Thursday, September 15, 2016

What Exactly Does "Conviction" mean?

 The opinion in United States v. Canelas-Amador reads like a suspense novel with the first paragraph eliciting the intrigue of the reader.  This is merely a summary of the opinion but you are encouraged to read it (United States v. Wilmer Canelas-Amador, No.15-6035) on your own. 

Several years ago, Wilmer Canelas-Amador was arrested in Tennessee state court for felony aggravated assault and a few misdemeanors.   A “Waiver of Trial by Jury and Acceptance of Plea of Guilty” was an executed form found in the court record. However, no findings of fact or hearing transcripts were available.  Before his formal state sentencing, Mr. Canelas-Amador was deported to Honduras by the federal immigration authorities.   No one informed the Tennessee state judicial system that he had been deported and a capias was ordered due to his failure to sit for a presentence interview.   Mr. Canelas-Amador reentered the United States shortly thereafter and was rearrested and charged in federal court in Texas. He pled guilty to illegal reentry and received one year of imprisonment. 

In 2015, he was arrested in Tennessee and again charged in federal court with illegal reentry.  After a guilty plea, he received a sentence of 57 months’ imprisonment due to a guideline range calculation of 57-81 months.  The district judge considered the “Waiver of Trial by Jury and Acceptance of Plea of Guilty” as proof of conviction for a felony crime of violence.  This designation enhanced his guideline calculation by sixteen levels.  The district judge relied upon opinions in other circuits because USSG § 2L1.2(b)(1)(A)(ii) did not define ‘conviction,’ and this issue had yet to be considered by the Sixth Circuit. 

On appeal, the Sixth Circuit was presented with one question.  “Was the district court right that the state court order accepting the guilty plea was a conviction for purposes of § 2L1.2(b)(1)(A)(ii)?”  The short answer is no. 

The government encouraged the Sixth Circuit to rely on the definition of ‘conviction’ found in USSG § 4A1.2(a)(4) rather than 8 U.S.C. § 1101(a)(48)(A).  The government reasoned that it would be ‘odd to define a conviction one way for the computation of criminal history - §4A1.2(a)(4) – and another way for computation of the impact criminal history has on the offense level - §2L1.2.”    The Sixth Circuit found a circuit split on the question.  The Fourth, Fifth, Tenth and Eleventh Circuits rely on §1101; whereas the First, Second and Ninth depend on the guideline language found in §4A1.2(a)(4). 

By applying the rule of lenity, the Sixth Circuit held that the more restrictive definition in §1101(a)(48)(A) applies.   Therefore, Mr. Canelas-Amador was never convicted of aggravated assault by the Tennessee state court and his guideline range should have been significantly lower.  The case was reversed and remanded to district court for resentencing. 

This was an excellent win for the defense and it was spearheaded by our very own blog contributor, Laura Davis, Federal Defender Services of Eastern Tennessee. 

No comments: