News You Can Use: Tenth Circuit’s decision in United States v. Aragon – a Narrow Drug Quantity Ruling That Raises Broad Questions

In United States v. Aragon, 922 F.3d 1102 (10th Cir. 2019), the Tenth Circuit issued an interesting but fact-specific holding that the district court clearly erred in determining the applicable drug quantity. At the same time, the opinions in Aragon raised without resolving fundamental questions about the role of the court and counsel in sentencing proceedings.  Read on about the opinion, and be sure to check out the takeaways at the bottom of the post.

 I.           The Drug Quantity Issue

Leonard Aragon pleaded guilty to possessing with intent to distribute controlled substances. The charges were based on two controlled buys in which Mr. Aragon sold a total of 71.9 grams of heroin to a confidential informant. The drug quantity issue arose from additional suspected drugs recovered from Mr. Aragon’s car at the time of his later arrest. The district court found that the suspected drugs amounted to 11 additional grams of heroin and 28.5 grams of methamphetamine. The district court’s findings increased Mr. Aragon’s offense level by 4 and produced a higher guidelines range.

On appeal, Mr. Aragon maintained that the district court clearly erred by determining that the suspected heroin weighed 11 grams and that the suspected methamphetamine weighed 28.5 grams. The record revealed only the “packaged weights” of the suspected drugs, not the “net weights” of the drugs themselves. The district court had attempted to derive the net weights by “deducting half a gram for the packaging” of each package. Slip op. at 7. It was this move that Mr. Aragon attacked as clearly erroneous. Mr. Aragon pointed out there was no evidence about the weight of the packaging and posited that the available photographs made it “impossible to tell” how much of the packaged weight was attributable to the packaging itself. Id. at 14.

 The Tenth Circuit agreed. The Court characterized “the district court’s half-a-gram figure” as “guesswork” and ruled that drug quantity findings cannot be sustained on such a basis. Id. The Tenth Circuit went on to reject a harmless-error defense interposed by the Government. The Government argued that Mr. Aragon’s offense level would have remained the same “even if the packaging of the heroin and methamphetamine found in his car weighed 11 grams each.” Id. at 15. The Tenth Circuit, however, took note of cases in which the weight attributed to drug packaging “was dramatic,” including a prior Tenth Circuit case in which the packaged weight of heroin was 28.2 grams but the net weight was only 3.8 grams. Id. Given that the photographs in the case were ambiguous, the Tenth Circuit found itself unable to conclude that the district court’s error did not affect Mr. Aragon’s offense level. Id. at 16.

The Tenth Circuit vacated Mr. Aragon’s sentence and remanded for resentencing. Id. at 19.

 II.          The Roles of District Courts and Counsel at Sentencing

 Although the Tenth Circuit vacated Mr. Aragon’s sentence on narrow grounds, both the Court’s opinion and a concurrence by Judge Holmes broached broader issues.

 A.          What are the limits on a district court’s authority to act sua sponte at sentencing?

Before ruling in favor of Mr. Aragon on the drug quantity issue, the Tenth Circuit addressed and rejected Mr. Aragon’s argument that the district court had abused its discretion by acting sua sponte at sentencing.

 This issue arose because it was the sentencing judge, not the Government, who elicited the evidence regarding what was found in Mr. Aragon’s car. The parties had signed a plea agreement stating that the appropriate guidelines range was one that did not add levels based on what was found in Mr. Aragon’s car. Id. at 2-4. The Government had agreed with that calculation because, unlike the heroin from the controlled buys, the suspected drugs found in Mr. Aragon’s car were neither field tested nor sent to a laboratory for formal testing. Id. at 6. No such testing was pursued “because Mr. Aragon had quickly indicated his intent to resolve the case, which prompted the government to cease its investigation.” Id. The sentencing judge, however, decided to collect and present its own evidence regarding what was found in Mr. Aragon’s car. The judge directed the Government to provide the court with “all documents and reports relating to Mr. Aragon’s arrest and the discovery of [suspected] drugs in his car,” a police report relating to phone calls that Mr. Aragon had made from jail, and a report regarding the contents of Mr. Aragon’s cell phone. Id. at 4. In addition, the judge directed the Government to “have the case agent present at sentencing.” Id. Over Mr. Aragon’s objection, the district court relied on the evidence that it had gathered to increase Mr. Aragon’s guidelines range.

