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Court: “Be careful what you ship; postal inspectors are watching”

In response to a sentencing appeal in a drug case, a Circuit Judge warned a convicted drug dealer that “Postal Inspectors are watching.“

In 2018, a Postal Inspector with the United States Postal Inspection Service intercepted a package that contained a kilogram of cocaine. The package was addressed to Carlos Ramos of Philadelphia. One year later, a jury convicted Ramos of one count of attempted possession with intent to distribute 500 grams or more of cocaine; one count of possession with intent to distribute cocaine; and one count of possession with intent to distribute cocaine within 1,000 feet of an elementary school. A judge sentenced Ramos to 30 years in federal prison.

“Be careful what you ship; postal inspectors are watching,” a Circuit Judge wrote in the response to the appeal.

Ramos appealed the sentence, citing a lack of probable cause or reasonable suspicion by the Postal Inspector who had intercepted the package of cocaine. Circuit Judge Stephanos Bibas, in a response to the appeal, wrote that the Postal Inspector had more than enough probable cause to search the package. Bibas described the signs that had aroused the Postal Inspector’s suspicion.

“The inspector acted reasonably,” Bibas wrote. “Five signs aroused his suspicion:

  • First, the package was from Puerto Rico, a common source of illegal cocaine shipments.
  • Second, the package was sent by Priority Mail, a common way to ship drugs.
  • Third, according to the databases used by the Postal Service, the sender and addressee listed on the package matched no one living at their purported addresses.
  • Fourth, the package was mailed from a zip code different from the one on its return address.
  • And fifth, three other Priority Mail packages had been sent from Puerto Rico to that address.”

“Each of these facts (except perhaps the third) would be too generic to support a reasonable suspicion on its own. But we cannot evaluate these four facts in isolation. A series of acts, each perhaps innocent in itself, can, taken together, … warrant further investigation. Taken together, these facts justified the inspector’s suspicion (internal quotation marks omitted).”

We said as much in Golson, when a postal inspector had detained a package for very similar reasons. True, the parties there did not dispute the point. And the facts there were slightly different; in Golson, the return address was fake, while here only the names were likely fake. But we see no appreciable difference in how “particularized and objective [the] basis” is for the suspicion. Because the inspector’s suspicion was reasonable, the District Court correctly admitted the evidence.

A picture of The Circuit Judge rejected all but one of the arguments in the appeal

The Circuit Judge rejected all but one of the arguments in the appeal

As to the reasonable suspicion, the judge wrote:

“Reasonable suspicion is a very low bar. It requires more than a mere hunch, but not much more. For an investigator’s suspicion to be reasonable, he needs only a particularized and objective basis for suspecting legal wrongdoing. That basis may fall[] considerably short of satisfying a preponderance of the evidence standard.”

Ramos, in his appeal, argued that prosecutors had acted improperly in front of the jury when describing the events that transpired after his arrest. During their closing statements, prosecutors told the jury how when investigators had asked Ramos if he was “the only one involved in this cocaine trafficking operation,” “[h]e didn’t deny being a part of the operation.”

Judge Bibas wrote that the prosecutors had not acted improperly “because the Government commented on his statement, not his silence, its comments were proper.”

And finally, Judge Bibas denied that Ramos had received too severe of a prison sentence. He agreed, though, that his supervised release could be dropped from 12 years to as low as six years.

The Federal Sentencing Guidelines would ordinarily recommend a sentence of ten to twelve-and-a-half years. But because Ramos had eight prior felony convictions for small scale drug dealing, the Guidelines classified him as a career offender. That jacked his sentencing range up to thirty years to life.

The District Court agreed with the Guidelines’ recommendation. It found that Ramos needed a hefty sentence to deter him from committing more crimes. It added that a long sentence would also deter others from selling drugs, especially near a school. So it sentenced him to thirty years’ imprisonment. That was proper.

Regarding the supervised release:

Ramos and the Government agree that we should give the court a second crack at setting the supervised-release term. So we will vacate that portion of the sentence and remand it for resentencing