In United States v. Zuniga the Fifth Circuit remanded the conviction based on improper convictions.

Zuniga was a passenger in his vehicle.  Zuniga and the driver were followed by the police.  The police witnessed the vehicle fail to signal 100 feet continuously before turning left and park in a “disabled only” parking space (these things are law violations in Texas).  The officer who witnessed these violations was undercover and asked another officer to stop the vehicle.  The other officer did not see the law violations but stopped the vehicle anyway.  The driver did not have a license.  Zuniga had city warrants.  Both were arrested.  Zuniga was searched and was found to be in possession of a plastic bag of meth.  His vehicle was searched and a backpack with more meth was found as well as a firearm and holster.

Zuniga moved to suppress the stop and was denied on the grounds of the “collective knowledge doctrine.”  He later pled guilty to one count of Possession with Intent to Distribute 500 grams or More of Meth and Aiding and Abetting while preserving his right to challenge the suppression ruling.

At sentencing the court found Zuniga to be a career offender for his two priors of evading arrest and delivery of a controlled substance.  He was sentenced to 327 months and five years of supervised release.

Zuniga argued that his career offender sentence must be remanded under Johnson v. United States.  Zuniga filed a second supplemental brief based on United States v. Hinkle challenging the Texas Delivery of a controlled substance.  He had also challenged the reasonable suspicion of the stop as well as the application of the collective knowledge doctrine.  His reasonable suspicion arguments and his collective knowledge doctrine arguments were denied and after Beckles v. United States was published, Zuniga conceded that his argument about Johnson v. United States was foreclosed.  However Hinkle explained that Mathis does not allow sentencing courts to look at the actual method of delivery on which a defendant’s conviction was based on for purposes of determining whether the conviction constituted a controlled substance offense under the guidelines.

The government indicated that Zuniga did not raise this argument in the district court and in the opening brief to this court and as such the court should hold that Zuniga forfeited his right to bring this argument citing that Mathis only “reaffirmed” the principle articulated in Descamps.  The Court rejected this argument indicating that Mathis clarified the law on divisibility.  While Descamps was about whether a sentencing court could consult additional documents when a defendant was convicted under an ‘indivisible’ statute, Mathis was concerning “a different kind of alternately phrased law” and held that alternative means do not make alternative elements.  Hinkle then applied Mathis to a Texas Statute.

With that, the forfeiture argument was laid waste to.  The government conceded that the error was plain in this case especially when considering the disparity between the imposed sentence and the applicable guideline range.

The Fifth Circuit Vacated and Remanded.  U.S. v. Zuniga.


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