Mr. Aragon maintained the district court’s sua sponte actions were improper, but the Tenth Circuit disagreed. The Court reaffirmed prior precedent that a district court’s power to gather and elicit its own evidence is incident to its obligation to determine the facts relevant facts at sentencing. Id. at 8. Still, the Court recognized that this power is not absolute. While ultimately rejecting Mr. Aragon’s argument, the Court did agree with Mr. Aragon on two preliminary points: (1) that a sentencing judge who gathers and elicits his own evidence “must take care not to create the appearance that he or she is less than totally impartial” and (2) that a district court’s power to gather and elicit its own evidence is “subject to abuse-of-discretion review.” Id. at 8, 10. The Court simply held that Mr. Aragon had not established an abuse of discretion on the particular facts of his case. Id. at 8-12.

The Aragon opinion ultimately sheds little broader light on when a district court’s sua sponte conduct at sentencing may go too far. The decision says that sua sponte actions may be overturned for an abuse of discretion. The opinion does not explain which factors are material to assessing whether a district court has abused its discretion, though it did deem significant that the judge had “made multiple statements to Mr. Aragon reassuring him that the manner in which the additional evidence was uncovered would not impact his sentence.” Id. at 11.

 B.          Must counsel disclose to the district court all information that “reasonably could be deemed” to affect the guidelines range?

A concurring opinion by Judge Holmes took aim at an ethical question that had been raised by the sentencing judge. In explaining his decision to gather and elicit evidence sua sponte, the district judge expressed the view that counsel for the parties had intentionally concealed the fact that contraband had been found in Mr. Aragon’s car and thereby acted improperly. Id. at 20 (Holmes, J., concurring). The principal opinion, however, described how defense counsel had disclosed at the change-of-plea hearing that contraband that might have increased Mr. Aragon’s offense level had been found in his car when he was arrested, and the Court assumed without deciding that the district court clearly erred in finding that the parties had acted deceptively. Id. at 2-3, 8-9 (principal opinion). Judge Holmes deemed himself “content with that assumption” and “d[id] not opine on the propriety of counsel’s actions in this case.” Id. at 20, 26 (Holmes, J., concurring). Nevertheless, speaking “hypothetically,” Judge Holmes wrote separately to offer his view that it would violate counsel’s duty of candor to the tribunal to “agree to intentionally withhold from the court’s consideration evidence that reasonably could be deemed to qualify as relevant conduct.” Id. at 24. Neither of the other two judges on the panel joined Judge Holmes’s concurrence.

 TAKEAWAYS

  •  Packaged Weights, Gross Weights, and Net Weights (Oh My?)

Be on guard for drug quantities that are reported as “packaged weights” or (equivalently) as “gross weights” — that is, the combined weight of drugs and their packaging. Likewise, be skeptical if quantities reported do not explicitly specify that they are “net weights” — that is, the weight of the drugs themselves, not including any packaging. Under U.S.S.G. § 2D1.1 n.1, the applicable drug quantity does not include packaging or other material “that must be separated from the controlled substance before the controlled substance can be used.” And the Aragon opinion highlights cases in which the difference between gross weight and net weight was large.

  •  No Guessing Allowed.

 Aragon is also useful because it reemphasizes the more broadly applicable principle that a drug quantity calculation must be grounded in something more than guesswork. Consider an objection on these grounds any time the Government’s or Probation’s drug quantity calculation is based on ambiguous or contradictory information.

  •  The Judge’s Authority to Investigate

 Aragon confirms that, as a general matter, a judge may gather and elicit evidence in connection with sentencing. Defense counsel should anticipate and, in appropriate cases prepare for, this possibility.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

News You Can Use: Tenth Circuit Vacates Denial of Suppression Motion in a Published Decision (With Photos!)

In US v. Gaines, the Tenth Circuit vacated the denial of a motion to suppress in a published opinion, ruling: (1) the defendant was seized when police officers confronted him about reported drug sales in a parking lot; and (2) the subsequent discovery of an arrest warrant did not attenuate the connection between the seizure and the evidence. And they did so with style, buttressing their points with actual photographs of the alleged seizure in question. The opinion doesn’t break new legal ground, but it provides a nice review of some basic Fourth Amendment principles—and is a great example of creative appellate advocacy.

