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United States v. Zhong.

No. 22-1034. 3/12/2024. D.Colo. Judge Eid. US Sentencing Guidelines—Mandatory Minimum Sentence—Non-Guideline Sentence—Safety Valve Relief.

March 12, 2024

Zhong and her husband Xian conspired to grow marijuana plants worth hundreds of thousands of dollars in the basement of their residence. Zhong was convicted of (1) conspiring to manufacture and possess with the intent to distribute 1,000 or more marijuana plants; (2) manufacturing and possessing with intent to distribute 1,000 or more marijuana plants; and (3) using and maintaining the residence for the purpose of manufacturing and distributing marijuana. Counts 1 and 2 each carried a 10-year mandatory minimum sentence. Before the sentencing hearing, Zhong and Xian moved for a non-guideline sentence of time served plus five years of supervised release, arguing that they met the requirements of US Sentencing Guidelines (USSG) § 5C1.2(a)(5) and 18 USC § 3553(f), which provide a “safety valve” for mandatory minimum sentences. In a letter in support of the motion (the letter), Zhong and Xian claimed that they truthfully provided the government with all the information they had concerning the offenses of conviction. Following a hearing, the district court found that neither the letter nor the testimony at the sentencing hearing was credible and that the letter was self-contradictory, and it denied the motion for a non-guideline sentence. The district court sentenced Zhong and Xian to the mandatory minimum of 120 months in prison on counts 1 and 2, and to 48 months in prison on count 3, to run concurrently.

On appeal, Zhong contended that the district court clearly erred by finding that she did not prove that she was eligible for the statutory safety valve. Before the sentencing hearing, a defendant seeking safety-valve relief must truthfully give the government all information and evidence that the defendant has concerning the offense. A district court may not grant a defendant’s request for safety-valve relief when it would directly undermine the jury’s verdict. And when a jury convicts a defendant of an offense with a mens rea element, the jury convicts the defendant of having certain information. Accordingly, a defendant seeking safety valve relief in this situation must provide information to the government to demonstrate their own mens rea. Here, when the jury convicted Zhong of all three counts, it necessarily found, beyond a reasonable doubt, that Zhong had a certain mens rea for each crime. But Zhong did not provide the government with information sufficient to prove that she possessed the mens rea for the crimes for which she was convicted, so she did not truthfully provide the government with all information she had concerning the offense within the meaning of § 3553(f)(5). Therefore, the district court correctly denied her safety valve relief.

The sentence was affirmed.


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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