2006) (citing Tollett v. Henderson, 411 U.S. 258, 267 (1973)).
Here, Defendant pleaded guilty to the charge brought in the superseding information.
Although Defendant could have affirmatively preserved the venue issue when he entered his
guilty plea, Ormsby, 252 F.3d at 848, there is no indication that he did so. Similarly, even
though we have indicated that a defendant cannot waive his venue objection where he lacks
notice of a venue defect, United States v. Mobley, 618 F.3d 539, 546 n.4 (6th Cir. 2010),
because Defendant filed a motion to change venue, there is no support for a finding that
Defendant lacked notice. Accordingly, we conclude that Defendant waived his venue objection
when he pleaded guilty to the superseding information.
Defendant’s venue challenge also fails on the merits. Article III of the United States
Constitution provides, in pertinent part:
The Trial of all Crimes, except in Cases of Impeachment, shall be by Jury; and
such Trial shall be held in the State where the said Crimes shall have been
committed; but when not committed within any State, the Trial shall be at such
Place or Places as the Congress may by Law have directed.
U.S. Const. art. III, § 2, cl. 3. Thus, the Constitution guarantees that a defendant shall be tried in
the state and district in which the alleged offense was committed. United States v. Williams,
274 F.3d 1079, 1083 (6th Cir. 2001); see also Fed. R. Crim. P. 18 (“[T]he government must
prosecute an offense in a district where the offense was committed.”).
“[C]onspiracy is a continuing offense.” Smith v. United States, 133 S. Ct. 714, 719
Accordingly, the determination of venue is governed by the “continuing offense”
statute, which provides that “any offense against the United States begun in one
district and completed in another, or committed in more than one district, may be
. . . prosecuted in any district in which such offense was begun, continued, or
United States v. Zidell, 323 F.3d 412, 422 (6th Cir. 2003) (quoting 18 U.S.C. § 3237(a)); see also
United States v. Crozier, 259 F.3d 503, 519 (6th Cir. 2001) (“For drug conspiracies, venue is
proper in any district where the conspiracy was formed or where an overt act in furtherance of
the conspiracy was performed.”); Turner, 936 F.2d at 226 (stating that because conspiracy to
distribute narcotics is a continuous crime, venue is proper “in any district along the way”)
(citations omitted). “A conspiracy defendant need not have entered the district so long as this
standard is met.” United States v. Scaife, 749 F.2d 338, 346 (6th Cir. 1984); see also Zidell,
323 F.3d at 422 (“To satisfy the terms of [18 U.S.C. § 3237(a)], it is not essential that the
defendant ever have been physically present in the district in question, so long as ‘the offense
continued into’ this district.”).
Since venue may be had in more than one district, Williams, 274 F.3d at 1084,
“long-standing precedent in this circuit applies the substantial contacts test to determine
appropriate venue.” Brika, 416 F.3d at 527. “That test takes into account a number of factors—
the site of the defendant’s act, the elements and nature of the crime, the locus of the effect of the
criminal conduct, and the suitability of each district for accurate fact finding.” Id. (citation and
internal quotation marks omitted).
The government must show that venue is proper by a
preponderance of the evidence. United States v. Kuehne, 547 F.3d 667, 677 (6th Cir. 2008).
With regard to the first substantial contacts factor—the site of Defendant’s acts—the
record demonstrates that much of Defendant’s conduct related to the conspiracy to distribute
heroin, including Defendant’s phone calls to Green, as well as Defendant’s efforts to pack and
deliver heroin, occurred in the Eastern District. However, in his proffer statement, Defendant
also admitted to selling heroin in quantities of 10 to 30 grams to individuals in Kalamazoo and
Grand Rapids, both cities in the Western District. Further, Defendant made phone calls to
Green, while Green was in Grand Rapids, to arrange sales.
In terms of the second factor, the elements and nature of the crime, a conviction for a
drug conspiracy under 21 U.S.C. § 846 requires “(1) an agreement to violate drug laws;
(2) knowledge of and intent to join the conspiracy; and (3) participation in the conspiracy.”