Background

Kansas City police received a 911 call reporting a man dressed in red had sold drugs in a local parking lot. Based on that call, uniformed officers driving two separate police cars pulled into the parking lot and parked behind a car occupied by a man wearing red clothing—Mr. Gaines. Police turned on their flashing roof lights and gestured for Mr. Gaines to get out of his car. To help established the scene, Mr. Gaines included the following image the Opening Brief:

Photo1

After Mr. Gaines got out of his car, one officer confronted him about the reported drug sale, observed an open container of alcohol, and smelled PCP. Officers told Mr. Gaines he would be detained. Mr. Gaines then grabbed a pouch from his car and fled the scene. He was soon captured. Meanwhile, police discovered cocaine, marijuana, PCP, drug paraphernalia, cash, and a handgun in his car.  Mr. Gaines unsuccessfully moved to suppress this evidence, and was convicted after trial. He appealed the denial of his motion to suppress.

Tenth Circuit Decision

The Tenth Circuit vacated the denial of the suppression motion in a published opinion, focusing on two issues: (1) whether there was a seizure; and (2) whether the relationship between the seizure and the evidence was attenuated.

  • There was a seizure

The Tenth Circuit found Mr. Gaines was seized because a reasonable person would not have felt free to leave the scene, and Mr. Gaines in fact yielded to the police’s show of authority. The opinion goes into a lot of detail about what specifically made the encounter a seizure, including that it involved uniformed police officers in marked police cars with flashing lights, where state law requires motorists to stop for flashing lights. The Court also emphasized one of the officers had gestured for Mr. Gaines to get out of his car before asking him an accusatory question.

  • There was no attenuation

The Tenth Circuit also rejected the government’s attempt to salvage the case through the attenuation doctrine. Under that doctrine, evidence does not need to be excluded if the Government can meet its heavy burden of showing that there is only a weak or attenuated connection to the asserted Fourth Amendment violation. When applying the attenuation doctrine, the court considers: (1) the temporal proximity between the alleged Fourth Amendment violation and the discovery of the evidence; (2) the presence or absence of intervening circumstances; and (3) the purpose and flagrancy of the police wrongdoing.

Specifically, the Tenth Circuit rejected the government’s arguments that either an outstanding arrest warrant or the subsequent development of probable cause established attenuation in this case. With respect to the warrant, the Tenth Circuit noted that executing the warrant and arresting Mr. Gaines would not automatically have allowed the search of his vehicle—citing the Court’s recent decision limiting officer authority to conduct warrantless searches of arrestees in US v. Knapp. The Court also observed that neither the warrant nor the observations arguably amounting to probable cause were discovered until after the challenged seizure. The Court therefore reasoned both the close temporal proximity and the absence of intervening circumstances weighed against application of the attenuation doctrine in this case.

Takeaways

  • Preservation matters. The standard of review is important, and this is another appellate win born of  preservation. Mr. Gaines moved before trial for an order suppressing all evidence derived from law enforcement’s initial seizure of him. The court held an evidentiary hearing on the motion, ultimately denying it. Mr. Gaines reasserted his motion towards the end of trial.  Notably, this belt and suspenders approach is commendable, but the issue was already preserved for appeal. Under  Federal Rule of Evidence 103(b):“[o]nce the court rules definitively on the record—either before or at trial—a party need not renew an objection or offer of proof to preserve a claim of error for appeal.” 
  • Detail matters. Suppression motions often require fact-intensive inquiries, and as this case demonstrates, it’s useful to do everything you can to marshal the facts in your favor. Explain in detail exactly what happened: How many police officers were there? What were they wearing? What were they driving? And what exactly did they do when they encountered the defendant? And then those details to the relevant legal standard.
  • A picture is worth a thousand words. Check out the Opening Brief  in this appeal(filed by the Kansas FPD). Sometimes, it’s useful not only to tell the court why your motion should be granted, but also show them. If there’s an image that really captures the essence of your argument, consider including it in your brief so your point doesn’t get lost in the shuffle. Nobody’s suggesting you file a comic book, but when done right, this technique shakes up legal writing and can be quite effective.
  • Arrest authority is not the end of the story. As the Tenth Circuit’s in-depth attenuation analysis demonstrates, the fact that police could have lawfully arrested your client doesn’t necessarily excuse any Fourth Amendment violations. Pick apart any attenuation argument to see if the Government’s claim holds up: Would an arrest really have led to the discovery of the evidence, independent of the Fourth Amendment violation? And can the warrant really be considered an “intervening event” that weakens the causal connection between the Fourth Amendment violation and the evidence sought to be excluded?

