U.S. v. PARRELL-DOMINGUEZ, NO. 14-4546

Decided: July 23, 2015

The Fourth Circuit vacated Dominguez’s sentence and remanded for further proceedings

This case was an appeal from the district court decision in which Edgar Parrell-Dominguez (“Dominguez”), an illegal immigrant, was charged with trafficking cocaine and was subjected to a sentencing enhancement. Since Dominguez had a prior offense that the district court described as a “crime of violence,” he was subjected to a 16-level enhancement to his sentence, even though he argued that his prior offense was not a crime of violence and that he should therefore only be subjected to an 8-level enhancement. The district court, in taking into consideration the sentencing guidelines, sentenced Dominguez to 65 months, and this appeal followed.

The Fourth Circuit first looked at whether Dominguez’s prior crime, discharging a firearm into an occupied building under N.C.G.S.A. § 14-34.1(a), was a crime of violence for the purposes of enhancement. The Court first had to determine what a crime of violence is under the enhancement statute § 2L1.2, and applied the “categorical approach,” a test that looks at “only the elements of the statute of conviction rather than the defendant’s conduct underlying the offense.” Although the statute did not define the phrase “crime of violence,” it contained a “use-of-force” clause that notably included only force against the person of another. By looking at the plain meaning of the statute, the Court concluded that this meant that the use-of-force clause did not involve the use of force against property and, furthermore, did not include “acts that merely pose a risk of harm to another person.” The Court then turned to the statute itself, noting that Supreme Court of North Carolina had “read a knowledge element into the offense,” and that the statute therefore proscribed a person from “intentionally, without legal justification or excuse, discharg[ing] a firearm into [a]n occupied building [A] with knowledge that the building is then occupied by one or more persons or [B] when he has reasonable grounds to believe that the building might be occupied by one or more persons.” Based on this reading, the Court concluded that the statute did not require the use of force against a person, so it did not require a finding that a crime committed under that statute was a crime of violence; the crime could be accomplished merely by firing at a building that the shooter knew or had reason to believe the building was occupied. Therefore, Dominguez’s prior offense was not a crime of violence.

After finding that Dominguez’s prior offense was not a crime of violence, and that therefore the district court erred in applying the sentencing guidelines, the Court then turned to a harmless error analysis. An error in this case would have been harmless if the district court would have sentenced Dominguez in the same way even if the district court had decided the crime of violence issue in Dominguez’s favor. When it looked at the 65 month sentence, the amount of time that the court below took in determining the sentence, and the recommendation of the Government that the judge sentence Dominguez in the mid-to-high end of the range that the judge subsequently followed, the Court determined that the error was not harmless, and vacated Dominguez’s sentence and remanded the case.

Full opinion

Jennie Rischbieter

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