United States v. Warman, 578 F.3d 320, 332 (6th Cir. 2009). At the plea hearing, Defendant
admitted that by virtue of his telephone call with Green in February 2013, there was an
agreement between Defendant, Choice, and Green for Green to purchase heroin from Defendant
on February 27, 2013. Defendant also stated on the record that between summer 2012 and
February 2013, he, Choice, and Green had an agreement for Green to purchase heroin from
Defendant, Defendant sold heroin to Green, and Defendant knew Green intended to distribute the
heroin to other people. Finally, although Defendant is correct that a government informant or
agent cannot be a co-conspirator, Williams, 274 F.3d at 1084, this assertion is of little import on
the facts of this case because Green was not acting as a criminal informant until February 2013,
and his participation during this month was merely the continuation of an ongoing conspiracy
between Defendant, Choice, and Green that had been in progress since at least summer 2012.
Where a defendant’s co-conspirator “commit[s] an overt act furthering the conspiracy within [a]
district,” venue may lie in that district. United States v. Character, 76 F. App’x 690, 695 (6th
Cir. 2003). On this record, it is clear that Green—as part of the conspiracy with Defendant, and
prior to his enlistment as a criminal informant—committed overt acts in furtherance of the
conspiracy to distribute heroin, such as making phone calls and sales, in the Western District of
The third substantial contacts factor examines the effects of the defendant’s criminal
conduct. Because Defendant sold heroin to individuals in Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo, and
sold heroin to Green to be distributed in these cities, the detrimental effects of his criminal
conduct were likely felt in the Western District. Id. at 528; Zidell, 323 F.3d at 423. Finally, as to
the fourth factor, because the heroin sold by Defendant was primarily distributed to users in the
Western District, the Western District is a suitable district for carrying out relevant fact-finding.
See Brika, 416 F.3d at 528 (finding that the Southern District of Ohio was a suitable district for
carrying out fact-finding where law enforcement officials recorded the defendant’s allegedly
unlawful communications, made from his home, in that district); Williams, 274 F.3d at 1085
(indicating that a venue is suitable for fact-finding where the offense and its elements occurred in
that district, and relevant witnesses are available there). Based on the foregoing, we find that the
Government has demonstrated, by a preponderance of the evidence, that Defendant had
substantial contacts with the Western District and therefore venue was proper in that district.
II. The District Court’s Compliance with Rule 11(c)(5)
Defendant also challenges the district court’s rejection of the parties’ plea agreement,
which sought a sentence of 180 months, on the grounds that the district court failed to comply
with the requirements set out in Rule 11(c)(5). Because Defendant did not object at the time the
district court rejected the Rule 11 plea agreement, we review for plain error. United States v.
Anderson, 467 F. App’x 474, 481 (6th Cir. 2012); United States v. Murdock, 398 F.3d 491, 496
(6th Cir. 2005).
“[The] defendant bears the burden of proof on plain error review,” Murdock, 398 F.3d at
496, and must show that “1) an error occurred in the district court; 2) the error was plain, i.e.,
obvious or clear; 3) the error affected defendant's substantial rights; and 4) the adverse impact
seriously affected the fairness, integrity, or public reputation of the judicial proceedings.”
Anderson, 467 F. App’x at 481. The four elements of plain error are distinct and each must be
shown in order for the defendant to prevail. United States v. Sharp, 442 F.3d 946, 949–50 (6th
Any variance from the requirements of Rule 11 that does not affect substantial rights
constitutes “harmless error.” Fed. R. Crim. P. 11(h). Accordingly, this Court has held that
“‘substantial compliance’ rather than ‘strict compliance’ . . . is sufficient to satisfy Rule 11’s
requirements.” United States v. DeBusk, 976 F.2d 300, 306 (6th Cir. 1992). “[A] reviewing
court may consult the whole record when considering the effect of any error on substantial
rights.” United States v. Vonn, 535 U.S. 55, 59 (2002).
“[A] defendant has no absolute right to have a guilty plea accepted” by the district court.