News You Can Use: SCOTUS holds Counsel has Duty to File a Notice of Appeal Despite an Appeal Waiver

In Garza v. Idaho, the Supreme Court recently ruled 6-3 that, if a defendant wants to appeal, defense counsel must always file a notice of appeal — even if the defendant has signed an appeal waiver and even if counsel judges an appeal to be frivolous or self-defeating. The opinion clarifies trial counsel’s obligations during the post-trial period. And the lineup of the Justices is potentially revealing.

Background

Mr. Garza entered into a plea agreement that included a clause stating he “waive[d] his right to appeal.” After sentencing, however, Mr. Garza clearly and repeatedly told his lawyer that he wished to appeal. Trial counsel did not file a notice of appeal, telling Mr. Garza “that an appeal was problematic because he waived his right to appeal.”

Later, Mr. Garza sought post-conviction relief, claiming that trial counsel rendered ineffective assistance by failing to file a notice of appeal despite Mr. Garza’s requests. The Supreme Court’s prior decision in Roe v. Flores-Ortega lent support to Mr. Garza’s claim. The Court had held in Flores-Ortega that trial counsel’s failure to file a notice of appeal when the client requests an appeal amounts to ineffective assistance of counsel. But the Idaho courts denied Mr. Garza’s claim, purporting to distinguish Flores-Ortega on the basis of the appeal waiver in Mr. Garza’s case.

Majority Opinion

The Supreme Court reversed in an opinion authored by Justice Sotomayor and joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, Kagan, and Kavanaugh. Assessing the two elements of an ineffective assistance of counsel claim — deficient performance and prejudice — the Court held that, even in the face of appeal waiver, both elements are met when counsel disregards a defendant’s request to file an appeal.

Addressing the deficient performance element, the Court rejected the State’s argument that counsel could strategically decide not to file an appeal for fear of risking a breach of the plea agreement. The Court explained that, first, “simply filing a notice of appeal does not necessarily breach a plea agreement, given the possibility that the defendant will end up raising claims beyond the waiver’s scope.” Second, “the bare decision whether to appeal is ultimately the defendant’s, not counsel’s, to make.” The Court noted that defense counsel’s obligation to perform the “purely ministerial task” of filing a notice of appeal did not imply an obligation to file a merits brief in the court of appeals, as defense counsel may move to withdraw from representing the defendant on appeal if the appeal would be frivolous.

Addressing the prejudice element, the Court held that a presumption of prejudice applied because counsel’s deficient performance “forfeit[ed] an appellate proceeding all together,” and there was no principled way to assess the reliability of a proceeding that never took place. An appeal waiver does not show that a defendant has no right to an appellate proceeding, the Court explained, because there are some issues that can always be appealed notwithstanding an appeal waiver — including but not limited to the issue of whether the appeal waiver itself was knowing and voluntary. The Court rejected the federal government’s argument for a case-by-case assessment of whether the defendant planned to raise an issue outside the scope of the appeal waiver as unworkable.

The Dissent

Justices Thomas, Gorsuch, and Alito dissented. Justice Thomas authored the dissent, which Justice Gorsuch joined in full and Justice Alito joined only in part. In the section joined by each of the dissenters, Justice Thomas maintained that a case-by-case inquiry into deficient performance and prejudice should be required. In a more radical section of the dissent, joined only by Justice Gorsuch, Justice Thomas argued that the Sixth Amendment, as originally understood and ratified, “meant only that a defendant had a right to employ counsel, or to use volunteered services of counsel.” Thus, Justice Thomas (and Justice Gorsuch) suggested that landmark decisions reading the Sixth Amendment to require “counsel at taxpayers’ expense” (i.e., Gideon) and to guarantee “effective counsel” (i.e., Strickland) were wrongly decided. At a minimum, Justice Thomas maintained “the Court should tread carefully before extending our precedents in this area.”

