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United States v. Fincher

United States Court of Appeals, Seventh Circuit

July 9, 2019

United States of America, Plaintiff-Appellee,
v.
Claudius L. Fincher, Defendant-Appellant.

          Argued April 17, 2019

          Appeal from the United States District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin. No. 17-cr-00096 - James D. Peterson, Chief Judge.

          Before Manion, Sykes, and Brennan, Circuit Judges.

          MANION, CIRCUIT JUDGE.

         Claudius Fincher possessed a firearm; that much is certain. The questions raised in this appeal are whether the district court clearly erred by finding Fincher's possession of the firearm was "in connection with" his drug offense, and whether resolving that factual question at sentencing without a jury determination violated the Sixth Amendment. Due to finding Fincher possessed the gun in connection with his drug offense, the court held Fincher was ineligible for safety-valve relief and sentenced him to the mandatory minimum sentence of five years. For the reasons stated below, we affirm the district court's sentence.

         I. Background

         Fincher was raised in Chicago. After attending a few years of college, he moved to the Madison, Wisconsin, area to spend time with his grandmother. Although he initially intended to spend only a few weeks there, he ended up staying for about a year before his arrest in this case. For much of this time he lived in his girlfriend's mother's home, but at the time of his arrest, he was residing in a small one-bedroom apartment with his uncle, Darnell Brunt, a drug dealer.

         At some point after moving to Wisconsin, Fincher became involved in a drug-selling operation with Brunt. Law enforcement spotted them departing from and returning to an apartment complex in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, before and after drug sales. Fincher was seen on the balcony of an apartment unit there. Law enforcement learned the legal renter of the apartment was a woman who resided in Chicago. In September 2017, Fincher and Brunt were arrested after selling heroin to undercover police officers.

         On the day Fincher and Brunt were arrested, the police searched the apartment. The apartment was sparsely furnished, but it was apparent from the clothing and toiletries found there that at least two men were living there regularly. The officers found more than 100 grams of heroin in a bedroom closet. They also found a large amount of cash and three unfired .40 caliber bullets in the closet. A loaded .40 caliber handgun was found in a kitchen drawer. Prior to his arrest in this case, Fincher's criminal record was clean.

         Fincher was indicted on October 4, 2017, with one count of conspiring to knowingly and intentionally possess with intent to distribute 100 grams or more of heroin and six counts of distribution of and intent to distribute heroin. 21 U.S.C. §§ 841(a)(1), 846. Fincher pleaded guilty to the conspiracy charge on February 20, 2018.

         Fincher's offense carried a mandatory minimum sentence of five years. 21 U.S.C. § 84l(b)(1)(B)(i). The safety-valve provision of 18 U.S.C. § 3553(f), however, provides the potential for relief from a mandatory minimum sentence for certain offenses, including Fincher's offense. Under this provision, a court is precluded from applying the mandatory minimum if it finds the following criteria are met: (1) the defendant has a minimal criminal history; (2) the defendant did not use or threaten violence or possess a firearm in connection with the offense; (3) the offense did not result in death or injury to any person; (4) the defendant was not an organizer or leader in the offense; and (5) the defendant truthfully provided all information and evidence related to the offense to the government before the sentencing hearing. Id.

         During the early stages of this case, it appeared Fincher might qualify for safety-valve relief because he had no criminal history. In fact, during Fincher's plea colloquy, the district judge discussed with him the "possibility that what we call the safety valve may apply to you."[1] Throughout the discussion, however, the judge emphasized that Fincher would have to meet the statutory criteria to qualify for safety-valve relief.

         The initial presentence report did not recommend the firearm enhancement under U.S.S.G. § 2D1.1(b)(1). After a forensic report revealed Fincher's DNA on the firearm recovered from the apartment, however, the government asserted Fincher was subject to the firearm enhancement. At that time, the government also informed defense counsel of its belief that Fincher was ineligible for safety-valve relief because he possessed a firearm in connection with the offense.

         Fincher requested a presentence determination of his eligibility for safety-valve relief and objected to the application of the sentencing enhancement. The district court issued a presentence opinion and order finding Fincher possessed the firearm in connection with his offense, and therefore was ineligible for safety-valve relief and subject to a two-level enhancement. In doing so, the court rejected Fincher's argument that under Apprendi v. New Jersey, 530 U.S. 466 (2000), and Al-leyne v. ...


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