United States v. Espinal-Mieses

Decision Date30 May 2018
Docket NumberCriminal No. 17–396 (FAB)
Citation313 F.Supp.3d 376
Parties UNITED STATES of America, Plaintiff, v. Rafael ESPINAL–MIESES, et al., Defendants.
CourtU.S. District Court — District of Puerto Rico

Laura G. Montes–Rodriguez, United States Attorney's Office District of Puerto Rico, San Juan, PR, for Plaintiff.

Eric A. Vos, Sulay Rios–Fuentes, Federal Public Defenders, Federal Public Defender's Office, Hato Rey, PR, Lydia Lizarribar–Buxo, CJA Appointment, Lizarribar Masini Law Office, Jose C. Romo–Matienzo, CJA Appointment, San Juan, PR, for Defendants.



Before the Court are defendants Rafael Espinal–Mieses ("Espinal")'s and Francisco Batista–Reyes ("Batista")'s respective motions for application of the safety valve provision set forth in 18 U.S.C. § 3553(f) (" section 3553(f)," or "statutory safety value") and U.S.S.G. § 5Cl.2. (Docket Nos. 138 and 142.) Batista also moves for a two-level reduction in the computation of his sentencing guidelines pursuant to U.S.S.G. § 2D1.1(b)(17) (" section 2D1.1(b)(17)"). (Docket No. 142.) For the reasons set forth below, the Court DENIES Espinal and Batista's motions for application of the statutory safety valve, and reserves judgment regarding Batista's request for a two-level reduction pursuant to section 2D1.1(b)(17).

I. Background

On June 28, 2017, a federal grand jury sitting in the District of Puerto charged Espinal, Batista, and Alberto De Los Santos ("De Los Santos") with drug trafficking offenses in a four-count indictment. (Docket No. 14.) Counts one and three charge the defendants with violations of the Maritime Drug Law Enforcement Act ("MDLEA"), 46 U.S.C. § 70501 et seq. ("Title 46"). (Docket No. 14.) Count one alleges that the defendants conspired to possess with intent to distribute in excess of five kilograms of cocaine on board a vessel subject to the jurisdiction of the United States in violation of 46 U.S.C. § 70502(c)(1). Id. Count three charges the defendants with conspiracy to destroy property subject to forfeiture pursuant to the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act in violation of 46 U.S.C. § 70503(a)(2).1 Id.

Of the three defendants, only De Los Santos entered into a plea agreement with the United States. (Docket Nos. 37 and 38.) On September 14, 2017, De Los Santos pled guilty to count two of the indictment. (Docket No. 37.) At sentencing, the Court imposed a 120–month prison sentence, the minimum statutory term of imprisonment. (Docket Nos. 80 and 81.)

Espinal and Batista elected to proceed to trial, which the Court set for April 2, 2018. (Docket No. 113.) On the day of trial, however, Espinal and Batista each entered a straight plea to all four counts of the indictment. (Docket No. 132.) Espinal and Batista move for application of the safety valve provisions provided in sections 3553(f) and 5C1.2. (Docket Nos. 138 and 142.) Batista also requests a two-level reduction in the computation of his sentencing guidelines pursuant to section 2D1.1(b)(17). (Docket No. 142 at p. 1.) The United States contends that the safety valve is unavailable to Espinal and Batista. (Docket No. 138.) The Court agrees.

II. The Maritime Drug Law Enforcement Act

The MDLEA enables law enforcement to foil the illicit operations of "international drug traffickers, who constantly refine their methods for transporting illegal narcotics from country to country." United States v. Carvajal, 924 F.Supp.2d 219, 224 (D.D.C. 2013). Congress enacted the MDLEA "to facilitate increased enforcement by the Coast Guard of laws relating to the importation of controlled substances." §§ 1–4, Pub. L. 96–350, 94 Stat. 1159. The MDLEA recognizes explicitly that "controlled substances aboard vessels is a serious international problem, is universally condemned, and presents a specific threat to the security and societal well-being of the United States." 46 U.S.C. § 70501.

Among other things, the MDLEA prohibits individuals onboard vessels subject to the jurisdiction of the United States from possessing with intent to distribute any controlled substance, or to destroy property subject to forfeiture pursuant to the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1970. 46 U.S.C. § 70503(a). First time offenders of the MDLEA are punished as provided in 21 U.S.C. § 960.2 46 U.S.C. § 70506(a). Accordingly, because Espinal and Batista conspired to possess with intent to distribute in excess of five kilograms of cocaine, they are subject to a mandatory minimum term of imprisonment of ten years pursuant to 46 U.S.C. § 70506 (a) and 21 U.S.C. § 960. The parties dispute whether the Court may impose a sentence below the mandatory minimum pursuant to the safety valve.