 

Takeaways

  • Whether to appeal is up to the client. The defendant’s right to decide whether to appeal his case is a vital procedural protection.While defense counsel may advise the client that an appeal would be pointless, the client’s decision to proceed on appeal controls — just like the client controls other final decisions including whether to plead guilty or go to trial. An  amicus brief filed in the Garza litigation explains why fundamental principles of constitutional law and legal ethics vest the final decision to appeal in the client.
  • If the client wants to appeal, counsel must file a notice of appeal, even if the plea agreement contains an appellate waiver. Defense counsel must always file a notice of appeal when the client expresses the desire to appeal. In Roe v. Flores-Ortega, the Supreme Court held that when an attorney “disregards specific instructions from the defendant to file a notice of appeal,” the attorney has rendered deficient representation, and the defendant should be “presum[ed]” to have suffered prejudice. 528 U.S. 470 (2000). Garza teaches that the existence of an appeal waiver in a plea agreement does not change counsel’s fundamental obligations in this area.
  • Garza resolves a circuit split but doesn’t really change Tenth Circuit law. Since 2005, the Tenth Circuit has applied the rule in Flores-Ortega with equal force where a defendant enters a guilty plea containing an appeal waiver. In U.S. v. Garrett, the Tenth Circuit held that an “[a]ppellate waiver does not foreclose all appellate review” a sentence, and if the defendant “actually asked counsel to perfect an appeal, and counsel ignored the request, he will be entitled to a delayed appeal.”See US v Garrett, 402 F.3d 1262, 1266 (10th Cir. 2005).
  • Of course, you may end up filing an Anders brief. If you think the appeal is frivolous, keep in mind the procedure under Anders v California, 386 U.S. 738, 744 (1967). That is, when a client asks his lawyer to file an arguably frivolous appeal, the lawyer should file a notice of appeal, submit “a brief referring to anything in the record that might arguably support the appeal,” and request permission to withdraw. This procedure, requiring lawyers to file “Anders briefs,” allows defense counsel to act “with honor and without conflict,” and it preserves defendants’ right to appeal. For additional requirements on Anders briefs in the Tenth Circuit, see the Tenth Circuit Rules on the subject, particularly 10th Cir. R. 46.4(B)(1) through (3), and US v Cervantes, 795 F.3d 1189, 1190 (10th Cir. 2015).
  • Don’t just assume an appellate waiver is enforceable. Like it or not, appeal waivers are a part of plea agreements in the Tenth Circuit. But appellate waivers are not absolute and even the broadest waivers can sometimes be challenged. Review the appellate waiver enforcement analysis in US v Hahn, the key case on the issue in the Tenth Circuit, to determine if the appeal falls within the scope of the appellate waiver, if the defendant knowingly and voluntarily waived his appellate rights, or whether waiver will result in a miscarriage of justice.

News You Can Use: Tenth Circuit Limits Officers’ Authority to Search Incident to Arrest

In United States v. Knapp, the Tenth Circuit reversed the denial of a motion to suppress and held a warrantless search of an arrestee’s purse could not be sustained as a search incident to arrest.

Defendant Stacy Knapp was arrested on an outstanding warrant. Police officers seized the purse she was carrying and handcuffed her behind her back. The police walked Ms. Knapp to the police car while they carried her purse.  An officer then put Ms. Knapp’s purse on the hood of the car, about three to four feet away from Ms. Knapp (who was still handcuffed). One officer stood next to Ms. Knapp and two other officers were nearby. After Ms. Knapp admitted there was a gun inside her purse, an officer searched the purse and recovered a pistol.

The Government argued the warrantless search was permissible as a search incident to Ms. Knapp’s arrest. The Tenth Circuit disagreed and held that the search violated the Fourth Amendment.

First, the Court rejected the Government’s argument that the search of Ms. Knapp’s purse amounted to a “search of the person,” which is allowed automatically under United States v. Robinson. The Court held that Robinson should be limited to searches of an arrestee’s clothing — explicitly rejecting authority from other courts that had extended Robinson to apply to searches of handheld containers. The Court explained that searches incident to arrest are justified by the possibility that an arrestee might have a weapon and by the officers’ need to disarm her. In this light, automatic searches of an arrestee’s clothing make sense because separating an arrestee from her clothing to deny her access to any weapon “would be impractical (not to mention demeaning).” But that rationale doesn’t apply to handheld containers like purses, the Court held, because such items are “easily capable of separation from [the] person.”

