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United States v. Valencia

United States Court of Appeals, Eighth Circuit

July 22, 2016

United States of America, Plaintiff- Appellee
v.
Alejandro Valencia, also known as Pablo Villanueva-Acosta, Defendant-Appellant United States of America, Plaintiff- Appellee
v.
Eric Octavio Rangel-Ortega Defendant-Appellant

          Submitted: April 12, 2016

         Appeals from United States District Court for the Western District of Missouri - Kansas City

          Before GRUENDER and KELLY, Circuit Judges, and ERICKSEN, [1] District Judge.

          GRUENDER, Circuit Judge.

         Alejandro Valencia and Eric Octavio Rangel-Ortega pleaded guilty to several drug-related offenses. The district court[2] sentenced Valencia to 292 months' imprisonment and Rangel-Ortega to 240 months' imprisonment. Both Valencia and Rangel-Ortega now appeal, arguing that the district court erred by enhancing their sentences based on their roles in the offenses. We dismiss Rangel-Ortega's appeal, and we affirm Valencia's sentence.

         I.

         In 2012, law enforcement began investigating a Mexico-based drug-trafficking organization operating in Kansas City. The local recipients of the imported cocaine and methamphetamine were Alejandro Valencia and Eric Octavio Rangel-Ortega. From October 2012 to January 2013, undercover investigators conducted several controlled purchases of methamphetamine from Rangel-Ortega. When Rangel-Ortega returned to Mexico in early 2013, he referred the investigators to his partner Valencia for future methamphetamine purchases. Prior to each transaction, the undercover officer contacted Rangel-Ortega to ensure Valencia would complete the sale. In total, the investigators conducted five controlled purchases from Valencia.

         Following these events, a grand jury indicted Rangel-Ortega and Valencia. Rangel-Ortega pleaded guilty to conspiracy to distribute 500 grams or more of methamphetamine, in violation of 21 U.S.C. §§ 841(a)(1) and 846; and distribution of methamphetamine, in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 841(a)(1). Valencia pleaded guilty to conspiracy to distribute and possess with the intent to distribute five kilograms or more of cocaine and 500 grams or more of methamphetamine, in violation of 21 U.S.C. §§ 841(a)(1) and 846; conspiracy to import five kilograms or more of cocaine, in violation of 21 U.S.C. §§ 952(a), 960(a)(1), and 963; and bulk cash smuggling, in violation of 31 U.S.C. § 5332(a)(1). In addition, both men pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit money laundering, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1956(a)(1)(A)(I). The two plea agreements contained the same appellate waiver:

[T]he defendant expressly waives the right to appeal any sentence, directly or collaterally, on any ground except claims of (1) ineffective assistance of counsel; (2) prosecutorial misconduct; or (3) an illegal sentence. An "illegal sentence" includes a sentence imposed in excess of the statutory maximum, but does not include less serious errors, such as misapplication of the Sentencing Guidelines, an abuse of discretion, or the imposition of an unreasonable sentence.

         At Rangel-Ortega's change-of-plea hearing, the district court examined him to ensure that he understood the components of the plea agreement. The court reminded Rangel-Ortega that he was waiving his appellate rights on all but three grounds: ineffective assistance of counsel, prosecutorial misconduct, and imposition of an illegal sentence. Rangel-Ortega confirmed his understanding of the agreement and the rights he waived. The district court then accepted Rangel-Ortega's plea.

         The court referred Valencia's change-of-plea hearing to a magistrate judge. The magistrate judge confirmed that Valencia had read, understood, and consulted an attorney about the plea agreement. However, the magistrate judge misstated the scope of Valencia's appellate waiver by informing him that he only waived the right to appeal "as long as the sentence is reasonable and not greater than the statutory maximums." Valencia confirmed his understanding of this summary, and the district court accepted his plea in accordance with the magistrate judge's recommendation.

         The presentence investigation reports for both Rangel-Ortega and Valencia recommended an enhancement under USSG § 3B1.1 based on their leadership roles in the drug-trafficking offenses. Both men objected to this enhancement, arguing that the evidence did not support its imposition. As a result, the Government called Special Agent Matt Hall of the Department of Homeland Security to testify at each sentencing hearing.

         At Rangel-Ortega's sentencing hearing, Special Agent Hall testified that Rangel-Ortega told undercover officers that he could obtain whatever they desired through his connections in Mexico. Agent Hall also testified that the freedom with which Rangel-Ortega crossed the border-despite his illegal status-displayed that he was well connected and that he had mid-level status within the drug organization. In addition, Agent Hall stated that Rangel-Ortega's supervisory authority was demonstrated by the fact that even after he left the country, he orchestrated an undercover officer's contact with Valencia in order to facilitate additional drug purchases. Finally, Agent Hall testified that Valencia sent money from the local Kansas City transactions to Rangel-Ortega. Based on this testimony, the court overruled Rangel-Ortega's objection and applied the four-level sentencing enhancement pursuant to USSG § 3B1.1(a) for Rangel-Ortega's role as an organizer or leader of a criminal activity that involved five or more participants or that was otherwise extensive. The court ultimately varied downward from Rangel-Ortega's advisory sentencing guidelines range of 262-327 months to impose a sentence of 240 months' imprisonment.

         At Valencia's sentencing hearing, Agent Hall described Valencia as the organization's point of contact in Kansas City. Agent Hall testified that undercover agents made several purchases from Valencia after Rangel-Ortega went to Mexico. Agent Hall also explained that law enforcement had intercepted thirty-one hours of phone conversations between members of the drug-trafficking ring. During one of these intercepted conversations, Valencia provided directions to two couriers who were bringing a shipment of drugs from Mexico to Kansas City. As part of this transaction, Valencia also called the girlfriend of the drug-trafficking organization's supplier and told her to bring a scale so he could weigh the cocaine. Finally, after the transaction, Valencia contacted the organization's supplier to report that the $330, 000 transaction had been successful.

         Agent Hall also testified that Valencia called a local drug dealer when a new drug shipment arrived. Valencia referenced collecting payment from this seller and alluded to the fact that he had fronted cocaine to the dealer in the past. Based on the agent's testimony, the court rejected Valencia's objection and imposed a three-level enhancement under § 3B1.1(b) for Valencia's role as a manager or supervisor in a criminal activity involving five or more participants or that was otherwise extensive. The ...


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