How Specific Details Can Affect Federal Criminal Sentencing
Details matter when it comes to criminal offenses. Something that might seem insignificant to the casual observer can actually have a significant impact on a person’s criminal liability or the sentence they receive from a judge. And even where the law might seem ambiguous on a given detail, judges often give prosecutors the benefit of the doubt.
Defendant Receives Harsher Sentence Based on “Close Proximity” of Firearm to Ammunition
Consider this recent decision from the U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, United States v. Gordillo. The defendant in this case is a citizen of Guatemala who legally entered the United States in 2004. The defendant did not leave the country after his visa expired, however, and continued to live in Florida “without authorization” for more than a decade.
In November 2017, federal immigration authorities arrested the defendant’s wife outside the couple’s home in Fort Lauderdale. The defendant’s wife asked for permission to return inside the residence to get her passport and ID. The agents agreed and asked for permission to conduct a “protective sweep” of the home, which the wife granted. At this point, the defendant told the agents that he had firearms inside.
It is against federal law for an “alien,” regardless of immigration status, to possess firearms or ammunition. Nevertheless, the agents recovered a number of weapons from the defendant’s home. Of note here, the agents found a Colt AR-15 rifle in a locked gun case in the defendant’s master bedroom. Approximately 10 feet away, the agents recovered several 30-round ammunition magazines.
This proved to be a critical detail at sentencing. The defendant ended up pleading guilty to a single charge of illegal possession of a firearm by an alien. He did not negotiate a written plea agreement with the prosecution beforehand.
Federal courts determine a criminal defendant’s sentence using a complex set of “guidelines” that establishes a “base level” for the defendant’s crime based on a number of factors. In this case, a report prepared for the sentencing judge set the defendant’s base level at 20 because his crime “involved a … semiautomatic firearm” that was found in “close proximity” to a magazine containing more than 15 rounds of ammunition. After adjusting the base level to account for other factors, the judge eventually sentenced the defendant to 24 months in prison followed by 3 years of probation.
On appeal to the 11th Circuit, the defendant challenged the base level used in the sentencing calculations. He specifically argued the pre-sentencing report’s claim that the ammunition recovered by the agents was in “close proximity” to the AR-15, when in fact the magazine was “in a separate bag across the room from the gun, which was itself locked with a gun lock and inside a case.” Absent the “close proximity” finding, the defendant said his base level was 14 rather than 20, which would have yielded a less severe final sentence.
The 11th Circuit rejected the defendant’s arguments. The appeals court noted that “close proximity” refers to both “physical distance and accessibility.” There was “little doubt that ten feet is close physical proximity,” the Court said. And given that it was not clear from the defendant’s arguments to the trial court “how long it would take to retrieve magazines from the bag, unlock the case, and insert a magazine into the firearm,” the 11th Circuit was satisfied the ammunition was “readily accessible.”
More to the point, the 11th Circuit said the sentencing guidelines “are not a safe-storage law.” In other words, it did not matter how well the defendant kept his firearms and ammunition secured. The guidelines are designed to punish certain crimes based on the “types” of weapons involved. Accordingly, the defendant’s 24-month prison sentence stood.
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Many people charged with crimes feel pressured to plead guilty without fully understanding the consequences. Do not put yourself in that situation. If you are charged with a federal offense and need assistance from a qualified Miami federal crimes attorney, call the Law Office of Julia Kefalinos today.