United States of America v. Jose Prisciliano Gracia-Cantu, No. 15-40227, 2018 WL 2068684

Gracia-Cantu pled guilty to being an alien unlawfully present in the United States after previously being deported. He also had a prior conviction for Assault Family Violence under Texas Penal Code 22.01(a)(1) and 22.01(b)(2). The presentence report recommended an eight level increase for this under 8 U.S.C. § 1101(a)(43)(F) and U.S.S.G. § 2L1.2(b)(1)(C), calling the family violence conviction an “aggravated felony.” Gracia-Cantu argued that the Texas Assault Family Violence is not a “crime of violence” under 18 USC § 16 and as such, the conviction did not qualify as an aggravated felony. The district court found that the Texas Family violence conviction was an aggravated felony under U.S.S.G. § 2L1.2(b)(1)(C), by looking at the judgment conviction that stated that the injury occurred by “striking said Maria Garcia on or about the head with an object: to wit, a can.” The district court then stated that it would require force to strike someone in the head with a can. Gracia-Cantu was sentenced to 41 months and appealed his sentence.

The Fifth Circuit began by addressing whether the family violence case applied under 18 USC § 16(a). Section 16(a) defines a crime of violence as “an offense that has as an element the use, attempted use, or threatened use of physical force against the person or property of another.” Prior Fifth Circuit precedent held that Texas Assault Family Violence was not a crime of violence under 16(a). While the government argued that precedent had been overruled by United States v. Castleman, 134 S. Ct. 1405 (2014), and Voisine v. United States, 136 S. Ct. 2272 (2016), the Fifth Circuit disagreed. The Fifth Circuit held that the government’s argument had no merit because of the “rule of orderliness,” which states that one panel of the court may not overrule another unless a “Supreme Court decision ‘expressly or implicitly’ overrules one of our precedents.”  Further, this was confirmed in cases after Castleman, such as United States v. Reyes-Contreras, 882 F.3d 113, 123 (5th Cir. 2018). Therefore, the Fifth Circuit’s prior precedent stood and Gracia-Cantu’s conviction was not a crime of violence under 16(a).

Next the court looked at whether the crime of violence was a crime under § 16(b). The Fifth Circuit noted that § 16(b) was unconstitutionally vague after the Supreme Court’s decision in Sessions vs. Dimaya, 138 S. Ct. 1204 (2018). But since this was not objected to at the time of sentencing it was subject to plain error review. “To obtain relief under plain-error review, an appellant must show: (1) an error or defect that was not affirmatively waived; (2) the legal error is clear or obvious; (3) the error affected the appellant’s substantial rights; and (4) if the first three prongs are satisfied, that the court should exercise its discretion to correct the error because it “seriously affects the fairness, integrity or public reputation of judicial proceedings.”

Dimaya established that it is error to use § 16(b) to show that an offense is a crime of violence. But there were cases that came out before this that would have kept this argument from succeeding at that time. The first two prongs having been met, the court then looked to see if this violated his substantial rights. The court determined that it did because his sentence of 41 months was 11 months above the applicable guidelines for his case without the eight-level increase for the crime of violence. This satisfied the third prong. The court then determined that the disparity between the imposed sentence and the applicable guidelines range can warrant the court’s exercise of discretion. Further, the fact that the higher sentence came from applying a statute declared unconstitutional void by the Supreme Court while the claim was on direct appeal also was considered. The court looked at the totality of the circumstances and determined that the error should be corrected.

The Fifth Circuit vacated Gracia-Cantu’s sentence and remanded the case back down for resentencing. No. 15-40227, 2018 WL 2068684

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