By Chad M. Zimlich

Today, in the criminal case United States v. Lynch, an unpublished opinion, the Fourth Circuit dispensed with oral arguments, finding that a sentence departure and a reliance on an informant were not substantial errors by the district court.

Upward Variances and Confidential Informants

The issues presented to the Fourth Circuit by defendant Tremayne A. Lynch (a.k.a. “Paco”) were whether the District Court of the Eastern District of North Carolina was wrong in relying on the information of a confidential informant to prove Count One, conspiracy to possess cocaine base with intent to distribute, as well as wrong in using an upward variance in Count Two, discharging a firearm during and in relation to a drug trafficking crime.

Additionally, an issue arose as to whether Lynch’s challenge to the sentencing calculation in Count One was barred by his plea agreement.

Drug Dealing, Gunfire, and a Plea Deal

The facts of the case were fairly simple, as the defendant has entered into a plea agreement, with little left in dispute afterwards. Defendant Lynch pleaded guilty to conspiracy to possess and distribute cocaine base, as well as discharging a firearm during and in relation to a drug trafficking crime. In sentencing Lynch, the district court relied on information given by a confidential informant about the weight of the cocaine base that was possessed by Lynch. The district court applied an eight-level upward departure; a variance used when, due to the seriousness or cruelty of the crime, the court feels a longer sentence is justified. This resulted in a total sentence of 450 months; 240 months for Count One and 210 months for Count Two. Lynch then appealed.

Deference to the District Court’s Reasonable Findings

The standard of review in cases like these for sentencing is de novo, however the court’s fact-finding will be given great deference and will only be overturned if the Fourth Circuit finds there to be a clear error or abuse of discretion. The Fourth Circuit also reiterated that the district court is free to use any relevant information before it, including uncorroborated hearsay, when weighing determinations on fact-finding decisions.

Lynch Gets His Challenge, But Ultimately Fails On the Merits

The Government first contended that Lynch was unable to challenge the use of the information delivered by the confidential informant as Lynch’s plea agreement waived his right to appeal a within-Guidelines sentence. However, Lynch’s argument was that his overall sentence was in excess of the Guideline’s range, thus negating the waiver and allowing him to appeal. The Fourth Circuit agreed.

However, this did little to help Lynch, as the Fourth Circuit disagreed that the district court’s use of the informant was outside of the court’s discretion. As a district court is able to determine the reliability of information presented to it, the Fourth Circuit refused to disturb the determination as the Fourth Circuit was not convinced by the record that it was definite a mistake had been committed.

Furthermore, the Court denied that there was an error in applying an upward variance on Lynch’s sentence under Count Two. Because the variance would have been substantively reasonable in any case due to the “wanton cruelty of Lynch’s conduct,” any error that would have been committed was harmless.

Sentences Need Only Be Reasonable, District Court Has Discretion

The Fourth Circuit once again affirmed that a district court need only provide a reasoned basis for sentence variances, and deference will always be afforded for the fact-finding work of the district court.