By Michael Mitchell

Today, in the criminal case of United States v. Pina, an unpublished per curiam opinion, the Fourth Circuit affirmed the decision of the District Court for the Western District of North Carolina, upholding the defendant’s conviction and enhanced sentence for drug charges and firearm possession.

Defendant Challenges Two-Level Sentencing Enhancement

The Fourth Circuit considered whether the district court properly applied a two-level enhancement to the defendant’s sentence for drug-related conspiracy and possession of a firearm.  The defendant also alleged that his guilty plea was coerced and his sentence was “substantively unreasonable.”

Defendant Convicted for Drug & Firearm Charges

The district court sentenced the defendant Jose Francisco Jiminez Pina to 180 months in prison after he pled guilty to conspiracy to distribute and possess with intent to distribute at least 500 grams of a mixture and substance containing a detectable amount of methamphetamine, and possession of a firearm in furtherance of a drug trafficking crime.  The district court sentenced the defendant to the mandatory-minimum 120 months for the drug conspiracy and 60 consecutive months for the firearm conviction.  Acknowledging that there were no meritorious issues on appeal under the framework of Anders v. California, the defendant challenged whether the two-level enhancement was properly applied and whether his case should be remanded to the district court for application of the Sentencing Guidelines.

Fourth Circuit Applies “Plain Error” Standard of Review

To evaluate whether the two-level enhancement was appropriate, the Fourth Circuit considered reasonableness “under a deferential abuse-of-discretion standard,” according to Gall v. United States.  The court found no “‘significant procedural error,” such as improper calculation of the sentencing range under the Guidelines or inadequate explanation of the sentence to the defendant.  Therefore, the Fourth Circuit instead reviewed the case for “plain error only.”

Mandatory Minimum Sentence Satisfies Sentencing Guidelines

The Fourth Circuit considered the defendant’s claim by evaluating the Sentencing Guidelines, finding that the defendant had been convicted of a crime wherein methamphetamine production or distribute was a principal purpose of the premises.  The district court applied the mandatory minimum sentence of 120 months for the defendant’s drug conviction, “the lowest sentence it could impose.”  Thus, the Fourth Circuit determined that there was “no plain error” in the calculation of the defendant’s sentence according to the Sentencing Guidelines.  The Fourth Circuit also found the sentence “substantively reasonable” based on a “totality of the circumstances.”  The defendant was also unable to overcome the rebuttable presumption in favor of the district court’s judgment with regard to his plea agreement allegations.

Fourth Circuit Affirms District Court’s Enhanced Sentence

The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s judgment upholding the defendant’s conviction for conspiracy to distribute methamphetamine and firearm possession as well as the two-level sentencing enhancement for a total of 180 months in prison.