United States v. White, 308 F. App’x 910, 915 (6th Cir. 2009) (citation and internal quotation
marks omitted). However, “a court must exercise sound discretion in determining whether or not
to reject a plea. Thus, a defendant is entitled to plead guilty unless the district court can
articulate a sound reason for rejecting the plea.” Id. Where a defendant pleads guilty pursuant to
a Rule 11(c)(1)(C) plea agreement, the guidelines “require the district judge to give due
consideration to the relevant sentencing range, even if the defendant and prosecutor recommend
a specific sentence as a condition of the guilty plea.” Freeman v. United States, 131 S. Ct. 2685,
Defendant argues that the court erred when it rejected the proposed 180-month sentence
contained in the plea agreement because, contrary to the procedures required under
Rule 11(c)(5), the court did not “personally address” Defendant to explain that (1) the court was
not required to follow the plea agreement, (2) Defendant had the right to withdraw his plea, and
(3) “if [Defendant] did not withdraw his plea the district court could dispose of his case less
favorably than the plea agreement contemplated.” Corrected Appellant’s Br. at 13–16. By
virtue of this alleged error, Defendant argues, he lacked sufficient information to make a
“knowing and intelligent decision” regarding whether to maintain his guilty plea in light of the
possible outcomes. Id. at 16. Further, this error affected the fairness of Defendant’s case
because “the district court rejected [the] plea agreement based solely on the offense level and
criminal history as calculated in the PSR . . . without consider[ing] . . . argument of counsel
regarding downward departures or objections that would normally affect a defendant’s final
guideline calculation.” Id. at 16. These arguments are unpersuasive.
After listening to the parties’ allocution regarding the purported appropriateness of an
180-month sentence, the district court reiterated its concerns, expressed at the beginning of the
hearing, that the proposed sentence was only 50 percent of the lower end of the advisory
guideline range—360 months to life imprisonment. The court concluded that such a sentence
was “a bridge too far” and informed the parties that (1) it would not accept the plea,
(2) Defendant “obviously” had the opportunity to withdraw his plea if he so chose, and (3) the
court would consider a reworked agreement from the parties if they elected to submit one.
Under Rule 11, if a district court rejects a plea agreement promulgated pursuant to Rule
11(c)(1)(A) or (C), the court must do the following on the record and in open court:
(A) inform the parties that the court rejects the plea agreement;
(B) advise the defendant personally that the court is not required to follow the
plea agreement and give the defendant an opportunity to withdraw the plea; and
(C) advise the defendant personally that if the plea is not withdrawn, the court
may dispose of the case less favorably toward the defendant than the plea
Fed. R. Crim. P. 11(c)(5). Here, the parties dispute what is meant by Rule 11’s requirement that
the court “advise the defendant personally” regarding (1) the court’s ability to reject the plea
agreement, (2) the defendant’s right to withdraw his guilty plea, and (3) the court’s prerogative
to dispose of the case less favorably than contemplated in the plea agreement if the plea is not
withdrawn. Defendant apparently takes issue with the relative brevity of the court’s conclusion
that it would not accept the plea agreement as well as the court’s alleged failure to “personally
address” defendant when conveying this decision, see Corrected Appellant’s Br. at 15, while the
government asserts that despite the court’s decision not to use the second-person pronoun “you”
in rejecting the plea agreement, “[t]he district court provided all of the information required by
Rule 11(c)(5).” Appellee’s Br. at 16, 19.
As indicated, we review plea proceedings conducted pursuant to Rule 11 for substantial
compliance with the Rule. United States v. Valdez, 362 F.3d 903, 908 (6th Cir. 2004); see also
DeBusk, 976 F.2d at 304, 306. “[T]he substantial compliance standard demands that a variance
from Rule 11’s requirements ‘not affect substantial rights.’” DeBusk, 976 F.2d at 306.
The parties do not cite, and we have not found, precedent in this Circuit elucidating the
exact requirements imposed by Rule 11(c)(5)’s directive that a district court “advise the
defendant personally” regarding certain issues following the rejection of a plea agreement.
However, the following extra-jurisdictional cases are instructive in delineating the scope of this
requirement. In the Eighth Circuit case United States v. Young, the defendant alleged that the
district court violated Rule 11(c)(1) by failing to personally advise him, at the time of the plea
hearing, as to the maximum and minimum penalties associated with two of the charges against
him. 927 F.2d 1060, 1061–62 (8th Cir. 1991). The majority in that case concluded that although
the district court did not personally advise the defendant of the statutory maximum and minimum
sentences applicable to the charges, it was sufficient that (1) the prosecution, rather than the
court, advised him of those parameters at the plea hearing and (2) the defendant expressed his
affirmative understanding of the prosecutor’s statements. Id. at 1062–63. In United States v.
Lomas, the defendant argued that the district court plainly erred when it rejected his plea
agreement because it failed to advise him, pursuant to Rule 11(c)(5)(C), that if he did not
withdraw his guilty plea, the disposition of his case might be less favorable to him than that
contemplated in the plea agreement. 483 F. App’x 324, 325 (9th Cir. 2012). The Ninth Circuit
rejected this argument and found that there was no plain error because “this omission did not
have any material effect on [the defendant’s] substantial rights.” Id. Specifically, because the
record made clear that the district court rejected the plea agreement due to a miscalculation
contained in the presentencing report that subjected the defendant to an inappropriately low
sentencing range, the Ninth Circuit concluded that the defendant “knew the district court's
rejection of his plea agreement would mean the court would likely subject him to a higher
sentencing range.” Id.
