Third Circuit: Mere Physical Proximity of Guns to Drugs Not Enough for Sentencing Enhancement

Caroline Vodzak  reports at Vodzaklegal that the Third Circuit has found that mere spatial proximity of guns to drugs is not sufficient to enhance a defendant’s sentence of drug possession without a specific finding of fact that the gun “facilitated or had the potential for facilitating the possession of drugs.”

Mr. West was caught in possession of a small amount of marijuana and cash during a routine traffic stop. Police then found a handgun in the car’s glvoe compartment and another in Mr. West’s trunk. They later found a gun on his girlfriend’s dresser near a bed where Mr. West sleeps. The trial court (MD of Pennsylvania) interpreted the sentencing guidelines in reliance on another third circuit case broadly to give Mr. West a four-level sentencing enhancement, reasoning that the guns needed only to be possessed “in connnection with” the possession of drugs.

The Third Circuit reversed, reasoning that “the mere connection with the drugs” was not enough, and remanded for sentencing, with instructions about the correct standard for application of the enhancement.

The interesting thing about this case is that the Thrid Circuit relied upon the Fourth, Fifth, and Eighth Circuits, which distinguish between drug possession and drug trafficking cases. It is not clear, from reading the opinion, whether other circuits make such a distinction and whether, on this issue, there is or might be a circuit split ahead.

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