Thursday, July 29, 2010

Upholding § 922(k) Ban on Unmarked Firearms, Court Charts Course for Second Amendment Challenges

In a ruling upholding 18 U.S.C. § 922(k), which bars possession of firearms with obliterated serial numbers, the Court sets forth an extensive gloss on the proper approach to Second Amendment challenges under the Supreme Court’s path-breaking decision in District of Columbia v. Heller, 128 S. Ct. 2783 (2008). Heller concluded that the Second Amendment confers an individual right to keep and bear arms, at least “for the core purpose of allowing law-abiding citizens to ‘use arms in defense of hearth and home.’” Elaborating on that ruling, today’s decision in United States v. Michael Marzzarella, Third Circuit No. 09-3185, is clearly at pains not to open any Pandora’s box. Defendants charged with gun offenses may perhaps find instead a mixed bag.

On the one hand, dicta in the new decision further entrenches a proposition as to which Heller likewise urged it would not “cast doubt”: the Second Amendment “affords no protection,” the Circuit says, “for the possession of dangerous and unusual weapons, possession by felons and the mentally ill, and the carrying of weapons in certain sensitive places.” The decision also finds several routes to upholding § 922(k), even as applied to possession exclusively within the home.

On the other hand, the Court reasons that the statute’s constitutionality should be reviewed under a standard of “intermediate scrutiny,” which is to be informed by reference to First Amendment jurisprudence addressing laws burdening protected expression. The Court further suggests that at least some gun laws may be subject to strict scrutiny. Under even intermediate scrutiny, the purpose served by a regulation burdening a protected Second Amendment interest must not be more than “reasonably necessary.”

Michael Marzzarella was charged under § 922(k) with possession of a firearm with an obliterated serial number. He moved to dismiss the indictment under the Second Amendment, lost, and entered a conditional guilty plea reserving the right to appeal the constitutional question. Affirming the motion’s denial, the Court, with Judge Scirica writing, offers an exegesis of Heller. It finds that decision to suggest a two-step approach to Second Amendment challenges, whereby a court must first ask whether a law imposes a burden on conduct falling within the scope of the Amendment’s guarantee. If it does, the court must next determine whether the law survives the appropriate “form of means-end scrutiny” – that is, rational basis review, intermediate scrutiny, or strict scrutiny.

Elaborating on the first step in this two-step approach, the Court reiterates Heller’s dictate that the Second Amendment “affords no protection to weapons not typically possessed by law-abiding citizens for lawful purposes.” By contrast, “commercial regulations on the sale of firearms do not fall outside the scope of the Second Amendment,” and will thus warrant review of “the nature and extent of the imposed condition.”

Turning to § 922(k), the Court “cannot be certain that the possession of unmarked firearms in the home is excluded from the right to bear arms.” It then concludes that § 922(k) withstands either intermediate or strict scrutiny, although it favors the less demanding of the two: “While it is not free from doubt, we think … § 922(k) should be evaluated under intermediate scrutiny.” Whichever standard applies, the decisive fact is that banning the possession of unmarked firearms “restricts possession only of weapons which have been made less susceptible to tracing,” and not of “any otherwise lawful firearm.” Unable to “conceive of a lawful purpose for which a person would prefer an unmarked firearm,” the Court finds that “the burden will almost always fall only on those intending to engage in illicit behavior.” Accordingly, any intrusion upon a protected Second Amendment interest is trumped by the “law enforcement interest in enabling the tracing of weapons via their serial numbers.” By “enabling law enforcement to gather vital information from recovered firearms,” § 922(k) serves “not only a substantial but a compelling interest.”

Court Construes Meaning of Federal “Official” for Purposes of Threat Statute; Rejects Self-Representation Challenge

In United States v. Michael Bankoff, Nos. 08-3275 & 08-3688 (July 27, 2010), the Court holds that the federal statute criminalizing certain threats of federal “officials” extends to both “officers and employees.” Separately, the Court determines that there was no abuse of discretion in a district court ruling temporarily barring the defendant from representing himself.