Second, the Court rejected the district court’s holding that the search of Ms. Knapp’s purse was justified on the ground that she could have accessed it at the time of the search. The Court recognized that, under Chimel v. California, police can search not only an arrestee’s person but also anything else they reasonably believe the arrestee might access to get a weapon or destroy evidence. However, the Court held that, unlike Robinson searches, Chimel searches are not automatic and “must be justified on a case-by-case basis by the need to disarm or to preserve evidence.” Further, the Court held that Arizona v. Gant, which arose in the context of an automobile search, was not limited to that context and required the Court to evaluate “the arrestee’s ability to access weapons or destroy evidence at the time of the search, rather than the time of the arrest, regardless of whether the search involved a vehicle.” Applying Gant and Chimel, the Court held that “it was unreasonable to believe Ms. Knapp could have gained possession of a weapon or destructible evidence within her purse at the time of the search.” Ms. Knapp could not have accessed the contents of her purse, the Court explained, because “not only were Ms. Knapp’s hands cuffed behind her back, [an officer] was next to her, and two other officers were nearby. Moreover, the purse was closed and three to four feet behind her, and officers had maintained exclusive possession of it since placing her in handcuffs.”

Takeaways

  • Preservation matters. This awesome appellate win was born in the district court.  The trial lawyers made a great record, filing a motion to suppress on Fourth Amendment grounds (and later, a reply in support of the motion) and emphasizing the government’s burden to prove that the search and seizure was reasonable.  Because the issue was raised and ruled upon below, the Tenth Circuit applied de novo review on appeal. This favorable standard of review is the result of preservation; and it was the first step on the path to victory.
  • A purse is not a pocket! Searches “of the person” incident to an arrest are allowed automatically, but such searches are limited to searches of the arrestee’s clothing and cannot extend to a search of a handheld container, like a purse.
  • A search of the “grab area” must be justified.  A search of the area within the arrestee’s immediate control (the “grab area”) is not a search “of the person” and must be “justified on a case-by-case basis by the need to disarm or to preserve evidence.”
  • Justification depends on what’s happening at the time of the search, not the time of the arrest.  If, at the time of the search, it isn’t reasonable to believe that an arrestee could access a place or item to destroy evidence or get a weapon, the search of that place or item cannot be justified as a search incident to arrest.

 

 

News You Can Use: SCOTUS says 8th Amendment’s ban on excessive fines applies to the states

Last week, the Supreme Court decided Timbs v. Indiana, agreeing 9-0 that the Eighth Amendment’s Excessive Fines Clause is incorporated against the states. The Court held that – like almost every other part of the Bill of Rights – the excessive fines clause restricts state and local governments to the same extent as the federal government.

In 1993, the Supreme Court applied the Excessive Fines Clause to in rem forfeiture proceedings in Austin v. United States. In rem forfeitures are essentially civil law suits instituted against property rather than people, which allow the government to take possession of the “rem” (thing) because of some connection to a crime, without actually convicting their owners or even proving their owners guilt. But the Court had never applied the Clause to state or local proceedings.

In Timbs, the Court held the Excessive Fines Clause limited Indiana’s ability to complete an in rem forfeiture of a Land Rover SUV that its owner had used to transport heroin. Mr. Timbs had recently purchased the seized SUV for $42,000 with insurance money received upon his father’s death–over four times the amount of money that he could have been fined in his criminal case. A lower Indiana court had already found this was an excessive fine under the U.S. Constitution. The Indiana Supreme Court reversed that decision based only on its erroneous determination that the Excessive Fines Clause was not incorporated against the states. Therefore, incorporation was the only issue in front of the U.S. Supreme Court. This case was not about whether, in fact, the forfeiture of the SUV was an excessive fine.

The Supreme Court set out a lengthy history of the prohibition on excessive fines. Because of this history, the Court held that the Excessive Fines Clause is both “fundamental to our scheme of ordered liberty” and “deeply rooted in this Nation’s history and tradition” – only one of which had to be true for incorporation to be appropriate. Timbs v. Indiana, 586 U.S. ___, slip op. at 3 (2019).

The country has taken notice of civil asset forfeiture, or “legalized theft” as it has been called.  And, now, so has the Supreme Court. This is essentially a unanimous decision. Justice Thomas wrote for himself, as he often does, to explain that rights should be incorporated against states under the Privileges and Immunities Clause and not the Due Process Clause. Justice Gorsuch indicated in a concurrence that he is likely to agree if that specific issue is ever squarely before the court. But all of the Justices were concerned about the frequency and creativity with which the government has violated the right to be free of excessive fines.

