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United States v. Soza

United States Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit

October 31, 2017

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Plaintiff - Appellee
DARRIN ANTONIO SOZA, Defendant-Appellant

         Appeal from the United States District Court for the Southern District of Texas

          Before WIENER, HIGGINSON, and COSTA, Circuit Judges.


         Defendant-Appellant Darrin Antonio Soza pleaded guilty to one count of unlawful possession of firearms with altered and obliterated serial numbers, in violation of 18 U.S.C. §§ 922(k) and 924(a)(1)(B). At sentencing, the district court concluded that Soza was a "prohibited person" under 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(2) and adopted the factual findings of the presentence investigation report ("PSR") regarding Soza's criminal history. Soza's resulting Guidelines range was 108 to 135 months, but the court sentenced him to the applicable statutory maximum of 60 months. On appeal, Soza challenges the sufficiency of the evidence to support (1) the ruling that he was a prohibited person, and (2) his criminal history as reflected in the PSR and adopted by the district court. We affirm the district court's calculation of Soza's criminal history points, but vacate his sentence and remand for resentencing.

         I. Facts and Proceedings

         Soza was charged with one count of knowingly possessing firearms- specifically, two AK-47 rifles-"with altered and obliterated serial numbers, that had been shipped and transported in interstate and foreign commerce[.]" He pleaded guilty pursuant to a written plea agreement.

         The PSR stated that Soza was a prohibited person at the time he committed the offense and applied a base offense level of 20 under § 2K2.1(a)(4)(B) of the Sentencing Guidelines ("Guidelines" or "U.S.S.G.").[1]The PSR also added four enhancements-each of four levels-for specific offense characteristics under U.S.S.G. § 2K2.1(b). After application of a two-level reduction for acceptance of responsibility, Soza's total offense level was 34.[2]

         The PSR noted that Soza had six criminal history points: one for driving under the influence of alcohol in 2008, one for driving while impaired ("DWI") in 2010, one for larceny in 2011, one for DWI in 2012, and two for "committ[ing] the instant offense while on a term of probation." Consequently, Soza's criminal history category was III.[3] In support of these calculations, the PSR attached a page of a North Carolina probation violation warrant for Soza's arrest. This page noted that a "written statement" was provided to the North Carolina court, but no copy of that statement was given to the district court.

         With a total offense level of 34, Soza's sentencing range was 188 to 235 months.[4] At the sentencing hearing, the district court granted the government's motion for a third level of reduction for acceptance of responsibility pursuant to § 3E1.1, and also granted Soza's objection to one of the four-level enhancements. That yielded a total offense level of 29 and a sentencing range of 108 to 135 months.[5] The statutory maximum imprisonment was five years, however.[6]

         Soza had filed other written objections, including the contention that there was insufficient evidence to support the PSR's determination that he was a prohibited person under § 2K2.1(a)(4)(B). The district court overruled that objection and sentenced Soza to the statutory maximum term of five years imprisonment, to be followed by three years of supervised release.

         Soza timely appealed, raising two arguments: (1) The district court erred in applying § 2K2.1(a)(4)(B) because the evidence was insufficient to establish that Soza was a prohibited person; and (2) the district court improperly calculated Soza's criminal history points because the evidence was insufficient to support the 2012 DWI conviction and to show that Soza was on probation when he committed the instant offense.

         After Soza filed his opening brief on appeal, the government moved to supplement the record with a copy of the judgment for Soza's 2012 DWI conviction and the full arrest warrant for his probation violation, including a written description of the violations. A single judge of this court granted the government's motion, after which Soza filed a motion for panel reconsideration that was denied by a different panel, subject to reconsideration by this panel.

         II. Analysis

         A. Whether Soza was a "Prohibited Person"

         U.S.S.G. § 2K2.1(a)(4)(B) applies a base offense level of 20 if the offense involved a "semiautomatic firearm that is capable of accepting a large capacity magazine" and the defendant was a "prohibited person" at the time he committed the instant offense. The Guidelines contain two definitions of prohibited person that are relevant to this case: (1) per 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1), a person "who has been convicted in any court of, [sic] a crime punishable by imprisonment for a term exceeding one year, " and (2) per 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(2), a person "who is a fugitive from justice."[7] Soza maintains that the evidence was insufficient to establish that he was a prohibited person under either definition.