Section 115 of Title 18, enacted in 1984, defines certain crimes relating to threats of a federal “official” “whose killing would be a crime under” 18 U.S.C. § 1114. Section 1114 in turn covers “any officer or employee of the United States.…” Michael Bankoff argued that § 115’s use of the term “official” limited that statute’s scope to “officers” within the meaning of § 1114, thus excluding “employees.” The district court agreed and instructed the jury that each of three Social Security Administration employees allegedly threatened by the defendant had to be “authorized to exercise his or her discretion in the performance of … duties,” rather than engaged in “routine and subordinate functions.” The jury returned a guilty verdict with respect to an SSA “claims representative” and, separately, an “operations supervisor.” The district court thereafter granted the defendant’s Rule 29 motion for acquittal as to the claims representative but upheld the verdict as to the operations supervisor. Both the defendant and the government appealed.

The Court, with Judge Ambro writing, holds for the government. Its analysis foregrounds the rule that “the meaning of statutory language, plain or not, depends on context.” Reviewing the cross-referenced § 1114 as it read at the time of § 115’s enactment, as well as other statutes defining federal “officials” for purposes of coverage under criminal statutes, the Court determines that “Congress intended terms like ‘official’ and ‘officer’ to have a special meaning in § 115 that was not the same as their ordinary, dictionary definitions.” Although Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, as published in 1971, defines an “official” as “a person authorized to act for a government, corporation, or organization,” and an “employee” as “one employed by another, usually in a position below the executive level and usually for wages,” the Court holds that “official” in § 115 encompasses “both officers and employees.” Indeed, it deems that statutory meaning “plain” and consults legislative history only as a consistent “course marker.” Accordingly, the Court not only rejects the defendant’s appeal but vacates the partial judgment of acquittal as to the claims representative, remanding for further consideration of alternative challenges to the sufficiency of the evidence on that count.

As to the right of self-representation, the Court finds no abuse of discretion in the district court’s ruling denying the defendant’s requests to give his opening statement and to cross-examine the government’s first witness. The defendant aired an “angry outburst” during the prosecutor’s opening and then demanded, upon its conclusion, to deliver his own opening pro se. In light of earlier vacillation by the defendant as to whether or not he would proceed with counsel, the Circuit holds that the request could be deemed equivocal, and a hearing on it properly deferred until the conclusion of the first day of trial. After defense counsel concluded cross-examination of the first witness, the district court permitted Bankoff to proceed pro se, and also ultimately allowed him to recall the first witness for a pro se cross. Meanwhile, the court permitted newly stand-by counsel to take over the questioning of a different witness when the defendant’s examination faltered. “In this context, we believe the Court not only acted well within its discretion, but treated Bankoff with the utmost fairness.”

"Career Offender" Designation Not Always Fatal to Sentence Reduction Motion Pursuant to Crack Cocaine Guideline Amendments

After an extended engagement with some very fine print, the Court holds in United States v. Glenn Flemming, No. 09-2726 (July 27, 2010), that a notable group of defendants are eligible for sentence reductions pursuant to the Sentencing Commission’s retroactive lowering of crack cocaine offense levels. These are all who were designated as career offenders under pre-2003 versions of the Sentencing Guidelines but who, following a determination that the career offender enhancement overstated their actual criminal history, received downward departures to points within a sentencing range yielded by the crack cocaine guideline. The Court also strongly suggests, without deciding, that the opposite result will hold for defendants sentenced under later versions of the Guidelines.

Glenn Flemming’s crack cocaine offenses were determined to have involved a quantity of between four and five grams. The offense conduct occurred during a period that called for application of the 2001 version of the Guidelines. Under the provision then codified at U.S.S.G. § 2D1.1, his sentencing range was 92-115 months. Two previous drug convictions, however, triggered the career offender provision at § 4B1.1 and raised his sentencing range to 267-327 months. The district court ultimately deemed this enhancement to overstate his criminal history, and therefore granted a downward departure for overrepresentation pursuant to § 4A1.3. In determining how far to depart, the court chose to reset the offense level as per § 2D1.1 itself. (Note that such a "vertical" § 4A1.3 departure, previously authorized under United States v. Shoupe, 35 F.3d 835 (3d Cir. 1994), is no longer permitted following a 2003 Guidelines amendment defining "departure" for purposes of § 4A1.3.) The court also reset Flemming’s criminal history category. The corresponding sentencing range thus reverted to 92-115 months, as provided by the crack cocaine guideline at § 2D1.1. The court imposed a high-end sentence of 115 months.

