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United States v. Rodriguez-Rosado

United States Court of Appeals, First Circuit

November 28, 2018

WILFREDO RODRIGUEZ-ROSADO, a/k/a La Gorda, a/k/a Mogoyo, a/k/a Pitin, a/k/a Mogo, Defendant, Appellant.


          Vivianne M. Marrero, Assistant Federal Public Defender Supervisor, Appeals Section, and Eric Alexander Vos, Federal Public Defender, on brief, for appellant.

          Thomas F. Klumper, Assistant United States Attorney Senior Appellate Counsel, Mariana E. Bauzá-Almonte, Assistant United States Attorney Chief, Appellate Division, and Rosa Emilia Rodríguez-Vélez, United States Attorney, on brief, for appellee.

          Before Howard, Chief Judge, Torruella and Thompson, Circuit Judges.

          THOMPSON, Circuit Judge.

         Conducting the Performance

         Like the conductor of a grand symphony orchestra who sets tempos, cues ensemble members, and modulates sounds, Wilfredo Rodríguez-Rosado led his coworkers at American Airlines (and others) in a decade-long, Puerto Rico-based, drug-smuggling conspiracy. Performing as Rodríguez's instruments of crime, the band of dope peddlers each played different, though no less necessary, roles. Some jam-packed suitcases with cocaine; others drove the cases to airports. Some weaseled the cocaine-stuffed suitcases aboard airplanes; others tiptoed them out for distribution. With drugs and cash zipping up and down the United States, Rodríguez and his squad of oh-so-sneaky smugglers trafficked ultimately more than 9, 000 kilograms of cocaine.

         Breaking Up the Band

         But drug-smuggling isn't music to everyone's ears, least of all law enforcement. In early 2009, after seizing six suitcases, chockfull of cocaine, a combined federal and state taskforce busted Rodríguez and his group. And later that year, a grand jury charged them with various drug offenses. These crimes carried serious time. Eventually, Rodríguez owned up to the wrongdoings; he pleaded guilty to participating in a conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute between 15 to 50 kilograms of cocaine. See 21 U.S.C. §§ 841(a)(1), 841(b)(1)(A)(ii), 846. Because Rodríguez accepted some responsibility for the offense, the government in turn recommended a sentence of 14 to 17.5 years - a substantial sentence, yes - but a fraction of the time he could've served otherwise.[1] The judge, consistent with the government's proposed sentence range, gave Rodríguez 15 years' incarceration.

         Auditioning for a Better Deal

         A few years later, Rodríguez got a shot at nabbing an even lower sentence. In 2014, the U.S. Sentencing Commission adopted Amendment 782.[2] See United States Sentencing Commission, Guidelines Manual, App. C Supp., Amend. 782 (reduction), 788 (retroactivity) (Nov. 2018). That change, which applies retroactively, reduced by two levels the base offense level for most drug offenses, including the crime to which Rodríguez pleaded guilty. See id. Days after Amendment 782 took effect, little wonder Rodríguez filed a motion seeking a reduced sentence.[3]

          But Rodríguez was not alone. Indeed, in the wake of Amendment 782's ratification, thousands of prisoners nationwide, jailed for drug crimes, suddenly became eligible for reduced sentences. See United States v. Rodríguez-Rosado ("Rodríguez I"), 854 F.3d 122, 123 (1st Cir. 2017)(noting that "Amendment 782, as expected, generated thousands of sentence reduction motions"). That the possible early release of tens of thousands of incarcerated people would strain the criminal justice system was not lost on the Sentencing Commission. See USSG App. C, Amend. 788 at 80-82 (imposing a one-year delay on the filing of Amendment-782 motions to "permit courts and probation offices to effectively supervise the increased number of defendants," ensure released offenders' successful reentry to society, and promote public safety). Nor was it lost on the Puerto Rico federal court. See Rodríguez I, 854 F.3d at 123 (indicating that "the Puerto Rico District Court" had to brainstorm how to "handl[e] the impending onslaught of motions"). Indeed, just five days after Amendment 782's adoption, the Puerto Rico federal court devised a way to keep pace with the motions - a formal, multi-step procedure called Administrative Directive 14-426 ("AD 14-426"). See In Re: USSG Amend. 782, Misc. No. 14-426 (ADC)(D.P.R. Nov. 6, 2014).

         The procedure went something like this: After a defendant files a motion seeking a reduced sentence under Amendment 782, the clerk of the court automatically refers the case to a magistrate judge for "initial screening." The magistrate judge is tasked with figuring out whether the defendant is eligible for a lower sentence, and nothing more. Should the magistrate judge find the defendant ineligible for less prison time, the motion fails.[4] But if the magistrate judge finds the defendant possibly eligible for an earlier release date, the motion advances. At stage two, the government, defense counsel and probation must "meet to discuss the case" and attempt to "reach a stipulat[ed]" agreement. And if that falls short, the district court, based on the parties' memoranda, is charged with resolving the motion.

         Marching To A Different Tune

         The AD 14-426 process seems as clear as a bell. And yet, after Rodríguez filed his motion, the district court - for whatever reason - ignored the process: It leaped ahead of the magistrate judge before he could chime in with an eligibility determination, sua sponte denying the motion. As grounds for rejecting the motion, the district court emphasized Rodríguez's "maximum leader[ship]" role in "an elaborate drug trafficking organization that operated for many years packaging and transporting over 9, 000 kilos of cocaine."

         Even so, about a month after the district court denied Rodríguez's motion, the magistrate judge reviewed Rodríguez's motion all the same. And he determined Rodríguez may be eligible for a lower sentence.[5] So as AD 14-426 contemplates, the magistrate judge handed the motion back to the district court for the next stage of the process.

         Rodríguez I

         The district court in a text order referencing its initial denial again tossed Rodríguez's motion, rejecting the magistrate judge's report and recommendation. Twice spurned in his quest for a sentence reduction, Rodríguez appealed his case to us. There, in Rodríguez I, we faced the question, among others, of whether the district court had struck the wrong note by not following its own internal, administrative rules, AD 14-426, when it denied Rodríguez's motion. See Rodríguez I, 854 F.3d 122. And we said yes. Against the case's backdrop of "unique circumstances," we determined that "the prudent course" was to vacate and remand, so the district court could comply with its own administrative order in resolving Rodríguez's motion. Id. at 126. In explaining our reasoning, we noted that since Amendment 782 had taken effect, the Puerto Rico district court had gained a good deal of experience handling sentence-reduction motions under AD 14-426. Id. at 126. Therefore we reasoned remand would permit the district court to apply "the wealth of experience that it ha[d] gained adjudicating motions to reduce sentences" under AD 14-426. Id. And finally, because the ultimate issue of whether to grant a sentence reduction is a question Congress "committed to the sentencing court's sound discretion," United States v. Zayas-Ortiz, 808 F.3d 520, 523 (1st Cir. 2015), we uttered not a word on "the proper outcome on remand." Rodríguez I, 854 F.3d at 126.

         On the very same day we handed down our judgment in Rodríguez I, the district court, seemingly on cue, swiftly heeded the guidance we spelled out. The district court ordered the parties to "file their positions and recommendations as to whether [Rodríguez's] sentence may be reduced pursuant to Amendment 782." As AD 14-426 provides, the parties met a few days later to discuss the case, hoping to reach a stipulated agreement. But to no avail. So, consistent with the district court's administrative order, the parties filed memoranda hewing to the court's deadline.

         Still Marching To ...

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