Takeaways

  • If your client is losing her stuff, no matter what agency or court is taking it, and no matter what mechanism is being used, think about an Excessive Fines Clause challenge.
  • Be creative. Justice Thomas, for one, has suggested applying a higher standard in these cases (clear and convincing evidence), and he wants you to preserve that issue. See Leonard v. Texas (Thomas, J., Statement respecting denial of cert.)
  • Be aggressive. Mine the recent U.S. Supreme Court cases for their strong language. See, e.g., id. at 848 (“This system—where police can seize property with limited judicial oversight and retain it for their own use—has led to egregious and well-chronicled abuses.); Timbs (“Exorbitant tolls undermine other constitutional liberties.”)
  • State court, federal court, it really does not matter. It will almost always be true that incorporated federal constitutional rights are to be interpreted identically no matter where you are. Once again, the Court noted and then distinguished the only exception: the Sixth Amendment’s Jury Clause. It requires jury trials in all felony cases, but it only requires unanimous verdicts in federal criminal cases. Why? “The result of an unusual division among the Justices.” Op. at 3 n. 1. Will something like that happen again? Probably not.

News You Can Use: SCOTUS decides more ACCA predicate cases (Part 1)

The Supreme Court recently decided the consolidated cases of United States v. Stitt (and United States v. Sims), No. 17-765, 2018 WL 6439818  (U.S. Dec. 10, 2018). The opinion holds that burglary of a vehicle adapted for overnight accommodation of persons is a generic burglary for purposes of the Armed Career Criminal Act.

The Stitt opinion is another in a line of cases that have asked whether certain burglary convictions qualify as predicate offenses under the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA). The defendants in these cases, Victor J. Stitt and Jason Daniel Sims, were each convicted in federal court of unlawfully possessing a firearm, in violation of 18 U. S. C. §922(g)(1). The sentencing judge in each case imposed the mandatory minimum 15-year prison term that the ACCA requires for §922(g)(1) offenders who have at least three previous convictions for certain “violent” or drug-related felonies, §924(e)(1), based in part on burglary convictions.

The Supreme Court has previously stated that burglary of a vehicle is not a valid ACCA predicate. But the narrower question in this case was whether statutes that cover burglaries of vehicles that have been adapted or customarily used for overnight accommodation should qualify as ACCA predicates because they fall within the “generic” definition of burglary.

The categorical approach

Recall that the categorical approach first adopted Taylor v. United States, 495 U.S. 575 (1990), requires courts to evaluate a prior state conviction by reference to the elements of the state offense, rather than to the defendant’s conduct. In other words, you can’t look at the underlying facts of the prior conviction to figure out whether the predicate counts. A prior state burglary conviction does not qualify under the ACCA where “the elements of [the relevant state statute] are broader than those of generic burglary.” Mathis v. United States, 136 S.Ct. 2243 (2016). Burglary statutes that cover vehicles as one possible means of committing the crime are therefore excluded from being predicate ACCA offenses because the statutes are overbroad. See, e.g., Mathis, 136 S. Ct. at 2250. (holding that Iowa statute covering burglary of “any building, structure, [or] land, water, or air vehicle” was overbroad and indivisible and thus did not qualify as an ACCA predicate).

The nitty gritty

Stitt’s prior convictions were for violations of a Tennessee statute that defines “[a]ggravated burglary” as “burglary of a habitation.” Tenn. Code Ann. § 39–14–403(a) (1997). It further defines “[h]abitation” to include: (1) “any structure, including … mobile homes, trailers, and tents, which is designed or adapted for the overnight accommodation of persons,” and (2) any “self-propelled vehicle that is designed or adapted for the overnight accommodation of persons and is actually occupied at the time of initial entry by the defendant.” §§ 39–14–401(1)(A), (B) (emphasis added).

Similarly, Sims’ prior convictions were for violations of an Arkansas statute that prohibits burglary of a “residential occupiable structure.” Ark. Code Ann. § 5–39–201(a)(1) (Michie 1997). The statute defines “[r]esidential occupiable structure” to include:  “a vehicle, building, or other structure: (A) [w]here any person lives; or (B) [w]hich is customarily used for overnight accommodation of persons whether or not a person is actually present.” § 5–39–101(1) (emphasis added).

