March 8, 2017

First Circuit Affirms Lengthy Sentence of Chinese National Who Provided U.S. Goods to Iranian Nuclear Program

by Gwen Green and Steven Pelak

On March 1, 2017, the First Circuit affirmed the nine-year sentence of Sihai Cheng, a Chinese national who pleaded guilty for his role in supplying over 1,000 pressure transducers to Iran’s nuclear program.

In December 2015, Cheng pleaded guilty to two counts of conspiring to commit export violations and smuggle goods from the United States to Iran and four counts of illegally exporting U.S. manufactured pressure transducers to Iran.  On January 27, 2016, U.S. District Court Chief Judge Patti B. Saris departed upward from the Sentencing Guidelines and imposed a nine-year sentence, which is significantly beyond the otherwise applicable Guideline range.  It should be noted that Chief Judge Saris has served as the Chairperson of the U.S. Sentencing Commission.

Cheng was part of a conspiracy which exported from the U.S. to Iran at least 1,185 pressure transducers which were transshipped through China to Kalaye Electric Co., a U.S. designated Iranian WMD Proliferator responsible for the Government of Iran’s nuclear centrifuge program and the development of weapons-grade uranium.  He was arrested in the UK in early 2014 and later extradited to the United States in late 2014.

A possible lesson for defense counsel to consider in light of this relatively lengthy sentence and the resulting opinion:  Exercise extreme care before advising your client to enter a guilty plea in an Iranian sanctions matter without an agreement on an upper limit to the sentence to be sought by the United States.  Otherwise, the client may ultimately read the following in the appellate opinion affirming his sentence:

“At bottom, Cheng disagrees with the district court’s weighing of the various sentencing factors, but we find no abuse of the court’s broad discretion.  Cf. Arroyo-Maldonado, 791 F.3d at 200 (finding no plain error when defendant disagreed with the sentencing court’s weighing of factors).  Criminal defendants are entitled to a weighing of the relevant § 3553(a) factors, “not to a particular result.”  United States v. Carrasco-de-Jesús, 589 F.3d 22, 29 (first Cir. 2009).  Under the circumstances, imposition of a 108-month sentence was not substantively unreasonable.  Cf. Clogston, 662 F.3d at 592 (“There is no one reasonable sentence in any given case but, rather, a universe of reasonable sentencing . . .”