September 29, 2004

More Blakely Plain Error Analysis by 1st Cir. in U.S. v. Cordoza-Estrada, No. 03-2666 (1st Cir. Sept. 29, 2004)

The First Circuit keeps fidgeting with Almendarez-Torres. In United States v. Cordoza-Estrada, No. 03-2666 (1st Cir. Sept. 29, 2004) the First Circuit also handled a Blakely claim which involved the continuing vitality of Almendarez-Torres.

Having plead guilty to a one count information, Cordoza-Estrada was convicted of re-entering the United States after being deported, in violation of 8 U.S.C. §§ 1326(a) and 1326(b)(2), and sentenced to eighteen months of imprisonment and three years of supervised release.

He appealed his sentence, arguing that his prior conviction for a simple assault was a misdemeanor under New Hampshire law and should not have been treated as an “aggravated felony” under § 1326(b)(2) or U.S. Sentencing Guidelines Manual (“U.S.S.G.”) § 2L1.2(b)(1)(C) (Nov. 2002). He also argued that his sentence was invalid under Blakely v. Washington, 124 S.Ct. 2531 (2004).

Moving on to the Blakely claim,
The day before oral argument, Appellant filed a letter pursuant to Local Rule 28(j) arguing that the sentence was unlawful on the ground that Blakely v. Washington, 124 S. Ct. 2531 (2004), and Apprendi v. New Jersey, 530 U.S. 466 (2000), undermine the Supreme Court’s ruling in Almendarez-Torres v. United States, 523 U.S. 224, 235 (1998), which held that the prior “aggravated felony” language of 8 U.S.C. § 1326(b)(2) refers to a sentencing enhancement, not to an element of the offense. The letter also advocated that Appellant should be resentenced because post-Blakely, the Federal Guidelines are merely advisory.

Since Appellant’s argument depends upon a decision that did not exist at the time of briefing, a 28(j) letter is a perfectly appropriate avenue by which to present it –- such letters are intended to provide the court with new authority. See Freeman v. Barnhart, 274 F.3d 606, 609 (1st Cir. 2001) (accepting Rule 28(j) letter making new arguments where they could not have been made before and the relevant statute permitted court to order new evidence taken at any time). The Government does not argue that the issue was raised in an untimely manner and has filed a Rule 28(j) letter in response.

The parties agree that the standard is plain error. Under the plain error test, an appellant “‘bears the burden of demonstrating (1) an error, (2) that is plain, (3) that affects substantial rights (i.e., the error was not harmless), and (4) that seriously undermines the fairness, integrity, and public reputation of judicial proceedings.’” United States v. McCormack, 371 F.3d 22, 29 (1st Cir. 2004) (quoting United States v. Fazal-Ur-Raheman-Fazal, 355 F.3d 40, 48 (1st Cir. 2004)).

In Apprendi, the Supreme Court stated: “Other than the fact of a prior conviction, any fact that increases the penalty for a crime beyond the prescribed statutory maximum must be submitted to a jury, and proved beyond a reasonable doubt.” 530 U.S. at 490 (emphasis added). Blakely did not disturb the distinction between “the fact of a prior conviction” and other facts that “increase the penalty for a crime beyond a prescribed maximum.” Blakely, 124 S. Ct. at 2536 (quoting and applying the Apprendi rule stated above). Accordingly, there was no error in the trial judge’s consideration of the prior conviction. Even if there were such an error, Appellant has failed to demonstrate that it affected substantial rights of his because there is no dispute that he had a conviction. See United States v. Cotton, 535 U.S. 625, 632 (2002) (in a review of an Apprendi error, holding that the “third inquiry usually means that the error must have affected the outcome of the district court’s proceedings”).

Appellant has also launched a broadside attack on the validity of the Sentencing Guidelines under the Sixth Amendment. Even if the Sentencing Guidelines as a whole are ultimately declared invalid, we must decide whether any error in applying them was “plain.” Compare United States v. Duncan, __ F.3d __, 2004 WL 1838020, at *3-*5 (11th Cir. August 18, 2004) (holding that any Blakely error was not “plain” under the plain error standard of review) with United States v. Ameline, 376 F.3d 967, 978 (9th Cir. 2004) (holding the contrary).

In determining whether the error was plain, the Supreme Court has explained: “Where the law at the time of trial was settled and clearly contrary to the law at the time of appeal[,] it is enough that an error be ‘plain’ at the time of appellate consideration.” Johnson v. United States, 520 U.S. 461, 468 (1997). The question of the continuing validity of the Sentencing Guidelines is an issue that has roiled the federal courts, and split circuits. See, e.g., United States v. Booker, 375 F.3d 508 (7th Cir. 2004) (Posner, J.) (holding the Guidelines unconstitutional) (Easterbrook, J., dissenting), cert. granted, ___ S. Ct. ___, 2004 WL 1713654; United States v. Hammoud, ___ F.3d ___, 2004 WL 2005622 (4th Cir. Sept. 8, 2004) (en banc) (upholding the Guidelines) (Wilkinson, J., Shedd, J., Widener, J., concurring; Motz, J., Michael, J., Gregory, J., dissenting); United States v. Koch, ___ F.3d ___, 2004 WL 1899930 (6th Cir. Aug. 26, 2004) (en banc) (upholding the Guidelines) (Martin, J., Daughtrey, J., Moore, J., Cole, J., Clay, J., dissenting). Whatever the outcome, the answer is neither plain nor obvious at the time of this appeal. Because the trial judge’s sentence was consistent with precedent, and the current law is unsettled, we conclude that there is no plain error.

So what exactly does it take to get past the Frist Circuit, other than a writ of certiorari?