United States v. Leal-Vega

Summarized by:

  • Court: 9th Circuit Court of Appeals Archives
  • Area(s) of Law: Sentencing
  • Date Filed: 05-30-2012
  • Case #: 11-50065
  • Judge(s)/Court Below: Circuit Judge M. Smith for the Court; Circuit Judge Kleinfeld and District Judge Marbley
  • Full Text Opinion

Sentencing enhancements for illegal reentry by deported aliens can only be applied where the prior convictions are a specific violation written in the language of a state or federal statute.

Jose Leal-Vega was sentenced to thirty months for illegal reentry following deportation. The district court declined to apply a sixteen-level enhancement to Leal-Vega’s sentence. The United States Government appealed the sentence asking the Court to enhance the sentence based on Leal-Vega’s prior conviction for drug trafficking. The district court found that California Health & Safety Code § 11351 was not categorically a drug trafficking offense, nor was Leal-Vega’s conviction sufficient to qualify under a modified categorical analysis. The Ninth Circuit held that “a conviction under §11351 does not qualify categorically as a ‘drug trafficking offense,’” but Leal-Vega’s prior conviction does qualify under the modified categorical approach. The analysis failed the categorical approach because the statute may not define an element of the crime using the generic language of “controlled substance.” The modified categorical approach requires that a judicially noticeable document state the particular facts leading to a conviction. Leal-Vega’s 1999 conviction satisfies this requirement because the conviction record establishes that Leal-Vega was convicted of possession of tar heroin. The specificity of the conviction on the judicially noticeable documents constitutes a drug trafficking offence and a sixteen level enhancement should be applied. REVERSED AND REMANDED.

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