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Weld v. United States

United States District Court, E.D. Tennessee

June 4, 2019

LACEY WELD, Petitioner,
v.
UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Respondent.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          THOMAS A. VARLAN, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         This is a pro se prisoner's motion to vacate, set aside, or correct a sentence under 28 U.S.C. § 2255 [No. 3:16-cv-433-TAV, Doc. 1]. Respondent responded in opposition [Id., Doc. 5]. For the following reasons, the § 2255 motion [Id., Doc. 1] will be denied and this action will be dismissed.

         I. BACKGROUND

         From the summer of 2010 through early February 2013, Petitioner participated in a large-scale methamphetamine-manufacturing conspiracy [No. 3:13-cr-84-TAV-CCS-4, Doc. 76.]. Specifically, she purchased at least 150 grams of pseudoephedrine, an ingredient of methamphetamine, and assisted with the hazardous process of “cooking” methamphetamine [Id., Docs. 76, 202]. Petitioner told investigators that she was present for at least a dozen “cooks” by codefendant Charles Craig Rhodes [Id., Doc. 231]. During the conspiracy, Petitioner became pregnant and ultimately gave birth to a child who exhibited signs of opiate and amphetamine exposure and drug-withdrawal symptoms [Id.].

         In November 2013, Petitioner pleaded guilty, pursuant to a written plea agreement, to conspiring to manufacture at least 50 grams of methamphetamine, in violation of 21 U.S.C. §§ 846 and 841(a)(1), (b)(1)(A) [Id., Docs. 76, 256]. She agreed she was subject to a ten-year statutory mandatory minimum sentence and that the Court had discretion to impose any sentence up to the statutory maximum of life imprisonment [Id.]. She also acknowledged that her sentence would be “based upon the entire scope of [her] criminal conduct, [her] criminal history, and pursuant to other factors and guidelines as set forth in the Sentencing Guidelines and . . . 18 U.S.C. § 3553” [Id.]. As part of her plea agreement, Petitioner also waived her right to appeal, reserving only the right to appeal a sentence above the guidelines range “determined by” the Court [Id., Doc. 76].

         Based on the drug quantity stipulated as part of the guilty plea, the Presentence Investigative Report (PSR) listed Petitioner's base offense level as 32 [Id., Doc. 112]. The PSR applied a three-level enhancement under U.S.S.G. § 2D1.1(b)(13)(C)(ii)(I), on the basis that Petitioner's offense involved the manufacture of methamphetamine and created a substantial risk of harm to human life [Id.]. Specifically, the probation officer referred to evidence that Petitioner had manufactured-and smoked-methamphetamine while in the late stages of pregnancy [Id.]. A three-level reduction for acceptance of responsibility yielded a total offense level of 32 and, in light of Petitioner's criminal history category of IV, a guidelines range of 168 to 210 months' imprisonment [Id.].

         Petitioner objected to the three-level enhancement, claiming that her proximity to an operational methamphetamine laboratory while pregnant and her methamphetamine use were “irrelevant” to a determination of whether the offense of conviction created a substantial risk of harm to human life [Id., Doc. 125]. Petitioner also argued that this enhancement was inappropriate because an unborn fetus is not specifically contemplated in § 2D1.1(b)(13) as constituting “human life” [Id.]. Subsequently, the United States requested a six-level enhancement under U.S.S.G. § 2D1.1(b)(13)(D)-regarding substantial risk of harm to the life of a minor-instead of the three-level enhancement objected to by Petitioner-regarding human life generally [Id., Doc. 172]. In response to Petitioner's suggestion that the enhancement was inapplicable if the risk of harm related to an unborn fetus, the United States argued that Petitioner not only created a substantial risk of harm to her child in utero, but also created a substantial risk of harm to the child after birth, as evidenced by the severe effects of drug dependence that he displayed once born [Id.].