         1. Standard of Review

         "This court reviews the district court's interpretation and application of the Sentencing Guidelines de novo and its factual findings for clear error."[8]Whether the evidence was sufficient to support a Guidelines enhancement requires a finding of fact which we review for clear error.[9] The government has the burden of demonstrating, by a preponderance of the evidence, the facts that are necessary to support the enhancement.[10] "Failure to object to either the PSR or the district court's sentence, " however, "results in review for plain error."[11] "Plain error exists if (1) there is an error, (2) the error is plain, . . . (3) the error affect[s] substantial rights and (4) the error seriously affect[s] the fairness, integrity or public reputation of judicial proceedings."[12]

         The parties dispute whether Soza preserved this challenge. "There is '[n]o bright-line rule . . . for determining whether a matter was raised below.'"[13]"[I]f a party wishes to preserve an argument for appeal, the party must press and not merely intimate the argument during the proceedings before the district court. An argument must be raised to such a degree that the district court has an opportunity to rule on it."[14] "The raising party must present the issue so that it places the opposing party and the court on notice that a new issue is being raised."[15]

         In his written objections to the PSR, Soza challenged the base offense level applied under § 2K2.1(a)(4)(B), contending that "no documentation ha[d] been provided by the government in support of the assertion that Mr. Soza was a 'prohibited person' under . . . 18 U.S.C. 922(g)(2)." The probation officer responded in part as follows: "[O]n July 8, 2014, a probation violator's warrant was issued for the defendant, and remains active; therefore, the defendant is a fugitive from justice."

At the sentencing hearing, Soza's attorney raised the following objection:
[W]e wanted to ask the Court to make a ruling on some of our objections, that the base offense level-and [sic] that he was not a prohibited person. I did ask for some documentation and Probation did provide a warrant with an electronic signature but no judgments, so we're just asking the Court to find whether this was sufficient evidence to find that he was-or to rule that he was a prohibited person.

         The sentencing court overruled that objection. Although the court did not specify which definition of prohibited person it applied to Soza, the PSR applied both definitions-(1) a person "who has been convicted in any court of, [sic] a crime punishable by imprisonment for a term exceeding one year, " and (2) a person "who is a fugitive from justice"-to conclude that Soza was a prohibited person under U.S.S.G. § 2K2.1(a)(4)(B). The government concedes on appeal, however, that the first definition does not apply to Soza. "The [g]overnment thus relies solely on Soza's 'fugitive from justice' status under § 922(g)(2)."

         The government now urges that "the critical question [Soza raises on appeal] boils down to whether the district court clearly erred in finding that Soza was a 'fugitive from justice' under 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(2)-and thus a prohibited person for purposes of § 2K2.1(a)(4)(B)." Although the government acknowledges that Soza objected "to the district court's general application of U.S.S.G. § 2K2.1(a)(4)(B) on the basis that he was a 'prohibited person[, ]'" it states that Soza did not present this particular argument to the district court. The government contends that Soza did not ask the district court to rule on whether he was a fugitive from justice, but instead "merely asked the court to rule whether that single page [of the warrant] constituted sufficient evidence" that Soza was a prohibited person.

         Soza's written objection referred specifically to the paragraph of the PSR that explained that he was a prohibited person because he was a fugitive from justice. Soza's attorney re-urged the challenge during the sentencing hearing. That objection was "sufficiently specific to alert the district court to the nature of the alleged error and to provide an opportunity for correction."[16] It also "place[d] the [government] and the court on notice" that Soza was objecting to the finding that he was a fugitive from justice and thus a prohibited person under the Guidelines.[17] Soza has therefore preserved this argument for appeal, and we review his challenge for clear error.

         2. Sufficiency of the Evidence

         As noted above, "[t]he [g]overnment . . . relies solely on Soza's 'fugitive from justice' status under § 922(g)(2)." "The term 'fugitive from justice' means any person who has fled from any State to avoid prosecution for a crime or to avoid giving testimony in any criminal proceeding."[18] The PSR concluded that Soza is a fugitive from justice because a probation violator's warrant issued in 2014 for a 2012 DWI conviction in North Carolina remains active. Soza counters that, alone, the probation violator's warrant is insufficient to establish that he was a prohibited person "because the warrant does not, by itself, show that Mr. Soza fled the jurisdiction to avoid prosecution[.]" To support its claim that Soza was a fugitive from justice, the government provided the district court with a copy of the relevant order for arrest. That order notes that Soza's probation officer filed a written statement with the North Carolina state court alleging that Soza violated various conditions of his probation. But that written statement was not before the district court, and the single page of the warrant that was before the court does not describe the conviction underlying Soza's probation or the alleged probation violations.

         a. Required Mens Rea to be a Fugitive from Justice

         The parties dispute whether, to be a fugitive from justice, Soza had to have either intent to avoid prosecution (or at least knowledge that he was a fugitive) or know that charges were pending against him. This court has yet to determine whether a defendant must have such intent or knowledge to be a fugitive from justice under 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(2), [19] and there is a split among other circuits on this issue. The Ninth and Eleventh Circuits have held that, to establish that a defendant is a fugitive from justice, the government must show that the defendant fled with the intent to avoid prosecution.[20] The Fourth and Seventh Circuits, however, have rejected this approach.[21] But these latter two circuits do require that, to qualify as a fugitive from justice, a defendant must have had knowledge that charges against him are pending.[22]

