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United States v. Lawler

United States Court of Appeals, Seventh Circuit

March 16, 2016

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Plaintiff-Appellee,
v.
JEAN C. LAWLER, Defendant-Appellant

         Argued, December 16, 2015.

          Appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin. No. 08-CR-197-14-JPS -- J.P. Stadtmueller, Judge.

         For United States of America, Plaintiff - Appellee: Erica N. O'Neil, Attorney, Office of The United States Attorney, Milwaukee, WI.

         For Jean C. Lawler, Defendant - Appellant: Kathleen M. Quinn, Attorney, Milwaukee, WI.

         Before MANION, KANNE, and WILLIAMS, Circuit Judges.

          OPINION

Page 282

          Williams, Circuit Judge.

          Jean Lawler pleaded guilty to distributing heroin and conspiring to possess heroin with the intent to distribute it. The district court found, by a preponderance of the evidence, that Lawler sold the heroin that killed one of the conspiracy's customers. On that basis, in determining Lawler's Guidelines-recommended sentence, the court followed U.S.S.G. § 2D1.1(a)(2), which applies if " the offense of conviction establishes that death ... resulted from the use of the [heroin]." That was erroneous. Lawler's " offense of conviction" --distributing heroin and conspiring to possess heroin with the intent to distribute it--does not " establish" that a death resulted. Therefore, we vacate Lawler's sentence and remand.

         I. BACKGROUND

         The facts of this case were fully described in United States v. Walker, 721 F.3d 828, 831-33 (7th Cir. 2013). Relevant here, Lawler was charged along with thirty other defendants in a single-count indictment that described a large-scale heroin-distribution conspiracy that led to the overdose deaths of five people. " Lawler was a low-level member of the conspiracy" who " purchased relatively small quantities of heroin ... to resell to others and for personal use." Id. at 831.

         Lawler pleaded guilty to distributing heroin and conspiring to possess heroin with the intent to distribute it, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 2 and 21 U.S.C. § § 841(a)(1), (b)(1)(A), and 846. The applicable statutory sentencing range is 10 years to life. 21 U.S.C. § 841(b)(1)(A). The statutory minimum is increased to 20 years if death results from the use of the heroin. Id. The Sentencing Guidelines also recommend a longer sentence when death results, increasing the base offense level if " the offense of conviction establishes" that death resulted. U.S.S.G. § 2D1.1(a)(2).

         Lawler's plea agreement stated that the government would argue that Lawler was subject to both the 20-year statutory minimum and the increased base offense level because she sold the heroin that led to a particular death--that of Jeffrey Topczewski. Lawler disagreed and reserved her right to contest those issues. At sentencing, the district court found, by a preponderance of the evidence, that Lawler sold the heroin that killed Topczewski, so it applied the 20-year statutory minimum. We affirmed because the court's finding--applying a preponderance-of-the-evidence standard--was supported by sufficient evidence. See Walker, 721 F.3d at 841-42. The Supreme Court vacated Lawler's sentence in light of Alleyne v. United States, 133 S.Ct. 2151, 186 L.Ed.2d 314 (2013), which held that any fact that increases the statutory minimum sentence must be found beyond a reasonable doubt. Lawler v. United States, 134 S.Ct. 2287, 189 L.Ed.2d 169 (2014) (mem.).

         On remand, the government conceded that the 20-year statutory minimum did not apply because it had not been proven beyond a reasonable doubt that Lawler sold the heroin that killed Topczewski. But the government maintained that Lawler's base offense level should be 38, under U.S.S.G. § 2D1.1(a)(2). The district court agreed. That decision had a significant consequence: Lawler's ...


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