Here, the district court concluded that it would not accept the plea due to the significant
disparity between the proposed sentence and the advisory guideline range and stated that
Defendant had the opportunity to withdraw his plea. Further, during the prior plea hearing, the
court’s colloquy with Defendant proceeded as follows:
THE COURT: If I decide not to accept the . . . plea, you would have the absolute
right to withdraw your plea of guilty. Do you understand that?
THE DEFENDANT: Yes.
THE COURT: Do you have any questions about that?
THE DEFENDANT: No.
THE COURT [addressing counsel for the government and counsel for Defendant,
respectively]: Mr. Courtade, Mr. Kent, have I adequately covered that?
MR. COURTADE: Yes, Your Honor, you have.
MR. KENT: Yes.
(R. 149, First Plea Hr’g, PageID #720–21). Similarly, with regard to any sentence imposed
following acceptance of Defendant’s guilty plea, the court advised Defendant that:
THE COURT: Those guideline ranges are advisory to the Court. In other words, I
can go above them, I can go below them, I can stay within the guideline range.
Do you understand that?
THE DEFENDANT: Yes.
THE COURT: Now, in this case, if I agree to the . . . plea, I’ll be giving you
15 years [i.e., 180 months]. Do you understand?
THE DEFENDANT: Yes.
THE COURT: The Court would be obligated to consider possible departures
upward, possible departures downward, and variances from the sentencing
guidelines as well. Do you understand that?
THE DEFENDANT: Yes.
(Id. at 724). The text of the parties’ plea agreement also acknowledged the court’s ability to
“impose a sentence within, above, or below the Guideline range.” (R. 75, Plea Agreement,
The district court reiterated its concerns about the disparity between the 180-month
sentence proposed by the parties and the range of 360 months to life set out under the guidelines
throughout the hearing.
In this vein, the court referred to the plea agreement as a
“sledgehammer,” noted that it “reduce[d] the sentence by 50 percent off the low end” of the
guidelines range, and asserted that although the guidelines are advisory, they provided a starting
point for the court’s analysis.
(R. 155, Omnibus Hr’g Tr., PageID #809).
Based on the
foregoing, we find that the district court’s statements throughout the hearing made clear, as the
government contends, that the court rejected the plea agreement because it concluded that a
longer sentence that better approximated the range set out in the guidelines was more
One of the elements Defendant must prove to show plain error is that “the error affected
[his] substantial rights.” Anderson, 467 F. App’x at 481. “[A] defendant can prove that his
substantial rights are affected when he shows that the district court failed to comply with the key
safeguard in place to protect those rights and that there was no functional substitute for that
safeguard.” Murdock, 398 F.3d at 497. Here, even if Defendant could show that the district
court clearly erred at the sentencing hearing by failing to “advise the defendant personally”
regarding certain information required under Rule 11, we find that Defendant cannot show that
this error affected his substantial rights because the district court’s extensive discussion with
Defendant at the plea hearing provided a “functional substitute” for any safeguards that may
have been omitted at the sentencing hearing. Id.; see also Young, 927 F.2d at 1062–63. Thus,
we find no plain error on this basis.2
Defendant also challenges the district court’s failure to personally inform him that failure
to withdraw his guilty plea after the court’s rejection of the plea agreement would allow the
district court to impose a less favorable, i.e. lengthier, sentence than that contemplated by the
However, Defendant, like the defendant in Lomas, cannot show that this
As stated above, Rule 11(c)(5)(C) instructs courts to “advise the defendant personally”
that (1) the court is not required to follow a plea agreement and (2) the court may dispose of a
case less favorably than contemplated by the plea agreement if the defendant does not withdraw
his guilty plea. We are careful to note that our holding today does not seek to undermine this
directive, and best practices for creating a clear record would likely entail a colloquy between the
court and the defendant in which the court makes clear that it is addressing the defendant
directly—rather than speaking to the attorneys—when conveying the information required under
omission affected his substantial rights. See 483 F. App’x at 325. In this case, the court made
clear that it was rejecting the plea agreement because it found that the proposed sentence
contained within was too short in light of the advisory guideline range.