In 2008, the Commission designated as retroactive an amendment of the crack cocaine guideline lowering most defendants’ offense levels by two levels. Under the amended guideline, Flemming’s range becomes 77-96 months. He brought a pro se motion pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(2), which permits district courts to reduce a sentence under an otherwise final judgment when the defendant was "sentenced to a term of imprisonment based on a sentencing range that has subsequently been lowered," if "such a reduction is consistent with applicable policy statements issued by the Sentencing Commission." The Commission, in turn, has promulgated a policy statement at § 1B1.10 barring reductions if a retroactive amendment "does not have the effect of lowering the defendant’s applicable guideline range." In Dillon v. United States, decided last month, the Supreme Court held this policy statement to remain binding on courts despite the generally advisory nature of the Guidelines after United States v. Booker.

Other circuits have lined up in a 3-3 split as to whether defendants in Flemming’s position are eligible for a sentence reduction under the amended crack guideline. In this week’s decision, the Third Circuit places itself in a new majority holding they are. The Court, with Judge Ambro writing, first determines that Flemming’s sentence was "based on a sentencing range that has subsequently been lowered." It devotes the better part of its discussion to scrutiny of the meaning of "applicable guideline range" as used in the Commission’s binding policy statement. Ultimately the Court concludes that neither the text of the pre-2003 Guidelines nor the Commission’s commentary permits a clear conclusion. Those Guidelines were "ambiguous as to whether the ‘applicable guideline range’ is [the defendant’s] pre-§ 4A1.3 departure range (the Career Offender Guidelines range) or his post-§ 4A1.3 departure range (the Crack Cocaine Guidelines range)."

Accordingly, the Court applies the rule of lenity to conclude that defendants such as Flemming are eligible for a reduction of sentence pursuant to the retroactive crack amendment. In a concluding discussion, the Court strongly suggests the opposite will be true of defendants sentenced under the Guidelines in effect as of October 27, 2003, or later. An amendment effective that date may be read to cure the ambiguity in the phrase "applicable Guidelines range" to provide that it means the range yielded by the career offender provision. If that reading is adopted, the policy statement at § 1B1.10 will bar sentence reductions even when district courts departed downward under § 4A1.3 and then selected sentences within the range yielded by the crack cocaine guideline. (The Circuit has previously held that defendants sentenced within the career offender range following conviction for crack cocaine offenses are not eligible for § 3582 reductions. See United States v. Mateo, 560 F.3d 152 (3d Cir. 2009) (Third Circuit Blog post here)).

Monday, July 12, 2010

Defendant's Repeated Presence at Drug Transactions Coupled With Phone Calls Sufficient to Support Aiding and Abetting Conviction

In United States v. Mercado, No. 09-2681 (3d Cir., July 7, 2010), the three defendants were indicted for aiding and abetting the possession of more than 100 grams of heroin with the intent to distribute within 1000 feet of a school as well as the substantive counts. The only evidence presented regarding Defendant Mercado’s participation in the charged offenses was testimony from Co-defendant Rodriguez-Nunez that he observed Mercardo in the passenger seats of the vehicles driven by Co-defendant Morrisette when Rodriguez-Nunez and Morrisette met to conduct the drug exchanges. Specifically, Rodriguez-Nunez testified that he received drugs through the passenger-side window, where Mercado was seated as the passenger. Evidence was also presented that Morrisette called Mercado during the same time period in which he had received and returned calls from Rodriguez-Nunez. Rodriguez-Nunez admitted that he did not deal directly with Mercado, but only with Morrisette. The court noted that this was a “close case,” but that it was “constrained by a deferential burden” to conclude that a reasonable jury could have found that Mercado’s presence with Morrisette on multiple occasions during drug transactions with Rodriguez-Nunez was sufficient to support its verdict that Mercado, “at a minimum” encouraged the illegal drug activity between Rodriguez-Nunez and Morrisette. The Court ultimately affirmed the district court’s rejection of Mercado’s motion for judgment of acquittal, concluding that “a defendant's presence on multiple occasions during critical moments of drug transactions may, when considered in light of the totality of the circumstances, support an inference of the defendant's participation in the criminal activity.”

Third Circuit grants habeas relief because defense counsel was ineffective in failing to object to judge threatening perjury witness changed his testimony

  In Rogers v. Superintendent Greene SCI , --- F.4th ----, 2023 WL 5763346 (3d Cir. Sept. 7, 2023), available here , the Third Circuit rever...