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THE GOVERNMENT SCREWS IT UP – THE DEFENDANT PAYS
Six years ago, Tennessee cops arrested illegal immigrant Wilmer Canelas-Amador for felony aggravated assault. After that, Walter signed a form agreeing to plead guilty, but there the trail ends.
Before the trial court could enter judgment or pronounce a sentence, the Feds showed up to grab Wilmer for immigration violations. They moved him out of Tennessee, eventually deporting him back to Honduras. Naturally, this meant Wilmer couldn’t show up for his Tennessee presentence interview. The state court, not knowing that ICE had spirited Wilmer off to the tropics, issued a capias – a kind of bench warrant used to drag people into court when they’re supposed to be there – ordering the police to take him into custody for the interview.
Unsurprisingly, nothing ever came of the capias, because Wilmer was located about 1,500 miles south of the Tennessee court that wanted him.
That didn’t last, however. Wilmer was Donald Trump’s worst nightmare, a self-help immigrant who wasn’t going to let a few Federal statutes keep him out of the Land of the Free. Soon enough, he reentered the U.S. illegally and was promptly arrested. He pled guilty to illegal reentry in federal court in Texas and was sentenced to a year in prison before being sent back to the Honduras again. But in 2015, he came back a third time, this time ending up back in Tennessee, where he got caught. He was charged in federal court with another illegal reentry, to which he pled guilty.
This time, the district court hammered him, figuring his Guidelines range to be 57-81 months. At the heart of the court’s calculation was its determination that the state court order accepting his “acceptance of guilty plea” document as a “conviction for a felony that is… a crime of violence,” mandating a 16-level Guidelines enhancement under Guidelines Sec. 2L1.2(b)(1)(A)(ii).
Because Sec. 2L1.2(b)(1)(A)(ii) does not define “conviction,” the district court concluded that the Immigration and Naturalization Act provided the proper definition. Under Sec. 1101(a) of the INA, a “conviction” for an alien is a formal judgment of guilt entered by a court, or is where a judge or jury has found the alien guilty or the alien has entered a plea of guilty or nolo contendere or has admitted sufficient facts to warrant a finding of guilt, and the judge has ordered some form of punishment to be imposed. The district court decided the state court order accepting the guilty plea was “a formal judgment of guilt and is therefore a conviction” under the Guidelines.
This week, the 6th Circuit reversed, holding that “a plea agreement approved in a form order falls well short of a formal judgment of guilt” under the INA.
The panel admitted that agreeing to plead guilty sounded a lot like a conviction, and several other circuits had previously enhanced illegal entry defendants on the strength of their mere admissions of other crimes. But the 6th Circuit said “the reasoning in these cases is very thin.” Instead, it reasoned that “the guidelines are designed to ensure that the penalties provided for in federal criminal statutes are applied in a just, uniform, and predictable way. Thus, while Sec. 1101(a) defines terms only insofar ‘[a]s used in this chapter,’ we believe that… all things being equal, it makes sense to interpret a term used in both a criminal statute and in the guidelines provisions applicable to that statute consistently and with reference to the statutory definition.”
It was clear that Wilmer had not had any punishment imposed for the assault, and that it therefore could not be a conviction under the INA. The Court thought it “might be argued that this conclusion elevates form above substance – he pled guilty to the crime after all! And, in a sense, our decision today does do just that. But it does so for the very good reason that form is of paramount importance in the criminal law.”
The Government’s last-gasp attempt to save Wilmer’s higher sentence was to claim that Wilmer should not benefit just because “he did not comply with his duty to appear in state court for a presentence interview.” The Court made short work of this claim, noting that the Government was “getting things exactly backwards… it was the action of the federal government, not Canelas-Amador, that resulted in his removal from the state before a formal judgment of conviction could be entered.” The Government, the Court concluded, “has no one to blame but itself for the consequences of having in this instance acted too quickly.”
United States v. Canelas-Amador, Case No. 15-6035 (6th Cir. Sept. 14, 2016)