Defendant elected to withdraw his guilty plea, the district court’s purported failure to warn
Defendant about the potential adverse consequences of failing to withdraw the plea had no effect
on his substantial rights.
III. Procedural and Substantive Reasonableness of the Sentence
Finally, Defendant attacks the reasonableness of the 240-month sentence imposed by the
district court. As a general matter, “[w]e review a sentence imposed by the district court for
procedural and substantive reasonableness under an abuse-of-discretion standard.” United States
v. Brown, 372 F. App’x 643, 645 (6th Cir. 2010) (citing Gall v. United States, 552 U.S. 38, 52
(2007)). However, “[w]here a party has failed to object to a procedural defect, we review claims
of procedural unreasonableness for plain error.” United States v. Wallace, 597 F.3d 794, 802
(6th Cir. 2010). Because Defendant responded in the negative to the district court’s inquiry
regarding whether he had any legal objections to the 240-month sentence, plain error review
applies to Defendant’s procedural reasonableness claim. Wallace, 597 F.3d at 802; United States
v. Pritchard, 392 F. App’x 433, 437 (6th Cir. 2010) (“Procedural objections must be explicitly
raised in the district court in order to preserve them for reasonableness review under an
abuse-of-discretion standard, and if they are not properly preserved then the sentence is reviewed
for plain error.”).
Defendant’s substantive reasonableness claim is reviewed for abuse of
discretion. United States v. Solano-Rosales, 781 F.3d 345, 355–56 (6th Cir. 2015).
a. The Sentence was Procedurally Reasonable
When reviewing for procedural reasonableness, we examine whether the district court
committed a significant procedural error, including “failing to calculate (or improperly
calculating) the Guidelines range, treating the Guidelines as mandatory, failing to consider the
[18 U.S.C.] § 3553(a) factors, selecting a sentence based on clearly erroneous facts, or failing to
adequately explain the chosen sentence—including an explanation for any deviation from the
Guidelines range.” Gall, 552 U.S. at 51. “[A] sentence may be procedurally unreasonable if the
district court did not consider the applicable Guidelines range or neglected to consider the factors
set forth in 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a), and instead simply chose a sentence that the judge deemed
appropriate.” United States v. Vowell, 516 F.3d 503, 510 (6th Cir. 2008). Overall, we require
that the district court “provide an articulation of the reasons [it] reached the sentence ultimately
imposed,” that “allow[s] for meaningful appellate review.” Solano-Rosales, 781 F.3d at 351
(citations and internal quotation marks omitted).
Defendant argues that “[t]he sentence in this case was unreasonable because the trial
court imposed [the] maximum sentence . . . without considering the factors under § 3553(a) in
determining whether that sentence was appropriate.” Corrected Appellant’s Br. at 16. This
argument is belied by the record.
As part of his allocution, Defendant argued that the court should impose a sentence
shorter than the 240-month maximum based on his (1) allegedly inflated criminal history
category, (2) cooperation with the government, (3) acceptance of a “significant financial
penalty,” (4) remorse for his crimes, (5) relationship with his children, and (6) age.3 Defendant
Defendant was 46 at the time of the sentencing hearing.
also expressed his desire to “take full responsibility for [his] part in the conspiracy.” (R. 157,
Sentencing Hr’g Tr., PageID #878).
Prior to imposing the sentence at issue, the district court explicitly recognized its
obligation to “make an individualized assessment” based on the factors enumerated in 18 U.S.C.
§ 3553(a). (Id. at 880–81). The court discussed Defendant’s significant level of familial and
communal support, indicated that it did not doubt that Defendant cared about his children despite
his arrest in their presence, and characterized Defendant’s decision to generate income through
drug distribution—rather than some other, legal means—as a “tragedy” in light of Defendant’s
intelligence and history as a small business owner. (Id. at 881–82, 885). The court also
“accept[ed] [Defendant’s] expression of remorse,” but expounded that crimes involving heroin
are “very serious” due to the drug’s “devastating effect” in communities. (Id. at 883).
Twice during the hearing, the court indicated that although Defendant’s alcohol-related
charges were arguably less serious than other crimes, they were “properly calibrate[d]” under the
guidelines and did not warrant a lower criminal history category.4 (Id. at 871, 884–85). Further,
the court noted that the charge contained in the superseding information, which imposed a
240-month maximum absent from the original charge, “g[ave] him [a] very significant benefit,”
(id. at 883), in that he no longer faced the prospect of life imprisonment under 21 U.S.C.
