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United States v. Duke

United States Court of Appeals, Eighth Circuit

July 31, 2019

United States of America, Plaintiff - Appellee,
v.
Ralph Chavous Duke, also known as Plookie, also known as Plukey, Defendant-Appellant.

          Submitted: February 15, 2019

          Appeal from United States District Court for the District of Minnesota - St. Paul

          Before LOKEN, COLLOTON, and KELLY, Circuit Judges.

          COLLOTON, Circuit Judge

         Ralph Duke was sentenced in 1990 to a term of life imprisonment plus forty years for committing several serious drug trafficking and firearms offenses. A district court later vacated his convictions on the firearms counts in light of an intervening judicial decision, and the case was returned to the District of Minnesota for resentencing. After considering the matter anew, the district court[1] determined an advisory guideline range of 360 months to life and sentenced Duke to a term of life imprisonment. Duke argues that the district court made procedural errors and imposed a substantively unreasonable sentence, but we disagree and affirm.

         Duke controlled all phases of a drug trafficking organization in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area from 1984 through June 1989. He purchased cocaine primarily from a Colombian-affiliated source in Houston or from sources in Los Angeles. The cocaine was transported to Minnesota in vehicles owned by Duke and driven by younger members of his drug trafficking organization. Duke then distributed kilograms of cocaine to dealers for resale at the street level in smaller quantities. Duke laundered the proceeds of drug sales by purchasing homes and cars in the names of others. All told, Duke and his organization trafficked over fifty kilograms of cocaine before law enforcement interrupted their operations. When Duke was apprehended in May 1989, officers found two loaded handguns in his bedroom and two assault shotguns and two AR-15 semi-automatic rifles in his residence. The government charged at least twenty-five people as a result of the investigation of Duke's organization.

         In 1989, a jury convicted Duke on eleven charges arising from the drug trafficking activity. The district court sentenced him to the statutory maximum penalty on each count. Three counts carried concurrent terms of life imprisonment: engaging in a continuing criminal enterprise (count 1), see 21 U.S.C. § 848 (1988), aiding and abetting the attempt to possess with intent to distribute twenty kilograms of cocaine (count 2), see id. §§ 841(a)(1), (b)(1)(A), 846; 18 U.S.C. § 2 (1988), and conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute five kilograms or more of cocaine (count 32), see 21 U.S.C. §§ 841(a)(1), (b)(1)(A), 846 (1988). Five other drug trafficking counts carried shorter terms that ran concurrent with the life sentences. Three firearms convictions resulted in consecutive terms of thirty, five, and five years, respectively, for a total of forty years' imprisonment.[2]

         On appeal, this court affirmed the judgment in all respects but one: the court ruled that the convictions on count 1 (continuing criminal enterprise) and count 32 (cocaine trafficking conspiracy) violated the Double Jeopardy Clause and remanded with instructions to vacate one of those convictions. United States v. Duke, 940 F.2d 1113, 1120-21 (8th Cir. 1991). The district court vacated Duke's conviction on count 1, but the life sentence was unchanged.

         In 2016, the district court reduced Duke's sentence under 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(2), based on a retroactive amendment to the sentencing guidelines that made certain drug offenders eligible for a two-level decrease in their base offense level. See USSG Supp. to App. C, Amend. 782 (2014); USSG § 1B1.10(a)(1), (d), (e)(1) (2014). In Duke's case, the two-level decrease yielded a new guideline range of 292 to 365 months for the drug trafficking charges, and the court sentenced him to concurrent terms of 365 months on each of the seven drug convictions. The consecutive terms for the firearms offenses were unaffected, so Duke's new sentence as of 2016 was 365 months plus forty years.

         Duke then petitioned for a writ of habeas corpus under 28 U.S.C. § 2241 in the Central District of Illinois, invoking Bailey v. United States, 516 U.S. 137 (1995). The court determined that Bailey required vacatur of Duke's firearms convictions, and then transferred the case to the District of Minnesota for resentencing. See Duke v. Thompson, No. 17-cv-1024, 2017 WL 4397950, at *4-7 (C.D. Ill. Sept. 29, 2017).

         With the firearms convictions vacated, the district court recalculated Duke's advisory guideline range as 360 months to life imprisonment-the same range that applied at the original sentencing in 1990. Although the retroactive guideline amendment reduced the base offense level by two levels from the original hearing, a firearms adjustment under USSG § 2D1.1(b)(1) now applied and offset the reduction. The court again sentenced Duke to the statutory maximum terms on each count: a term of life imprisonment on each of counts 2 and 32, and a term of forty years on each of counts 4 through 8, all to run concurrently.

         On appeal, Duke first argues that the district court committed procedural error at the resentencing by failing to consider adequately the sentencing factors under 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a). See Gall v. United States, 552 U.S. 38, 51 (2007). He complains that the court "failed to address the detailed assessment of § 3553(a) factors offered by the defense." But a district court need not expressly address every § 3553(a) factor if the record shows that they were considered. United States v. Clayton, 828 F.3d 654, 657 (8th Cir. 2016). The court here received and read Duke's assessment of the factors in his sentencing memorandum, heard oral arguments at the hearing about the factors, and specifically referenced some of the factors when explaining the chosen sentence. We presume that the court considered the arguments before it, see United States v. Wisecarver, 644 F.3d 764, 774 (8th Cir. 2011), and we are satisfied that the district court was aware of the relevant factors and considered them in imposing sentence.

         Duke also complains that the district court provided an inadequate explanation for the chosen sentence. See Gall, 552 U.S. at 50. Assuming without deciding that Duke raised a proper objection to the adequacy of the court's explanation, we conclude that there was no procedural error.

          In explaining its decision to impose a life term, the court remarked that while the supportive letters submitted on Duke's behalf were "heartfelt and compelling," they could not "undo the serious crimes committed by the Defendant over the course of many years during which he not only flooded his community with drugs but also corrupted numerous young people, many of whom were his family." The court emphasized "the staggering magnitude of the criminal activity involved," and concluded as follows: "The Court commends the Defendant for his rehabilitative efforts while in prison and sincerely hopes that the Defendant has indeed changed, but the Court simply cannot conclude that he should be released from prison." The court's reason for choosing the life sentence was evident: the seriousness of Duke's crimes justified that ...


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