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United States v. Soto-Rivera

United States Court of Appeals, First Circuit

January 22, 2016

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Appellee,
v.
ANTHONY SOTO-RIVERA, Defendant, Appellant

APPEAL FROM THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF PUERTO RICO. Hon. Francisco A. Besosa, U.S. District Judge.

Johnny Rivera-GonzÁlez for appellant.

Tiffany V. Monrose, Assistant United States Attorney, with whom Rosa Emilia Rodríguez-Vélez, United States Attorney, and Nelson Pérez-Sosa, Assistant United States Attorney, were on brief, for appellee.

Before Thompson, Hawkins,[*] and Barron, Circuit Judges.

OPINION

Page 54

THOMPSON, Circuit Judge.

This appeal calls for us to consider the district judge's determination that appellant Anthony Soto-Rivera (" Soto-Rivera" ) should be sentenced as a Career Offender because he committed a " crime of violence" as defined by the United States Sentencing Guidelines (" U.S.S.G." or " Guidelines" ). The issue before us is narrow, and so is our ruling. Taking this case just as it has been presented to us --meaning we hold the parties to their concessions and decline to speculate on the possible merit of other arguments that might have been (but weren't) made --we conclude that Soto-Rivera's particular crime of conviction does not qualify as a " crime of violence" under the Guidelines. Accordingly, Soto-Rivera may not be sentenced as a Career Offender.

BACKGROUND

The facts, generally speaking, are neither complicated nor disputed. We recite only those necessary to decide the issues presented by the parties.

For reasons not germane to the legal issues here, Soto-Rivera found himself under arrest, and the arresting officers found a handgun and ammunition in his possession. This was a problem for him, as it turns out that Soto-Rivera had a previous felony conviction on his record.

Soto-Rivera soon faced a two-count indictment in the Puerto Rico district court. Count One charged him with illegally possessing a " firearm and ammunition" in violation of 18 U.S.C. § § 922(g)(1) and 924(a)(2), statutes which make it illegal for convicted felons to have guns or ammo. Count Two gave more detail about Soto-Rivera's firearm, describing it as a " machinegun, that is a Glock Model 23, .40 caliber . . . modified to shoot automatically more than one shot, without manual reloading, by a single function of the trigger," which violated 18 U.S.C. § § 922(o)'s and 924(a)(2)'s general prohibition against possessing machineguns.[1]

Although he entered an initial plea of not guilty, rather than stand trial Soto-Rivera entered into a Plea Agreement with the government. Pursuant to their Agreement, Soto-Rivera agreed to plead guilty to Count One's charge of illegally possessing a " firearm and ammunition," with Count Two falling by the wayside.

The Plea Agreement addressed the length of the prison sentence Soto-Rivera could expect to receive, something that is heavily influenced by various provisions in the Sentencing Guidelines. The now-advisory Guidelines are " a system under which a set of inputs specific to a given case (the particular characteristics of the offense

Page 55

and offender) yield[s] a predetermined output (a range of months within which the defendant could be sentenced)." Peugh v. United States, 133 S.Ct. 2072, 2079, 186 L.Ed.2d 84 (2013). We commend those readers interested in a general overview of how the Guidelines work to the succinct and informative rundown in United States v. Serrano-Mercado, 784 F.3d 838 (1st Cir. 2015).

For our purposes today, it is enough to know that the Guidelines take into account any past crimes a defendant has been convicted of, with the idea being that " [t]he more severe the criminal history," the lengthier the sentence. Serrano-Mercado, 784 F.3d at 840. A defendant who is over 18 at the time he commits a " felony that is either a crime of violence or a controlled substance offense," and who " has at least two prior felony convictions of either a crime of violence or a controlled substance offense," is a Career Offender. U.S.S.G. § 4B1.1(a). A Career Offender is considered to have the most severe criminal history provided by the Guidelines. Id. § 4B1.1(b). The practical effect is that a Career Offender generally receives a longer sentence for a particular crime (which, remember, must be either a " crime of violence" or a " controlled substance offense" ) than a non-Career Offender would get for that same crime.

So, to figure out whether a particular defendant is a Career Offender, it's necessary to know first whether that defendant is being sentenced following a conviction for a crime of violence or a controlled substance offense. If he is, the next question to answer is whether that defendant " has at least two prior felony convictions of either a crime of violence or a controlled substance offense." Id. § 4B1.1(a). Towards that end, a defendant and the government might stipulate in a plea agreement as to which (and how many) crimes a defendant has committed in the past.

But the Plea Agreement here -- which seems to assume that felon in possession is a crime of violence -- is silent in that regard. Instead, Soto-Rivera and the government calculated potential sentence lengths both with and without considering him to be a Career Offender. The Plea Agreement indicates that Soto-Rivera faced 77-96 months in prison if he was found to be a Career Offender, and some shorter amount of time if he turned out not to be one.[2]

Further, Soto-Rivera conceded in the Plea Agreement that the government would have proven at trial that he had been caught with a firearm " modified to fire automatically, that is, as a machine gun." He also admitted that he knew about the Glock's modifications, and that he already had a prior felony conviction on his record when he was caught with the gun. A district judge, after questioning Soto-Rivera at a change of plea hearing, accepted his guilty plea after finding it to be " knowing and voluntary," as well as " supported by an independent basis in fact . . . ."

When it came time for sentencing, Soto-Rivera did not object to being classified as a Career Offender. Indeed, working off the 77-96 month Career Offender range the parties calculated in the Plea Agreement, his own attorney asked for a 77-month sentence. The government went the other way and asked for a top-of-the-range sentence of 96 months.

The sentencing judge stated (without objection) that two of Soto-Rivera's past

Page 56

convictions were " for the manufacture, delivery or possession with intent to distribute or to deliver controlled substances[,] and conspiracy to do that." In the judge's view, these two crimes were " controlled substance offenses" counting towards Career Offender status. The judge then stated in conclusory fashion that Soto-Rivera's latest conviction for felon in possession of a firearm " is considered a crime of violence." Taking into account Soto-Rivera's two prior controlled ...


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