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United States v. Horton, No. 11-4052

Decided: August 30, 2012

On appeal, Timothy Tyrone Horton challenged his conviction for possession of a firearm while a convicted felon and the district court’s sentence of life imprisonment. The Court of Appeals affirmed Horton’s conviction but vacated his life imprisonment sentence. The court held that the district court erred in applying the murder-cross reference provision in the United States Sentencing Guidelines Manual (“the Guidelines”). According to the court, the district court’s error substantially increased Horton’s sentencing range under the Guidelines.

On August 10, 2007, Horton argued with his girlfriend after she learned that Horton had a gun. During the argument, Horton fired the gun three times. Horton’s girlfriend then confiscated the gun, locked herself inside her home, and called the police. The police then retrieved the gun from Horton’s girlfriend. Investigators subsequently discovered that the gun had been stolen during the breaking and entering of a gas station in July 2006. In February 2008, Horton confessed to possessing the gun during the August 10 incident. He was then arrested and charged with violating 18 U.S.C. ยง 922(g)(1) and 924, being a felon in possession of a firearm.

First, The Court of Appeals upheld Horton’s conviction. Horton argued that his conviction should be overturned because the district court erred in denying his motion for substitute counsel. Though the court assumed without deciding that the district court abused its discretion in denying Horton’s motion, it nevertheless held that Horton’s conviction should be upheld because the error was harmless and did not prejudice Horton. Horton further argued that the district court erred in denying his motion for a new trial because the Government failed to disclose material impeachment evidence before trial. The court rejected this argument because it concluded that Horton could not show that impeachment evidence would have affected the outcome of his trial.

Second, the court vacated Horton’s sentence and remanded for resentencing. During Horton’s sentencing, much of the testimony concerned Horton’s involvement in a murder that occurred on August 17, 2007. The presentence report (“PSR”) prepared by the Probation Office determined that the preponderance of the evidence supported a finding that Horton was responsible for the August 17 murder. Therefore, the PSR concluded that the August 17 murder was “relevant conduct” to the felony- in-possession charge and that a cross-reference to the murder offense under the Guidelines was warranted. The district court agreed and used the murder cross-reference provision to compute Horton’s sentence as life imprisonment. The Court of Appeals first noted that an offense can only be cross-referenced if it meets the criteria of one of the Guidelines’ relevant conduct rules. The court determined that the only relevant conduct rule that could possibly apply to Horton’s case had a threshold limitation on its applicability: the rule only applied with respect to offenses that were “groupable” under the Guidelines’ “Grouping Guideline.” The court then explained that there is a circuit split as to whether only the offense of conviction (the August 10 felony-in-possession) must be groupable or whether both the offense of conviction and the relevant conduct offense (the August 17 murder) must be groupable. The court followed the majority rule and determined that both the conviction offense and the relevant conduct offense must be groupable. Since murder is not a groupable offense under the Grouping Guideline, the court held that the relevant conduct rule did not apply to Horton’s case. Therefore, the court concluded that district court erroneously applied the murder cross-reference provision.

Full Opinion

– Graham Mitchell