In both cases, the District Courts found the state statutory crimes fell within the scope of the word “burglary” in the Armed Career Criminal Act and consequently imposed that statute’s mandatory sentence enhancement. In both cases, the relevant Court of Appeals held that the statutory crimes did not fall within the scope of the word “burglary,” vacated the sentence, and remanded for resentencing. The Government sought certiorari in both cases in part because of a circuit split that included an old Tenth Circuit case, United States v. Spring, 80 F.3d 1450, 1462 (10th Cir. 1996), which held that such burglary convictions would qualify as ACCA predicates.

The upshot

The Supreme Court surveyed state statutes from 1986 and earlier and determined that “a majority of state burglary statutes covered vehicles adapted or customarily used for lodging.” Stitt, 2018 WL 6439818, at *4. As a result, such burglary convictions were included within the definition of “generic burglary.” In so doing, the Supreme Court reversed the decisions below of the Sixth and Eighth Circuits, and also abrogated contrary precedent in the Fourth and Ninth Circuits. See United States v. White, 836 F.3d 437, 446 (4th Cir. 2016); United States v. Grisel, 488 F.3d 844 (9th Cir. 2007) (en banc). Justice Breyer wrote the opinion for a unanimous Court.

Takeaways

  • Burglary convictions/statutes that cover vehicles plain and simple are still out, but statutes that cover vehicles “adapted for overnight accommodation of persons” will now qualify as ACCA predicates—as long as they are not overbroad and indivisible in some other way.
  • For a refresher on the categorical approach, see Mathis v. United States, 136 S.Ct. 2243 (2016), available here.
  • Remember: burglary convictions are NEVER crimes of violence under the career offender provisions of the Guidelines (this case affects only potential ACCA clients).

 

 

News You Can Use: Tenth Circuit Holds Kansas Aggravated Robbery Isn’t a Violent Felony

In United States v. Bong, the Tenth Circuit held that Kansas aggravated robbery isn’t a violent felony for purposes of the Armed Career Criminal Act. Mr. Bong was convicted of being a felon in possession of a firearm and sentenced to more than 24 years in prison. He was sentenced under the ACCA based on at least seven prior convictions that the district court believed qualified as violent felonies: three Kansas simple robberies, three Kansas aggravated robberies, and one Kansas attempted robbery. On appeal, Mr. Bong argued that none of those prior convictions qualified as violent felonies that could trigger the ACCA, and the Tenth Circuit agreed.

By statute, Kansas defines robbery as “the taking of property from the person or presence of another by threat of bodily harm to his person or the person of another or by force.” The statute defining aggravated robbery defines that offense as “a robbery committed by a person who is armed with a dangerous weapon or who inflicts bodily harm upon any person during the course of such robbery.” At first blush, these statutes would seem to qualify as violent felonies. But a closer look revealed that they don’t qualify.

 Although the Kansas statutes seem to require force, the Kansas Supreme Court has interpreted them to require no such thing. In one case, the Kansas Supreme Court held that mere purse snatching constitutes robbery and, in a different case, held that mere possession of a weapon (absent use or brandishing) can elevate a robbery conviction to aggravated robbery.

Based on the Kansas Supreme Court’s interpretation of its robbery statutes, the Tenth Circuit held that Mr. Bong’s prior convictions did not count as violent felonies. First, as to simple robbery, the “mere snatching of a purse” — “without any application of force directly to the victim” and “without any resistance by or injury to the victim” — “falls short of the ‘violent force’ required” to qualify as a violent felony under the ACCA. Bong, Slip op. at 19-20. Second, as to aggravated robbery, “nothing about [a] defendant’s mere possession of a firearm (or another deadly weapon) would . . . necessarily cause[] the crime to involve” the use, attempted use, or threatened use of violent force required to trigger the ACCA. Id. at 23-24.

 

TAKEAWAYS

 1. Robbery offenses that can be committed by mere purse snatching don’t qualify as violent felonies under the ACCA (and likely don’t qualify as crimes of violence under the sentencing guidelines).

 2. Offenses that require simply possessing a weapon, as opposed to using or brandishing a weapon, don’t qualify as violent felonies under the ACCA (and likely don’t qualify as crimes of violence under the sentencing guidelines).

3. Even when an offense sounds like it would be a violent felony or crime of violence (Aggravated Robbery With a Deadly Weapon!), it may not qualify. Even when the statute defining an offense sounds like it defines a violent felony or crime of violence, it may not qualify. You must always look to see how the state courts have construed the statute.