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United States v. Anderson

January 13, 2010

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, PLAINTIFF,
v.
DANTE ANDERSON, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: J. Spencer Letts Senior United States District Judge

ORDER GRANTING DEFENDANT'S MOTION TO DISMISS

INTRODUCTION

The Indictment in this case is a two count indictment. Count One charges Defendant Dante Anderson with violating 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1), which makes it "unlawful for any person . . . who has been convicted in any court of [] a crime punishable by imprisonment for a term exceeding one year" to "possess . . . any firearm." Count Two charges Anderson with unlawful possession of an unregistered firearm in violation of 26 U.S.C. § 5861(d). According to the Indictment, Anderson violated § 922(g)(1) because he possessed a firearm after being convicted in California state court of either or both of two "crime[s] punishable by imprisonment for a term exceeding one year." Both of the state court convictions were based on nolo contendere pleas.

Anderson has moved to dismiss Count One on the ground that in the circumstances of this case a violation of § 922(g)(1) cannot be predicated on a state court conviction that was based on a nolo plea. For the reasons explained herein, the Court agrees. Accordingly, it grants the Motion to Dismiss and dismisses Count One.

BACKGROUND

The events that gave rise to this case began in 2005. That year, Anderson was charged in the Superior Court of California, County of Los Angeles, with vandalism in violation of California Penal Code § 594(a). Two years later, Anderson was charged in Superior Court with possession of a dangerous weapon ("brass knuckles") in violation of California Penal Code § 12020(a)(1). The crimes charged in both cases were "punishable" by a term of imprisonment of more than one year. The proceedings in both cases were terminated by nolo contendere pleas rather than by either a guilty plea or a jury trial. In the vandalism case, Anderson was sentenced only to the time already served in county jail and released forthwith after sentencing. In the "brass knuckles" case, he was sentenced to 180 days in county jail, with 127 days of time and work credits.

According to the Presentence Report, the events that led to the charges in this new federal case are as follows. On January 1, 2008, at approximately 12:15 a.m., officers from the Los Angeles Police Department responded to a report of gunshots heard in the rear alley of 4051 Muirfield Road in Los Angeles, California. As the officers commenced this investigation, they came upon Anderson, who was holding a weapon in his hand. The officers ordered Anderson to put down the weapon and he immediately complied. Anderson then tried to run away, but tripped and fell. The officers subsequently took him into custody without further incident and seized the weapon that had been in Anderson's hand. By virtue of Anderson's convictions in the state vandalism case and the state "brass knuckles" case, the government deemed Anderson's possession of the weapon to be unlawful under 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1). That analysis led to the allegations contained in Count One of the Indictment.

The procedural process that led to the Motion to Dismiss in this case was very unusual. The Court's first substantive consideration of this case commenced only after Anderson had offered, and the Court had accepted, a plea of guilty to Count One.*fn1 At the change of plea hearing, the Court listened to the government's proffer of the evidence by which it would prove the factual elements of a § 922(g)(1) violation. The Court then concluded that if this evidence was introduced at trial a reasonable juror could find beyond a reasonable doubt that Anderson was guilty of violating § 922(g)(1). Based on that showing, the Court concluded that there was an independent factual basis for Count One. Subsequently, the Court asked Anderson if he had done the acts with which he had been charged and if, to the best of his knowledge, the evidence to be offered by the government was true. Anderson responded "yes" to both questions.

Approximately one month later, the Court received Anderson's Presentence Report. While reviewing it, the Court learned for the first time that both of the state court convictions that the government was relying on to establish its federal case had been based on nolo contendere pleas.

This previously unknown fact caused the Court concern because it had serious doubts that the government could lawfully base a § 922(g)(1) prosecution on a state nolo conviction. Subsequently, the Court expressed these doubts in open court. Thereafter, at Anderson's request, the Court granted Anderson permission to file a Motion to Dismiss.

On May 27, 2009, the Motion was filed and the government filed its opposition.*fn2 Based on its review of these documents, the Court concluded that the Motion raised important issues that the parties had not yet addressed. On July 13, 2009, the Court vacated the guilty plea and ordered another round of briefing.

DISCUSSION

Introduction

Count One alleges a violation of 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1), which, in relevant part, provides: "It shall be unlawful for any person . . . who has been convicted in any court [] of a crime punishable by imprisonment for a term exceeding one year" to "possess . . . any firearm."

As used herein, the term "predicate conviction" refers to a prior conviction used by the government as the necessary factual element of the crime established by § 922(g)(1), without which the later acts of Anderson would not be unlawful under the statute.

As used herein, the term "Motion Issue" refers to the issue that is to be decided by this Motion. The Court defines the Motion Issue as follows: Can a conviction in this case be valid under federal law if the predicate conviction relied upon by the government rests on a nolo contendere plea ...


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