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United States v. Anchundia-Espinoza

United States Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit

July 27, 2018

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Plaintiff - Appellee
v.
ROGER ALFREDO ANCHUNDIA-ESPINOZA, Defendant-Appellant

          Appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Texas

          Before CLEMENT, HIGGINSON, and HO, Circuit Judges.

          EDITH BROWN CLEMENT, CIRCUIT JUDGE

         Roger Alfredo Anchundia-Espinoza pleaded guilty to conspiracy to possess, with the intent to distribute, cocaine while aboard a vessel subject to the jurisdiction of the United States, in violation of 46 U.S.C. §§ 70503(a)(1), 70506(a) & (b) and 21 U.S.C. § 960. The district court denied Anchundia-Espinoza's requests for safety-valve and minor participant reductions. Anchundia-Espinoza appeals those denials. For the reasons set forth below, we AFFIRM.

         I.

         Roger Alfredo Anchundia-Espinoza, a citizen of Ecuador, and three others were contracted by an unknown individual to transport cocaine. They were each paid $1, 000 up front for the service. They were also promised an additional $9, 000 and a plane ticket once they reached their destination. On December 10, 2015, the group left the Esmeraldas area of Ecuador on a small boat. After traveling a number of miles in open waters and being provided additional fuel by two other boats, they met a larger boat, which contained the shipment of cocaine and two occupants. Anchundia-Espinoza and the three other men boarded the larger boat, and the two men on the larger boat took their smaller one (presumably back to Ecuador, although it is unclear). The four men traveled for five days, and each drove the boat at different times.

         On December 15, 2015, the group met up with a boat named Imemsa and transferred the shipment of cocaine and their equipment to it. They intentionally sank the boat they had been traveling on and drove the Imemsa toward Mexico at a high rate of speed. There was a total of seven occupants on the Imemsa. Within two hours, a U.S. Marine Patrol Aircraft detected the Imemsa, and the U.S. Coast Guard sought to intercept it. The boat failed to comply with numerous demands to stop; after two warning shots, however, it finally stopped approximately 95 nautical miles southwest of the Mexico/Guatemala boarder. The driver of the boat made no claim of nationality for the vessel, so it was treated as without nationality, and U.S. officials boarded the boat. They found 35 bales of cocaine on board and another bail floating in the water attached to a line over the side of the boat. A later laboratory report prepared by the DEA revealed that the cocaine weighed 681.6 kilograms.

         In January 2016, Anchundia-Espinoza and the six other men were indicted for conspiring to possess, with intent to distribute, five or more kilograms of cocaine while aboard a vessel subject to the jurisdiction of the United States, in violation of 46 U.S.C. §§ 70503(a)(1), 70506(a) & (b), and 21 U.S.C. § 960. Anchundia-Espinoza pleaded guilty without a plea agreement. The punishment guidelines for § 70503 are provided at 21 U.S.C. § 960(b)(1)(B)(ii); the offense carries a statutory minimum sentence of 10 years' imprisonment and a maximum of life.

         Using the 2016 Sentencing Guidelines, the Pre-sentence Report ("PSR") determined that Anchundia-Espinoza had a base offense level of 38 because he was responsible for 681.6 kilograms of cocaine-well above the 450 kilogram minimum in U.S.S.G. § 2D1.1, the provision providing the base offense levels for conspiracies. The offense level was increased by two levels under U.S.S.G. § 2D1.1(b)(3), which provides for an adjustment when the defendant acted as a captain or navigator aboard a vessel carrying a controlled substance. The defendant was then lowered to an offense level of 37 for acceptance of responsibility, pursuant to U.S.S.G. § 3E1.1(a) and (b). Finally, he had a criminal history category of I, and faced an advisory sentencing range of 210 to 262 months of imprisonment. And relevant to this appeal, the PSR provided that, "[s]ince the defendant was convicted of a 46 U.S.C. § 70503(a)(1) offense, the safety valve does not apply."

         Anchundia-Espinoza filed two objections to the PSR. First, he objected to the denial of the safety valve reduction. Second, he objected to the denial of the "minor participant" reduction under U.S.S.G. § 3B1.2. The probation office disagreed with both objections.

         The district court denied Anchundia-Espinoza's first objection because the safety valve provision applies only to the five offenses specified in 18 U.S.C. § 3553(f), and 46 U.S.C. § 70503 is not one of those offenses. The district court similarly denied Anchundia-Espinoza's request for the "minor participant" adjustment. The district court concluded that the average participants in this offense were Anchundia-Espinoza and his co-defendants, rather than the unknown number of unidentified and uncharged participants in the conspiracy. It found that he was not substantially less culpable than those co-defendants.

         The district court ultimately varied downward from the 210-month advisory minimum and sentenced Anchundia-Espinoza to 175 months in prison.[1]

         II.

         On appeal, Anchundia-Espinoza challenges the district court's denial of two sentencing reductions by erring in its application of two relevant statutes. The district court's legal interpretation of a statutory provision is reviewed de novo. United States v. Flanagan, 80 F.3d 143, 145 (5th Cir. 1996). Factual findings made during sentencing, however, are reviewed for clear error. United States v. Kiekow, 872 F.3d 236, 247 (5th Cir. 2017). "Whether a defendant 'was a minor or minimal participant is a factual determination that we review for clear error.'" United States v. Torres-Hernandez, 843 F.3d 203, 207 (5th Cir. 2016) (quoting United States v. Gomez-Valle, 828 F.3d 324, 327 (5th Cir. 2016)). "If the district court's account of the evidence is plausible in light of the record viewed in its entirety, this court may ...


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