         This court has addressed whether other subsections of § 922(g) contain a mens rea element. In United States v. Dancy, we held that the district court did not err when it failed to instruct the jury on a mens rea requirement for conviction under § 922(g)(1), which prohibits persons convicted of crimes punishable by more than one year imprisonment from possessing firearms.[23] The Dancy panel explained that, "[l]ike the provisions it supersedes, § 922(g) contains no element of mens rea."[24] Similarly, in United States v. Butler, this court considered whether § 922(g)(6), which prohibits "dishonorable dischargees" from possessing firearms, has a mens rea element.[25] Relying on the analysis in Dancy, the Butler panel concluded that a conviction under § 922(g)(6) did not require proof of knowledge:

This court's holding in Dancy, that the defendant need not know of his prohibited status to violate § 922(g)(1), persuades us that § 922(g)(6) does not require it either. The two subsections have parallel language, and it would be illogical to impose a mens rea requirement on only one of the subsections. In Dancy, the court looked to the legislative history of § 922(g) and the applicable penalty provision, § 924(a)(1)(B). The Dancy court concluded that Congress intended to incorporate former law into the statute, and that the statute does not require that a felon knew of his prohibited status.[26]

         Although these cases imply that all subsections of § 922(g) should be treated alike, there are compelling reasons to distinguish subsection 922(g)(2) from subsections 922(g)(1) and (g)(6) for the purpose of the mens rea requirement. These two subsections, like most subsections of § 922(g), are phrased in passive terms that make relevant not a person's conduct or knowledge, but simply what their status is or what has happened to them, such as: any person "who has been convicted in any court" of a felony;[27] any person "who has been adjudicated as a mental defective or who has been committed to a mental institution";[28] any person "who, being an alien . . . has been admitted to the United States under a nonimmigrant visa";[29] or any person "who has been discharged from the Armed Forces under dishonorable conditions[.]"[30] At first blush, § 922(g)(2) appears to follow that same status-based approach, stating that it is unlawful for any person "who is a fugitive from justice" to ship, transport, possess, or receive firearms.[31]

         But the definition of fugitive from justice necessarily incorporates intent. Fugitive from justice is defined in § 921 as "any person who has fled from any State to avoid prosecution for a crime or to avoid giving testimony in any criminal proceeding."[32] A literal reading of that definition suggests that one cannot be a fugitive from justice without having "fled" a state for the explicit purpose, i.e. with the express intent, of avoiding either prosecution or testimony.

         First, the meaning of the word "fled" contemplates a purposeful departure rather than one that merely has the effect of avoiding prosecution or testimony.[33] Second, the use of the word "to" in the infinitive, "to avoid, " similarly suggests purposeful action.[34] To the extent that "to" can be read as indicating not only a purpose but also an end or result, the rule of lenity requires that it be construed in favor of the defendant.[35] Thus, while § 922(g)(2) does not itself contain a requirement of knowledge or intent, unlike §§ 922(g)(1) and (g)(6), it incorporates the definition of fugitive from justice in § 921 which, by its plain terms, does require intent.[36]

         A distinction can therefore be drawn between having the status or label of fugitive from justice on the one hand and the conduct and intent necessary to obtain that status on the other. By analogy to Dancy and Butler, a defendant need not have had knowledge of his status or label as a fugitive to be guilty under § 922(g)(2) and thus be subject to the enhanced base offense level under U.S.S.G. § 2K2.1(a)(4)(B)(2).[37] Under § 921, however, a defendant cannot be a fugitive from justice without having fled for the intended purpose of avoiding prosecution or testimony.[38]

         b. Evidence Before the District Court

         The government did not present sufficient evidence that Soza had such intent. The evidence before the district court consisted of only a July 2014 warrant for Soza's arrest based on unidentified probation violations. That warrant states that the probation officer provided a written statement outlining Soza's alleged probation violations, which was apparently attached to the warrant, but that statement was not in the record before the district court. The single page of the warrant that was before the district court is insufficient to establish intent. Without at least the dates on which the underlying violations occurred and the date Soza left North Carolina, it cannot be inferred that he left-fled-for the purpose of avoiding prosecution.[39]

         The government attempts to analogize to United States v. Donahue, in which the Third Circuit held, in an unpublished opinion, that "[i]ntent to flee can be established when further prosecution is substantially certain but not already initiated."[40] But that is not the case here: Based solely on the single page of the warrant, the sentencing court would have no information about the timing and nature of the alleged probation violations. Thus, that court could not infer that Soza would have known that prosecution was "substantially certain[.]"[41]

         The facts of Donahue illuminate this distinction: Authorities found Donahue in possession of "false identification and utility notices under an alias."[42] There are no similar facts in Soza's case. It may be true that a defendant could flee with the intent to avoid prosecution without direct knowledge of an arrest warrant, but the ...

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