By Joshua P. Bussen

Today, April 1, 2015, in the published criminal opinion United States v. Rangel, the Fourth Circuit affirmed the Eastern District of Virginia’s denial of the defendant’s motion to vacate his sentence for constitutionally ineffective assistance.

The Rangel Trial

In 1995 Abel Castillo Rangel was indicted for several crimes related to marijuana possession and trafficking.  At his trial, the government presented evidence that during the course of a police “sting operation,”  Rangel, along with several coconspirators, was caught in possession of marijuana while also operating a trafficking business.  Additional evidence showed that shortly after arresting Rangel, the police searched his house and found three additional bags of marijuana, totaling 5.25 pounds.

After the close of the prosecution’s and defendant’s case-in-chief, the court held a conference to discuss jury instructions.  The alleged issue arose because Rangel’s counsel did not request any instruction regarding drug weight and its bearing on the Pinkerton principles—that is, [a determination of weight] based on drugs with which Rangel was directly involved or drugs that were reasonably foreseeable to him . . . in furtherance of the conspiracy.”

The jury convicted Rangel and found that the conspiracy involved more than 1,000 kg of marijuana—subjecting Rangel to a 120-month mandatory minimum.

28 U.S.C. § 2255

Rangel filed a pro se petition to vacate the conviction and sentence under 28 U.S.C. § 2255, for ineffective counsel.  Rangel claimed that the failure to request jury instructions regarding the Pinkerton principles at both the jury-instruction conference and upon the commencement of the initial appeal indicate that he did not have an effective counsel.

In the Fourth Circuit, to “establish a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel, a defendant must show (1) that counsel’s performance was [objectively] deficient, and (2) that the deficient performance prejudiced the defense.”

Was Rangel’s Attorney “Ineffective?”

The circuit judges found that Rangel’s appeal was meritless because the “sentence would have been the same even with a proper jury instruction.”  Even if the jury had used the Pinkerton principles to Rangel’s favor, he would still have been subject to a mandatory minimum of 120 months and a maximum of five years.  Rangel was sentenced on the low end of the sentencing guidelines (121 months), making it unlikely that the district court judge would have sentenced him differently even with the Pinkerton principles.  Additionally, the district court allowed Rangel to serve his sentences for several different crimes concurrently, therefore he would have been in prison for at least 120 months either way.

The Fourth Circuit’s Decision

The Fourth Circuit, finding no error on the part of the district court because the result in this case would have been the same with or without the Pinkerton principles, affirmed the conviction and sentence of Abel Castillo Rangel.