Thirteen-year-old Shavon Randle was kidnapped from a Lancaster home on June 28 after a dispute over $150,000 in stolen drugs that she had nothing to do with. She was found dead four days later, shot in the head and torso, at a house in east Oak Cliff, Dallas. Five people were arrested on various charges connected to her disappearance.
“Multiple defendants are charged in the case and the office is preparing for trials beginning in the fall. These are 1st degree felonies for which punishment includes potential life sentences. This is still a very active and intense investigation,” the DA’s office said. The main suspect in Shavon Randle’s 2017 killing, Darius Fields, was never charged with her murder. However, the feds have other ways to hold him accountable.
It’s called relevant conduct. It’s a unique feature of federal sentencing law, and it can tack on many additional years to an existing sentence. Darius Fields was convicted on unrelated firearms offenses last year, and prosecutors plan to introduce evidence of his involvement in Shavon’s murder during his sentencing this April. This is when they will ask the judge to give him the maximum possible penalty under the law–25 years in prison.
Connected through relevant conduct, federal sentencing law allows defendants to be held accountable for cases not proven, but connected with reasonable doubt. By bringing in conduct that was not charged due to lacking evidence, but including it for current sentencing, is using relevant conduct to make a charge. In this case, the goal would be to increase the “points” towards Field’s sentencing guidelines, and ultimately, his prison time.
Determining Relevant Conduct
While the exact definition of relevant conduct is complicated, in drug cases, uncharged crimes are considered to be relevant conduct if they are:
- A conspiracy scenario or a crime committed with other people, all other crimes that are committed by those other people that furthered or related to the crime of conviction; and
- Whether or not the conviction is for a conspiracy, any additional crime that is “part of the same course of conduct or common scheme or plan as the offense of conviction.”
Relevant Conduct Put into Perspective
Courts nationwide have given broad interpretations to the phrase “course of conduct.”
Case example: Someone is arrested on a street corner after delivering a half gram of powder cocaine to an undercover officer. A snitch tells the police that the person has been selling cocaine on that corner for six months and has probably sold a total of a half kilogram of cocaine.
Unlike state sentencing, federal sentencing can use relevant conduct to further enhance a defendant’s charge. Because relevant conduct refers to the motivation behind the crime and not the crime itself, it allows a federal court to consider the intent behind the crime and make an appropriate charge, given the situation.
Theoretically, a skilled prosecuting attorney should be able to lessen the use of presenting relevant conduct against a defendant in a case. On the contrary, a criminal defense attorney can file a motion to suppress the evidence of relevant conduct, stating that the officer violated the defendant’s Fourth Amendment right: the protection against unjust search and seizure. However, if said defendant is convicted because of the remaining drugs, the uncharged crime–that was illegally siezed–can still be considered during sentencing.
Why it Matters
In the case of Shavon Randle’s murder and Darius Fields, The Dallas County district attorney’s office said, in a written statement, that it remains “focused on vigorously pursuing justice” in the case.
“Punishment for this charge [aggravated kidnapping] carries the same penalty range as murder, and holds these defendants responsible for their actions that led to her death. However, this is still an active and ongoing investigation and more charges could be filed.” Said Allenbaugh, the former sentencing commission lawyer. He also called relevant conduct “an end run around the constitution.”
“All you have to do is convince the judge,” he said in an interview with The Dallas News.
“Defendants don’t realize this when they go to trial or plead guilty,” Allenbaugh said.
He added that if the evidence against Fields is strong enough, the government should charge him and let a jury decide, rather than slip it in during sentencing. “You want to make sure you get the right guy,” he said.
Understandably, relevant conduct is highly controversial. Critics call it an “unconstitutional short-cut.” That could make sense, since government prosecutors can introduce evidence of a crime the defendant was never initially charged with. A judge alone decides if the defendant is guilty—typically, in one day—and based upon a prevalence of the evidence.
In Darius Field’s case, the results and penalties of presenting relevant conduct into the case of Shavon Randle’s murder will be determined this upcoming April.