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United States v. Collins

United States Court of Appeals, Seventh Circuit

May 14, 2019

United States of America, Plaintiff-Appellee,
v.
Maurice Collins, Defendant-Appellant.

          Argued December 11, 2018

          Appeal from the United States District Court for the Central District of Illinois. No. 2:14-cr-20032-CSB-DGB-1 - Colin S. Bruce, Judge.

          Before Wood, Chief Judge, and Ripple and Barrett, Circuit Judges.

          Ripple, Circuit Judge.

         Maurice Collins pleaded guilty to distributing cocaine and crack cocaine in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 841(a)(1). Because of a prior felony drug conviction, he faced a statutory minimum of ten years in prison, unless he qualified for the "safety valve" in 18 U.S.C. § 3553(f)(5). The district court initially denied Mr. Collins the benefit of the safety valve on a ground that we later determined to be erroneous. Consequently, we vacated his sentence and remanded for further proceedings. See United States v. Collins, 877 F.3d 362, 368-69 (7th Cir. 2017).

         On remand, the district court again determined that Mr. Collins did not qualify for the safety valve. The court focused on a statement in his proffer interview about what he intended to do with the significant amount of cash found in his car at the time of his arrest. Doubting the veracity of his claims about the cash, the court concluded that Mr. Collins had not established that he had "truthfully provided to the Government all information and evidence the defendant has concerning the offense or offenses that were part of the same course of conduct or of a common scheme or plan." 18 U.S.C. § 3553(f)(5). Accordingly, the court did not give him the benefit of the safety valve and resentenced him to the statutory mandatory minimum.

         Mr. Collins again appeals his sentence. He contends that the district court erred in assessing the relative burdens of proof with respect to his eligibility for the safety valve. He also submits that he provided a truthful and complete disclosure to the Government before sentencing. For the reasons stated below, we affirm the judgment.

         I

         BACKGROUND

         In the fall of 2013, a cooperating individual working for the Drug Enforcement Administration ("DEA") informed agents that Mr. Collins was involved in cocaine distribution in the Danville and Champaign, Illinois area. The informant related that Mr. Collins had sold him ounce-quantities of cocaine on multiple occasions. He also said that Mr. Collins and another individual had pooled their cash and that they had paid $32, 000 for a kilogram of cocaine. Following that initial interview, the same informant participated, over a five-month period in 2013 and 2014, in four controlled buys of ounce-quantities of cocaine from Mr. Collins. On another occasion, agents attempted to arrange a buy of three-quarters of a kilogram of cocaine, but Mr. Collins was unable to acquire that amount.

         In May 2014, agents arrested Mr. Collins outside Champaign, Illinois, while he was driving eastbound toward Danville and away from Clinton. At the time of his arrest, DEA agents seized from his vehicle about $40, 000 in cash. Following the arrest, agents learned through a different source working for a separate local law enforcement task force that Mr. Collins had planned to use the cash to buy a kilogram of cocaine in Danville.

         The Government charged Mr. Collins with distributing cocaine and crack cocaine in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 841(a)(1). He subsequently pleaded guilty. Because of a prior felony drug conviction, he faced a statutory minimum of ten years in prison. See id. § 841(b)(1)(B). A few weeks before sentencing, Mr. Collins met with the Government for a proffer interview; he hoped that he would earn entitlement to sentencing under the "safety-valve" exception to the statutory minimum. See 18 U.S.C. § 3553(f); U.S.S.G. § 5C1.2(a)(5). This exception requires a defendant to "truthfully provide[] to the Government all information and evidence the defendant has concerning the offense or offenses that were part of the same course of conduct or of a common scheme or plan." 18 U.S.C. § 3553(f)(5).

         During the proffer interview, Special Agent Joe Green asked Mr. Collins what he intended to do with the $40, 000 found in his vehicle at the time of his arrest, at least $15, 000 of which, Mr. Collins admitted, were proceeds from cocaine sales. Mr. Collins explained that he had planned to buy a nice car at the Clinton Auto Auction and denied any intent to purchase a kilogram of cocaine. Mr. Collins told the agent: "I was going to Danville first ... to the gym. Then I was going to the auction during the evening."[1]

         At the original sentencing in May 2015, the district court determined that Mr. Collins had played a supervisory role in the offense, see U.S.S.G. § 3B1.1(c), which rendered him ineligible for the safety-valve reduction, see 18 U.S.C. § 3553(f)(4); U.S.S.G. § 5C1.2(a)(4). The court therefore imposed the statutory minimum sentence of 120 months' imprisonment but indicated that it would have chosen a lower sentence had Mr. Collins been eligible for the safety valve. Mr. Collins appealed. We held that the district court had erred in applying the supervisory-role enhancement. We therefore remanded for resentencing. See Collins, 877 F.3d at 368-69.

         At the resentencing hearing in May 2018, the Government maintained that Mr. Collins still was ineligible for the safety valve because he had not been fully truthful in his interview. In particular, the Government asserted that he had made three false statements. The first two statements concerned his working relationship with another drug trafficker and the nature of his involvement in a particular transaction involving crack cocaine instead of powder cocaine. The district court disagreed with the Government and concluded that Mr. Collins had not been untruthful with respect to these matters.

         The third falsehood, according to the Government, concerned Mr. Collins's statements about what he planned to do with the $40, 000 in cash he was carrying when arrested. On this issue, the district court took evidence and heard argument. Testifying for the Government, Special Agent Green pointed out that Mr. Collins was arrested on a Tuesday, but Clinton Auto Auction held auctions on Wednesdays and Saturdays only. He also testified that $40, 000 would have been a "reasonable price" for a kilogram of cocaine at the time of Mr. Collins's arrest, and "every once in a while," drug traffickers found with large amounts of cash say that they are "on their way to purchase a vehicle."[2] On cross-examination, Special Agent Green agreed that, during the investigation, the largest amount of cocaine that Mr. Collins had sold at any one time was an ounce and one-half. Indeed, when Special Agent Green's confidential informant had attempted to purchase three-quarters of a kilogram from Mr. Collins, Mr. Collins could not acquire that amount. Special Agent Green also admitted that the inventory at the Clinton Auto Auction might include some "decent" cars by high-end makers.[3] After the agent testified, the court recessed the hearing so that it could watch the videotape of Mr. Collins's safety-valve interview. Mr. Collins did not testify.

         When the hearing reconvened, the district court stated that it had reviewed the disputed section of the video "multiple times" and had "watched and heard the tones" in an effort to understand Mr. Collins's "true intentions."[4] The court then set forth six undisputed facts that informed its ruling: (1) Mr. Collins was "dealing in, more or less, ounce quantities of cocaine"; (2) "$40, 000 was an approximate price for a kilogram of powder cocaine"; (3) drug dealers typically "buy large quantities of cocaine with cash"; (4) a confidential source "indicated [that Mr. Collins] intended to purchase a kilo of cocaine ... during the operative time frame"; (5) "there was no Clinton Auto Auction the day [Mr. Collins] was arrested"; and (6) "he was driving away from Clinton- not towards it-with the money"[5] The court was "skeptical that [Mr. Collins] was being 100 percent truthful as to his intention with the $40, 000" because his explanation did not "seem to be reasonable."[6]

         The district court acknowledged that, "[i]n a lot of ways, this is just ... a 'he said/she said' sort of thing," but stressed that Mr. Collins had the burden of proving that his explanation was truthful.[7] Although the court was "troubled," it concluded that Mr. Collins had not satisfied his burden, and thus, he did not qualify for safety-valve relief.[8] After sentencing Mr. Collins to 120 months in prison, the court "actively encourag[ed]" him to appeal because the ...


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