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United States v. Martinez.

No. 21-7054. 9/26/2023. E.D.Okla. Judge Rossman. Methamphetamine Distribution—US Sentencing Guidelines—Firearms Enhancement—Safety Valve Relief.

September 26, 2023

A confidential source informed local law enforcement that Martinez was using the restaurant he operated as a drug distribution and money laundering front. Federal agents arranged several controlled buys of methamphetamine from Martinez, which occurred at a ranch that he had access to and formerly owned. Federal agents ultimately obtained a search warrant for the ranch, pursuant to which they discovered drugs, money, and firearms in a mobile home on the ranch property. Martinez pleaded guilty to knowingly and intentionally distributing 50 grams or more of methamphetamine in violation of 21 USC § 841(a)(1) and (b)(1)(A), without a plea agreement. The presentence investigation report (PSR) recommended a two-level sentencing enhancement under US Sentencing Guideline (USSG) § 2D1.1(b)(1) for possession of a dangerous weapon in connection with a drug trafficking offense. Martinez objected to the firearms enhancement and to the PSR not including a two-level safety-valve reduction under USSG § 2D1.1(b)(18). The district court overruled Martinez’s PSR objections. It applied the firearms enhancement, denied the safety-valve relief, and sentenced Martinez to 262 months in prison, which was the bottom of the advisory USSG range, followed by a five-year supervised release term.

On appeal, Martinez argued that the district court miscalculated his advisory USSG range by applying the two-level sentencing enhancement for possession of a dangerous weapon in connection with a drug trafficking offense, because there was insufficient evidence to support the application. He asserted that the government failed to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that he “possessed” the firearms within the meaning of § 2D1.1(b)(1). USSG § 2D1.1(b)(1) provides for a two-level sentencing enhancement for drug crimes where a dangerous weapon was possessed that, according to the guideline’s commentary, should be applied “unless it is clearly improbable that the weapon was connected with the offense.” Here, the undisputed facts show that Martinez constructively possessed the firearms, because the firearms were located in close proximity to the drugs and drug proceeds. Further, Martinez admitted that he maintained the area where the firearms were found for purposes of storing and selling methamphetamine and conceded that he sold methamphetamine from there on at least three occasions, which sufficiently demonstrates, by a preponderance of the evidence, a temporal link between the firearms and Martinez’s drug trafficking activity. Accordingly, the district court did not err in applying the firearms enhancement.

Martinez also argued that he qualified for the safety-valve reduction because he never actively possessed a firearm in connection with the offense of conviction. Under 18 USC § 3553(f), the “safety valve,” defendants convicted of specified drug offenses, including violations of 21 USC § 841, are exempted from the otherwise-applicable statutory minimum if five criteria are met. The criterion at issue in this case, USSG § 5C1.2(a)(2), states that “the defendant did not . . . possess a firearm or other dangerous weapon . . . in connection with the offense.” Here, it is undisputed that (1) Martinez did not actively possess the firearms discovered in the mobile home, (2) there is no evidence that he knew about those firearms, and (3) the record shows Martinez repeatedly denied having any knowledge about the firearms. While the district court correctly recognized that Martinez was safety-valve eligible, it incorrectly denied that relief based on its mistaken conclusion that Martinez was aware of the firearms in the mobile home. Accordingly, the district court clearly erred in finding Martinez ineligible for a safety-valve reduction under §§ 2D1.1(b)(18) and 5C1.2.

The application of a two-level sentencing enhancement for possession of firearms under § 2D1.1(b)(1) was affirmed. The denial of safety-valve relief under §§ 2D1.1(b)(18) and 5C1.2 was reversed, and the case was remanded for resentencing with the safety-valve reduction.

Official US Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit proceedings can be found at the US Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit website.

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