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United States v. Sifuentes

United States Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit

December 19, 2019

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Plaintiff - Appellee
v.
EFRAIN SIFUENTES, Defendant-Appellant

          Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Texas

          Before WIENER, HIGGINSON, and HO, Circuit Judges.

          JAMES C. HO, Circuit Judge.

         Efrain Sifuentes pleaded guilty to a drug-related money laundering conspiracy. Sifuentes now challenges his below-Guidelines sentence of 160 months as both procedurally incorrect and substantively unreasonable. We reject his arguments and affirm.

         I

         Sifuentes's cousin Pablo Zavala sold large quantities of methamphetamine smuggled in from Mexico to Fernando Obregon in Dallas. Sifuentes worked with Zavala to launder and return the drug proceeds to Mexico. He also recruited the help of Aaron Gonzalez to launder the money and conduct wire transfers to Mexico. Sifuentes let Gonzalez know the money came from the sale of drugs, telling him that Zavala concealed illegal drugs inside "candies, soaps, and other items," which Zavala then shipped to Dallas. From his recruitment until the time of his arrest, Sifuentes exchanged over 600 electronic communications with Zavala and Obregon, primarily via WhatsApp and phone calls.

         On at least one occasion, Sifuentes tried to convince Gonzalez to pick up a load of methamphetamine in Dallas. He explained to Gonzalez that he needed "some cokes and soap" moved-objects Sifuentes previously told Gonzalez contained hidden drugs. Sifuentes could not pick up the drugs himself because he was busy collecting proceeds of other drug sales in Kansas. But Gonzalez did not want to leave the drugs in "[his] car for a long time." Sifuentes then asked Gonzalez to transport the drugs to a nearby hotel on his behalf, stating he could pick up the drugs later. Gonzalez again refused, claiming he was "spooked," and worried Zavala would not "have [his] back in jail . . . ." Two weeks later, the FBI arrested Sifuentes.

         In February 2018, Sifuentes proceeded to a jury trial on the indictment alleging a money laundering conspiracy. In March, the trial ended in a hung jury. The court set a second trial date, but before trial, Sifuentes pleaded guilty without a plea agreement. He admitted he knowingly conspired to conduct financial transactions with proceeds he knew were exclusively derived from drug trafficking.

         The probation officer writing the Presentence Investigation Report (PSR) for Sifuentes's sentence included the attempted drug pickup with Gonzalez in his calculation. U.S.S.G. § 2S1.1(a). The Sentencing Guidelines establish two different methods for calculating a sentence for a money laundering conviction, depending on whether the defendant also committed, aided, abetted, counseled, commanded, induced, procured, or willfully caused the substantive underlying offense, or laundered money only. See U.S.S.G. §§ 2S1.1(a)(1)-(2). The PSR here applied the former method, relying on an underlying drug conspiracy to calculate the base offense level.

         Sifuentes objected, claiming that his one abortive attempt to facilitate drug distribution should not lead to culpability under section 2S1.1(a)(1). The Government countered that his "near constant contact" with leaders in the drug conspiracy, as well as his acts of money laundering and attempt on at least one occasion to direct another person to pick up drugs, showed a pattern of engaging in the underlying and ongoing criminal activity.

         The district court overruled Sifuentes's objection to his base offense level and calculated a preliminary Guidelines imprisonment range of 262 to 327 months, capped by statute at 240 months. To get to that range, the PSR applied section 2S1.1(a)(1), which determined the base level for the underlying offense through cross-reference to section 1B1.3(a)(1)(A). Applying section 1B1.3(a)(1)(A) led the district court by cross-reference to section 2D1.1. Finding Sifuentes laundered $93, 974 in drug proceeds, the PSR found Sifuentes accountable for 14.91 kilograms of methamphetamine. A drug offense involving between five and fifteen kilograms of methamphetamine leads to a base offense level of 34. After final adjustments, the district court found an offense level of 38, with a criminal history category of II.

         Sifuentes made several arguments for a downward departure. He requested a sentence of 60 months. The district court acknowledged Sifuentes's arguments and ultimately decided on a sentence of 160 months- an 80-month reduction below the statutory cap and Guidelines-suggested range. Sifuentes objected to the procedural and substantive reasonableness of this sentence.

         II

         We review the district court's factual findings for clear error and its application of the Guidelines de novo. United States v. Ruiz, 621 F.3d 390, 394 (5th Cir. 2010). We review the substantive reasonableness of the sentence for an abuse ...


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