§ 841(b)(1)(A)(i). Finally, the court found that any sentence imposed should both specifically
deter Defendant and generally deter persons who might consider distributing narcotics. The
court concluded that an advisory guideline sentence was appropriate because it would “reflect
The court also noted that even if Defendant were classified as Criminal History
Category V, rather than Criminal History Category VI, the advisory guideline range would still
exceed the statutory maximum under 21 U.S.C. § 841(b)(1)(C).
the seriousness of the offense, promote respect for the law, and provide just punishment for the
The district court’s explanation for its imposition of a 240-month sentence shows that the
court considered both the applicable guidelines range and the § 3553(a) factors. See Vowell,
516 F.3d at 510. Additionally, the court acknowledged the advisory, rather than mandatory,
nature of the guidelines, see Gall, 552 U.S. at 51, and addressed Defendant’s arguments for a
downward variance in a manner that demonstrated that the court listened to Defendant’s
contentions, considered the supporting evidence, and took Defendant’s circumstances into
account. United States v. Douglas, 563 F. App’x 371, 375 (6th Cir. 2014). On this record, we
find that the district court’s articulation of its reasons for imposing the 240-month sentence
allows for meaningful appellate review, Solano-Rosales, 781 F.3d at 351, and conclude that the
sentence was procedurally reasonable.
b. The Sentence was Substantively Reasonable
“[R]eview of a sentence for substantive reasonableness ‘requires inquiry into . . . the
length of the sentence and the factors evaluated . . . by the district court in reaching its sentencing
United States v. Cochrane, 702 F.3d 334, 345 (6th Cir. 2012).
18 U.S.C. § 3553(a), the sentencing court must:
[I]mpose a sentence sufficient, but not greater than necessary, . . .
(A) to reflect the seriousness of the offense, to promote respect for the
law, and to provide just punishment for the offense;
(B) to afford adequate deterrence to criminal conduct;
(C) to protect the public from further crimes of the defendant; and
(D) to provide the defendant with needed educational or vocational
training, medical care, or other correctional treatment in the most effective
18 U.S.C. § 3553(a)(2). The court must also consider “the nature and circumstances of the
offense and the history and characteristics of the defendant,” “the kinds of sentences available,”
the applicable sentencing range under the guidelines, pertinent policy statements issued by
Congress or the Sentencing Commission, the need to avoid unwarranted sentence disparities
among similarly situated defendants, and “the need to provide restitution to any victims of the
offense.” 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a).
The substantive reasonableness inquiry requires this Court to examine the totality of the
circumstances, including whether and to what extent the sentence imposed by the district court
varies from the guidelines range. Cochrane, 702 F.3d at 345. “A sentence that falls within [the]
defendant’s Guidelines range is accorded a presumption of reasonableness.” Douglas, 563 F.
App’x at 376.
Defendant’s substantive unreasonableness arguments closely track his procedural
unreasonableness arguments, and we reject them for the same reasons.5 The district court
explicitly accounted for the maximum penalty dictated by 21 U.S.C. § 841(b)(1)(C) and
evaluated the relevant § 3553(a) factors. Cochrane, 702 F.3d at 345. Further, sentences that fall
within the advisory guidelines range are presumptively reasonable, and Defendant has failed to
proffer evidence or argument sufficient to overcome this presumption. Id.; Douglas, 563 F.
App’x at 376. Finally, although it was theoretically possible for the district court to impose a
shorter sentence that was also substantively reasonable on the facts of this case, that does not
undermine or otherwise contradict a conclusion that the sentence here was reasonable. United
States v. Herrera-Zuniga, 571 F.3d 568, 591 (6th Cir. 2009) (“Regardless of whether we would
have imposed the same sentence, we must afford due deference to the district court’s decision to
Specifically, Defendant asserts that “the trial court failed to provide sufficient evidence
on the record that it considered the § 3553(a) factors in fashioning [Defendant’s] maximum
sentence” because it “provided only a brief statement of the § 3553 factors.” Corrected
Appellant’s Br. at 17.
determine the appropriate length of the defendant’s sentence, so long as it is justified in light of
the relevant § 3553(a) factors.”). We conclude that the 240-month sentence imposed by the
district court was not substantively unreasonable.
For the reasons stated in this opinion, we AFFIRM the district court in full.
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