New York Federal Criminal Practice Blog
April 13, 2010

Second Circuit Finds No Error in Co-Defendant Sentencing Disparity

Making a formal pact with federal prosecutors has many advantages, as demonstrated in United States v. Menendez, 2010 WL 1172076 (2d Cir. March 29, 2010).  The appellant (Sierra) had pled guilty without a plea agreement to an indictment charging him with heroin distribution and money laundering.  He challenged his sentence of 135 months in part on the grounds that the district court created an unwarranted disparity in sentencing by imposing upon him a longer term of imprisonment than on each of his several co-defendants, who, he argued, played the same or a larger role in the criminal scheme. (This argument was not raised at the district court level, and so was reviewed on a plain error analysis.)  Rejecting the claim, the Court explained:

Although it is true that a district court may compare co-defendants' sentences to avoid unwarranted sentencing disparities, the sentencing disparities between Sierra and his co-defendants were not unwarranted in this case. Unlike Sierra, his co-defendants either (1) pleaded guilty pursuant to a plea agreement, (2) pleaded guilty to conspiracy to distribute heroin or narcotics but not to conspiracy to launder money, (3) pleaded guilty to conspiracy to launder money but not to conspiracy to distribute, or (4) were exceptionally honest in admitting to the crimes, and brought to the court's attention unique facts, such as HIV-positive status and a resulting reduced risk of recidivism. On plain error review, we therefore reject Sierra's unwarranted-disparity argument as without merit.

In the same case, the Court ruled as a matter of first impression that the base offense level for Sierra's conviction for conspiracy to launder narcotics proceeds could be calculated using the greater amount of drugs involved in the underlying offense of conspiracy to distribute heroin.

Lawyers: Randa Maher, Esq. (defendant); AUSAs Sarah Lai and Guy Petrillo.

See Archives for all posts since September 2007.