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United States v. Benitez-Beltran

United States Court of Appeals, First Circuit

June 13, 2018

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Appellee,
v.
LUIS DANIEL BENITEZ-BELTRAN, Defendant, Appellant.

          APPEAL FROM THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF PUERTO RICO Hon. Aida M. Delgado-Colón, U.S. District Judge

          Jessica E. Earl, Research and Writing Specialist, Eric Alexander Vos, Federal Public Defender, and Vivianne M. Marrero, Assistant Federal Public Defender, Supervisor, Appeals Section, on brief for appellant.

          John A. Mathews II, Assistant United States Attorney, Rosa Emilia Rodríguez-Vélez, United States Attorney, and Thomas F. Klumper, Assistant United States Attorney, Acting Chief, Appellate Division, on brief for appellee.

          Before Torruella, Lipez, and Barron, Circuit Judges.

          BARRON, CIRCUIT JUDGE.

         Luis Daniel Benítez-Beltrán ("Benítez") appeals the 120-month prison sentence that he received after pleading guilty to being, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1), a prohibited person in possession of a firearm. Benítez contends that the District Court erred by classifying his prior conviction for attempted murder under Puerto Rico law as a "crime of violence" that triggers an increase in his base offense level pursuant to § 2K2.1(a)(4) of the United States Sentencing Guidelines. Benítez also contends that the District Court's upward variance from his advisory sentencing range under the Guidelines was procedurally unsound and that his sentence is substantively unreasonable. We affirm the sentence.

         I.

         During the execution of a search warrant at Benítez's residence in 2013, Puerto Rico police agents found a loaded revolver hidden behind the drawer of a nightstand. The following day, the federal government charged Benítez, who is a convicted felon, with one count of being a prohibited person in possession of a firearm, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1).

         In November of 2014, Benítez pleaded guilty to this count pursuant to a plea agreement.[1] Benítez, who was then serving a ninety-year sentence for a 2014 conviction under Puerto Rico law for aggravated robbery and related weapons law violations, [2] was sentenced for this federal conviction in January of 2017.

         A probation officer prepared a presentence report ("PSR") based on the November 2016 edition of the Sentencing Guidelines. The PSR determined that § 2K2.1(a)(4) of the Guidelines applied. That guideline establishes the base offense level that applies to a defendant convicted of unlawful possession of a firearm if the defendant committed that offense after having been convicted of a felony that qualifies as a "crime of violence." Applying that guideline, the PSR determined that Benítez's base offense level was twenty, when, in the absence of that guideline's application, his base offense level would have been fourteen. See U.S. Sentencing Guidelines Manual § 2K2.1(a)(6) (2016).

         The PSR concluded that Benítez had a prior conviction that qualified as a "crime of violence" due to his 1998 conviction for attempted murder under Puerto Rico law. The PSR stated that this prior offense so qualified under what is known as the "force clause" of the Sentencing Guidelines' definition of a "crime of violence."[3]

         The PSR also applied a four-level enhancement under § 2K2.1(b)(4)(B) to Benítez's offense level because the firearm involved in Benítez's § 922(g) offense had an obliterated serial number. Finally, the PSR reduced Benítez's offense level by three levels pursuant to § 3E1.1 due to his acceptance of responsibility.

         In sum, the PSR calculated Benítez's total offense level to be twenty-one. Because the PSR assigned Benítez a criminal history category of V, the PSR determined that Benítez's advisory range for his term of imprisonment under the Guidelines was seventy to eighty-seven months.

         After hearing from the parties, the District Court adopted the PSR's Guidelines calculation. In doing so, the District Court concluded that Benítez had "only one prior conviction" for a "crime of violence, " namely his 1998 attempted murder conviction under Puerto Rico law. The District Court then sentenced Benítez to the statutory maximum prison term of 120 months, see 18 U.S.C. § 922(a)(2), which was a term of imprisonment just under three years above the upper end of the advisory sentencing range under the Guidelines. The District Court ruled that the sentence would run consecutively to any sentence that Benítez was then serving, which would include his ninety-year sentence for his Puerto Rico conviction for aggravated robbery. Benítez objected to the upward variance and then appealed the sentence.

         II.

         Benítez first challenges the District Court's conclusion that he had a prior conviction for a "crime of violence" under § 2K2.1(a)(4). Our review of whether Benítez's prior conviction for attempted murder under Puerto Rico law qualifies as a "crime of violence" under the Guidelines is de novo. See United States v. Steed, 879 F.3d 440, 445 (1st Cir. 2018).

         A.

         The term "crime of violence" in § 2K2.1(a)(4) has the same meaning as it has in the § 4B1.2 career-offender guideline. U.S. Sentencing Guidelines Manual § 2K2.1, cmt. n.1 (2016). Section 4B1.2(a) defines a "crime of violence" to be any offense punishable by more than one year of imprisonment that either "has as an element the use, attempted use, or threatened use of physical force against the person of another" (the so-called force clause) or is one of several enumerated crimes, including "murder."

         Benítez contends that his prior conviction for attempted murder under Puerto Rico law does not qualify as a "crime of violence." He does so on the ground that this offense, as defined at the time of his conviction, neither falls within § 4B1.2(a)'s force clause nor matches one of the offenses ...


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