         The PSR was revised to contain the six-level § 2D1.1(b)(13)(D) enhancement instead of the three-level § 2D1.1(b)(13)(C)(ii)(I) enhancement [Id., Doc. 202]. The corresponding total offense level was thus 35 and yielded an advisory guidelines range of 235 to 293 months' imprisonment [Id.]. Petitioner again objected to any “risk of harm” enhancement [Id., Docs. 208, 214, 217].

         During the sentencing hearing, the United States presented testimony from two witnesses and, among other evidence, a 40-minute video recording from a methamphetamine laboratory on May 10, 2012 [Id., Doc. 231]. The video depicted two methamphetamine “cooks” occurring simultaneously; Petitioner was present and actively participating in the process, although a codefendant appeared to be the primary person manufacturing methamphetamine on that date [Id.]. In the video, Petitioner can be seen chopping and grinding pseudoephedrine pills, stirring various components, and smoking the finished methamphetamine [Id.]. During the cooking process Petitioner held her shirt over her nose numerous times, and the video also depicted codefendants burning trash and byproducts from the methamphetamine manufacturing process [Id.].

         Petitioner was visibly pregnant in the video recording-she gave birth twenty-six days after the video was taken [Id.].

         To explain the significance of the activities shown on the video, the United States called Tennessee Bureau of Investigation Special Agent Matthew Thompson; for the previous fourteen years, he had obtained annual certifications from the Tennessee Methamphetamine Task Force qualifying him to safely dismantle methamphetamine laboratories and supervise others doing so [Id.]. Agent Thompson estimated that, between his own investigations and assisting others, he had been present in approximately 400 to 500 methamphetamine laboratories. He later explained that, because of the inherently hazardous health conditions posed by methamphetamine laboratories, investigating agents wear full-body chemical suits, gloves, boots, and self-contained breathing apparatuses when entering such laboratories [Id.].

         Agent Thompson testified that the type of manufacturing process depicted in the video was the “anhydrous ammonia method” or “ephedrine reduction method” [Id.]. Specifically, the coconspirators combined muriatic acid, acetone, anhydrous ammonia, lithium, and hydrogen chloride, then added a heat source, “basically boiling a flammable liquid” and thereby creating a “huge [risk of] fire and explosion” [Id.]. Agent Thompson explained that an explosion could occur if any water-or even human sweat-touched the anhydrous ammonia [Id.]. Moreover, he testified that anhydrous ammonia's strong odors can cause dizziness and respiratory problems, and holding fabric over one's nose would not provide protection from its odors and vapors [Id.]. Additionally, the coconspirators burned various items associated with the methamphetamine manufacturing process, which he stated could have caused an explosion or further disseminated toxic fumes [Id.]. Agent Thompson also noted that the methamphetamine laboratory shown in the video was in a building just fifteen feet away from railroad tracks, so close that the building shook whenever a train passed, and, in his opinion, increasing the risk of explosion and the possibility of harm to anyone on a passing train [Id.].

         The other witness for the United States-Lynnie Vaughn, a caseworker with the Tennessee Department of Children's Services-testified that Petitioner gave birth to a drug-dependent son on June 5, 2012, less than one month after the cook depicted in the video [Id.]. At the time of birth, Petitioner tested positive for oxycodone and amphetamines; three days later, she tested positive for methamphetamine, oxycodone, amphetamine, benzodiazepines, opiates, and marijuana [Id.]. The child's meconium tested positive for methamphetamine, and he had to remain in the neonatal intensive-care unit for nearly seven weeks because of medical complications stemming from drug withdrawal [Id.]. Petitioner herself admitted the severity of her son's drug dependence, acknowledging that “he could have died” because of her actions [Id.].

         Based on Vaughn's personal observations of the child in the hospital and her review of his medical records, she testified that Petitioner's son experienced withdrawal symptoms including uncontrollable whole-body tremors [Id.]. On most days, the baby was “jittery” when awake [Id.]. He vomited when attempting to feed [Id.]. In the end, he received morphine for thirty-nine consecutive days to help control his withdrawal symptoms; ...


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