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United States v. Blackmon

February 23, 2009


Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of Delaware, (D.C. Criminal Action No. 06-cr-00109) District Judge: Honorable Joseph J. Farnan, Jr.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Ambro, Circuit Judge


Submitted Under Third Circuit LAR 34.1(a) December 2, 2008.

Before: AMBRO, and GREENBERG, Circuit Judges, and O'NEILL,*fn1 District Judge.


Eric Blackmon appeals his sentence of 235 months' imprisonment for conspiracy to distribute cocaine and money laundering.*fn2 He argues that his sentence is procedurally unreasonable because the District Court miscalculated the proper federal Sentencing Guidelines range under the money laundering Guideline, U.S. Sentencing Guidelines Manual § 2S1.1 ("Laundering of Monetary Instruments") (hereinafter "U.S.S.G."). He contends that the District Court erred in two ways: (1) by classifying him as a direct money launderer under Guidelines § 2S1.1(a)(1) rather than as a third-party money launderer under § 2S1.1(a)(2); and (2) by incorporating his involvement in the cocaine conspiracy as relevant conduct for purposes of calculating his Guidelines base offense level under § 2S1.1(a)(1). For the following reasons, we affirm the District Court's sentence. We do so with a warning that what follows is abstruse.


A. The Cocaine Conspiracy

Blackmon was involved in a conspiracy to ship cocaine from California to Philadelphia dating back to September 2005. He shipped cocaine from California to Shawn Williams in Philadelphia, and Williams would ship packages of cash back to Blackmon. All shipments were made using Federal Express. In December 2005, federal law enforcement agents intercepted a package containing $74,296-representing the value of approximately five kilograms of cocaine-sent by Williams to Blackmon. The package had both their names and addresses on the mailing label. California authorities went to Blackmon's address and spoke to him, but he denied any knowledge of the intercepted package.

The conspiracy continued, and in January 2006 Bradley Torrence joined. He introduced a more sophisticated method of shipping the cocaine using stolen Federal Express business account numbers. He also paid Federal Express couriers to drop off the packages at agreed locations in the Philadelphia area and mark them as "delivered" in the company system.

Federal agents soon identified a pattern of Federal Express airbills with stolen business account numbers and fictitious addresses originating in California and destined for the same Philadelphia zip code. In March 2006, they followed two of these packages sent from San Francisco to a Philadelphia parking garage where they observed a Federal Express courier drive into the garage. Shortly thereafter, Williams and the courier drove out of the garage. The agents stopped them and recovered the two packages from Williams's car, each of which contained three kilograms of cocaine.

Williams, Torrence, and the courier-all located in Pennsylvania-were arrested, indicted, and agreed to cooperate with the Government to confirm Blackmon as the California source of the cocaine. In August 2006, Williams recorded phone calls with Blackmon arranging the shipment of one kilogram of cocaine for $15,000. Law enforcement observed Blackmon at the address where Federal Express delivered the $15,000, and a few days later the cocaine arrived via Federal Express in Philadelphia. Thereafter, Blackmon was arrested. He admitted that he was the person speaking to Williams on the recorded phone calls.

B. Guilty Plea and Sentencing

A federal grand jury indicted Blackmon in 2007 for various cocaine distribution offenses and money laundering. He entered a guilty plea on two of the counts: (1) conspiracy to distribute more than five kilograms of cocaine, in violation of 21 U.S.C. §§ 841(a)(1), (b)(1)(A) and 846 (Count One); and (2) money laundering related to the August 2006 sting transaction, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1956(a)(3)(A) (Count Four). At sentencing, the District Court thoroughly considered and adopted the Guidelines range calculations in the Pre-Sentence Investigation Report prepared by the Probation Office (the "PSR").

The PSR determined that the two counts involved substantially the same harms, so that, in accord with the grouping rules for closely related multiple offenses under Guidelines § 3D1.2, the counts should be considered together.*fn3 See U.S.S.G. §§ 3D1.1(a) (instructing the sentencing judge to group certain counts when "a defendant has been convicted of more than one count"), 3D1.2 (stating, e.g., that counts "connected by a common criminal objective or constituting part of a common scheme or plan[,]" or "[w]hen the offense level is determined largely on the basis of the . . . quantity of a substance involved," should be grouped, including offenses under the money laundering Guideline, § 2S1.1). The offense level applicable to the group is the offense Guideline that produces the highest offense level. Id. § 3D1.3. The PSR determined that Count Four, the money laundering offense corresponding to Guidelines § 2S1.1, produced the higher offense level for purposes of setting Blackmon's Guidelines range.

Next, the PSR calculated the base offense level for money laundering under Guidelines § 2S1.1. The PSR applied subsection (a)(1) of § 2S1.1, which sets the base level by incorporating the "underlying offense from which the laundered funds were derived." Id. § 2S1.1(a)(1). It concluded that the distribution of cocaine resulting from the sting transaction was the "underlying offense," and further incorporated Blackmon's participation in the cocaine conspiracy as "relevant conduct." See id. § 1B1.3 ("Relevant Conduct").*fn4 To calculate the base offense level, it used the drug quantity from the conspiracy (and the single kilogram of cocaine from the sting transaction), which it reported involved 50 to 150 kilograms of cocaine, resulting in a base offense level of 36. See id. § 2D1.1(c)(2) ("Drug Quantity Table").

Finally, the PSR considered any adjustments to the offense level. Guidelines § 2S1.1(b) includes a two-level enhancement for certain listed offenses. Blackmon pled guilty to 18 U.S.C. § 1956, which is a listed offense under this specific enhancement subsection. Id. § 2S1.1(b)(2)(B). Thus his total offense level rose to 38. The PSR deducted three levels for acceptance of responsibility, bringing the final offense level to 35.

Blackmon objected to the PSR's calculations. Specifically, he contested the drug amount, arguing that, among other things, the conspiracy involved between 15 and 50 kilograms of cocaine, resulting in a base offense level of 34. He also objected to the money laundering base offense calculation, asserting that only the $15,000 associated with the sting transaction ...

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