III. The Statutory Safety Valve— Section 3553(f)

Congress enacted section 3553(f) pursuant to the Mandatory Minimum Sentencing Reform Act of 1994. 18 U.S.C. § 3553(f). In enacting section 3553(f), Congress intended to

permit a narrow class of defendants, those who are the least culpable participants in such offenses, to receive strictly regulated reductions in prison sentences for mitigating factors currently recognized under the federal sentencing guidelines.

H.R. No. 103–460 (1994). The statutory safety valve serves to "mitigate the harsh effect of mandatory minimum sentences on first-time, low-level offenders in drug trafficking schemes." United States v. Padilla–Colón, 578 F.3d 23, 30 (1st Cir. 2009) (internal citation and quotation omitted).

Defendants seeking to avail themselves of the statutory safety valve must satisfy five requirements. 18 U.S.C. § 3553(f). The defendant must demonstrate that:

(1) [he or she] does not have more than 1 criminal history point, as determined under the sentencing guidelines;
(2) [he or she] did not use violence or credible threats of violence or possess a firearm or other dangerous weapon (or induce another participant to do so) in connection with the offense;
(3) the offense did not result in death or serious bodily injury to any person;
(4) [he or she] was not an organizer, leader, manager, or supervisor of others in the offense, as determined under the sentencing guidelines and was not engaged in a continuing criminal enterprise, as defined in section 408 of the Controlled Substances Act [ 21 USCS § 848 ]; and
(5) not later than the time of the sentencing hearing, [he or she] has 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, but the fact that [he or she] has no relevant or useful other information to provide or that the Government is already aware of the information shall not preclude a determination by the court that [he or she] has complied with this requirement.

18 U.S.C. § 3553(f). Satisfaction of every requirement is a precondition for the Court to disregard the applicable mandatory minimum sentence. See, e.g., United States v. Matos, 328 F.3d 34, 44 (1st Cir. 2003) ("Congress designed the safety valve statute, 18 U.S.C. § 3553(f), with the view that a defendant who satisfies the first four prongs of the statute must prove himself deserving of the safety valve by providing true and complete information to the government prior to the commencement of his sentencing hearing" pursuant to the fifth prong). The trial court must render factual findings concerning each requirement before determining whether to disregard the mandatory minimum sentence. United States v. Harakaly, 734 F.3d 88, 98 (1st Cir. 2013).

Satisfying the five requirements, however, is a pyrrhic victory in terms of the mandatory minimum sentence if the offense of conviction falls beyond the scope of section 3553(f). This is so because the statutory safety valve enables courts to set aside mandatory minimum sentences only in "certain cases." 18 U.S.C. § 3553(f). Notably, 18 U.S.C. § 3553(f) provides that:

[n]otwithstanding any other provision of law, in the case of an offense under section 401, 404, or 406 of the Controlled Substances Act ( 21 U.S.C. 841, 844, 846 ) or section 1010 or 1013 of the Controlled Substances Import and Export Act ( 21 U.S.C. 960, 963 ) , the court shall impose a sentence pursuant to guidelines promulgated by the United States Sentencing Commission under section 994 of title 28 without regard to any statutory minimum sentence .

(Emphasis added). See also U.S.S.G. § 5C1.2(a). Should the sentencing court find that the defendant fulfilled each of the five requirements and that the offense of conviction is safety valve-eligible, application of the safety valve is obligatory. United States v. Ortiz–Santiago, 211 F.3d 146, 152 (1st Cir. 2000) ("Congress provided in clear language that, if a defendant satisfies the statutory criteria (virtually all of which are objective), the court shall disregard the mandatory minimum and fashion the sentence accordingly.").

IV. The Statutory Safety Valve Does Not Apply to the MDLEA as a Matter of Law

Espinal and Batista contend that they may avail themselves of the statutory safety valve despite the fact that section 3553(f) does not enumerate Title 46 offenses. (Docket No. 138 at p. 3; Docket No. 142 at p. 4.) The statutory safety valve applies, they argue, because section 3553(f) references section 960 —the same statutory provision that sets forth the penalties for violations of the MDLEA pursuant to 46 U.S.C. § 70506(a). Id. Defendants' arguments are unavailing. A statutory construction of sections 3553(f) and 960 compels the Court to conclude that the safety valve is inapplicable to MDLEA offenses.

A. Section 3553(f)

Espinal and Batista request that the Court augment the list of enumerated offenses in section 3553(f) by including MDLEA offenses. (Docket Nos. 138 and 142.) "In interpreting the meaning of the statute, [the Court's] analysis begins with the statute's text." United States v. Vidal–Reyes, 562 F.3d 43, 50 (1st Cir. 2009). "[I]f the meaning of the text is...

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  • United States v. De La Cruz
    • United States
    • U.S. Court of Appeals — First Circuit
    • May 26, 2021
    ...the MDLEA and safety valve statute and case law from other circuits further confirmed that conclusion. See United States v. Espinal-Mieses, 313 F. Supp. 3d 376, 381-85 (D.P.R. 2018). The court went on to conclude that even though De la Cruz had also been convicted of non-MDLEA offenses, his......

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