Second Circuit Criminal Law Blog

Second Circuit Affirms Conviction and 20-Year Sentence in Sex Trafficking Case

On March 5, 2020, the Second Circuit (Katzmann, Kearse, Bianco) issued a brief per curiam opinion in United States v. Alcius, et al., affirming the defendant’s 20-year sentence on sex trafficking related charges.  Defendant-Appellant Almonte challenged the sufficiency of the evidence supporting her conviction and also appealed the procedural and substantive reasonableness of her sentence.  The court affirmed both the conviction and sentence. 

As to the sufficiency of the evidence motion brought under Rule 29, Almonte argued that the prosecution had not presented sufficient evidence that Almonte had “reasonable opportunity to observe” the victim, as required by 18 U.S.C. § 1591(c).  The court found that the record presented to the jury was sufficient.  Given the deferential standard of review applied to such motions, it is unsurprising that the Court affirmed the denial of the Rule 29 motion—these are tough arguments to win.

With regard to procedural unreasonableness, Almonte argued that the district court improperly considered Almonte’s own false testimony at trial without specifically finding that Almonte qualified for an adjustment for obstruction of justice under § 3C1.1 of the Sentencing Guidelines.  Section 3C1.1 provides for a two point increase if “the defendant willfully obstructed or impeded, or attempted to obstruct or impede, the administration of justice with respect to the investigation, prosecution, or sentencing of the instant offense of conviction,” in relation to the defendant’s offense of conviction.  The government did not seek this adjustment, and it was not listed in the presentence report.  The panel reasoned that the district court was not required to “sua sponte consider every conceivably applicable guideline,” and ruled that the district court appropriately considered the defendant’s false testimony in relation to the factors at 18 U.S.C. § 3553.  Here, this type of analysis worked against the defendant, but it may favor defendants in other contexts.  For example, even if the test for a minor role is not satisfied under Sentencing Guidelines Section 3B1.2, it may be possible for a defendant to receive a downward variance pursuant to Section 3553(a) based on the defendant’s limited role.

The court also rejected Almonte’s substantive unreasonableness argument.  The panel conceded that “the mitigating factors in Almonte’s case are significant”—though it declined to specify what exactly those factors were.  The court went on to hold that the district court adequately considered those mitigating factors and reasonably imposed a sentence above the statutory minimum and below the Guidelines recommendation of life imprisonment. 

Alcius serves as reminder of the latitude afforded to sentencing courts.  Though Almonte, as a female defendant in a sex trafficking case, had “significant” mitigating factors cutting in her favor, these factors were not sufficient to mount a successful substantive unreasonableness appeal to a 20 year sentence.  The panel’s rejection of procedural and substantive reasonableness sentencing arguments here is in keeping with the majority of recent decisions, which—consistent with the Supreme Court’s ruling in Gall v. United States, 552 U.S. 38 (2007), calling on the Courts of Appeals to accord due deference to the sentencing decisions of the district courts—decline to disturb a sentence on review.

-By Abigail E. Marion and Harry Sandick