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United States v. Morales-Landa

United States District Court, S.D. California

April 18, 2014


Page 1016

For Javier Morales-Landa, Defendant: Joseph S. Camden, LEAD ATTORNEY, Federal Defenders of San Diego, San Diego, CA.

For USA, Plaintiff: Anne Kristina Perry, LEAD ATTORNEY, U S Attorneys Office Southern District of California, Criminal Division, San Diego, CA.


Page 1017


BARRY TED MOSKOWITZ, Chief United States District Judge.

Defendant Javier Morales-Landa has filed a motion to dismiss the indictment. For the reasons set forth herein, the Court DENIES the motion.


Defendant Javier Morales-Landa (" Defendant" ) is a citizen of Mexico without legal status in the United States. On March 22, 2010, he was charged with attempted sexual abuse of a child in violation of Utah Code section 76-5-402.1. (Gov. Ex. 2.) On the same day, he pled guilty to attempted sexual abuse of a child, a felony in the third degree. (Gov. Ex. 3, Doc. 21-1). In his supporting statement, he admitted: " On 7/1/09 at 2547 Parkcrest Drive in Salt Lake County, I touched the breast of T.M. (a female younger than age 14) to arouse my sexual desire." (Id. at 3.)

On May 5, 2010, Defendant was served with a Notice of Intent to Issue a Final Administrative Removal Order, which included an allegation that his Utah conviction constituted an aggravated felony under 8 U.S.C. § 1101(a)(43)(A). (Def's Ex. D., Doc. 15-2.) Defendant acknowledged receipt of the Notice and did not contest the allegations therein. (Id.) The immigration officer accordingly concluded that he was convicted of an aggravated felony, and a final removal order issued the same day. (Def's Ex. E.) Defendant was removed to Mexico the next day.

On November 5, 2013, Defendant was arrested approximately 25 yards north of the Mexican border. On December 5, 2013, he was charged by information with Attempted-Re-Entry of a Removed Alien in violation of 8 U.S.C. § 1326. On January 22, 2014, he filed a motion to dismiss the information pursuant to 8 U.S.C. § 1326(d). Defendant contends that his removal was invalid because he was not really convicted of of an aggravated felony.[1] (Mot. at 5.) The Court held hearings on the motion on March 21 and April 11, 2014.

Page 1018


A. Collateral Attack Under 8 U.S.C. § 1326

" [A]ny alien who . . . has been . . . deported, or removed . . . and thereafter . . . enters, attempts to enter, or is at any time found in, the United States" absent express consent " shall be fined under Title 18, or imprisoned not more than 2 years, or both." 8 U.S.C. § 1326(a). An unlawfully present alien " whose removal was subsequent to a conviction for commission of an aggravated felony" is subject to a sentence of up to twenty years. Id. at § 1326(b)(2). Sexual abuse of a minor is an aggravated felony. Id. at 1101(a)(43)(A) An alien charged under § 1326 " may challenge the validity of the deportation order." Id. at § 1326(d). To advance such a " collateral attack," the defendant must demonstrate that (1) he exhausted all administrative remedies available to him to appeal his removal order; (2) the underlying removal proceedings improperly deprived him of the opportunity for judicial review; and (3) the entry of the order was fundamentally unfair. See, e.g., United States v. Ubaldo-Figueroa,364 F.3d 1042, 1048 (9th Cir. 2004). An underlying deportation order is " fundamentally unfair" if (1) the defendant's due process rights were violated by defects in his deportation proceeding, and (2) he suffered prejudice as a result. Id.

An alien may not collaterally attack an underlying removal order if he validly waived the right to appeal that order. United States v. Arrieta, 224 F.3d 1076, 1079 (9th Cir. 2000). However, the exhaustion requirement of 8 U.S.C. § 1326(d) " cannot bar collateral review of a deportation proceeding when the waiver of right to an administrative appeal did not comport with due process." United States v. Muro-Inclan, 249 F.3d 1180, 1183 (9th Cir. 2001).

Defendant argues that he is excused from the exhaustion requirement. Although he received a form asking whether he challenged his removal, Defendant contends that the form did not provide sufficient notice and opportunity to contest the legal conclusion that a prior conviction constitutes an aggravated felony. (Mot. at 3, 6.) See Valdiviez-Hernandez v. Holder, 731 F.3d 396, 2013 WL 6230973, *2 n.1 (5th Cir. 2013). As the government does not challenge Defendant's exhaustion argument, the Court treats it as excused.

B. The Categorical Approach

To determine whether a state conviction constitutes an aggravated felony, courts use the " categorical approach" set forth in Taylor v. United States, 495 U.S. 575, 598, 110 S.Ct. 2143, 109 L.Ed.2d 607 (1990). Under that approach, the Court looks only to the fact of conviction and the elements of the alleged predicate offense to determine whether it satisfies the definition of the qualifying federal offense (i.e., whether it is an aggravated felony). Taylor, 495 U.S. at 602. " [I]f the statute sweeps more broadly than the generic crime, a conviction under that law cannot count as an ACCA predicate [or an aggravated felony], even if the defendant actually committed the offense in its generic form." Descamps v. United States, 570 U.S., 133 S.Ct. 2276, 2283-2285, 186 L.Ed.2d 438 (2013). In other words, if the state statute lacks any element of the federal offense, the mismatch ends the inquiry because " a person convicted under that statute is never convicted of the generic crime." United States v. Gomez, 732 F.3d 971 (9th Cir. 2013). Assessing whether a state statute is " overbroad" relative to the federal definition ought not be an exercise in creativity. See Gonzales v. Duenas-Alvarez, 549 U.S. 183, 193, 127 S.Ct. 815, 166 L.Ed.2d

Page 1019

683, (2007) (" [T]o find that a state statute creates a crime outside the generic definition of a listed crime in a federal statute requires more than the application of legal imagination to a state statute's language. It requires a realistic probability, not a theoretical possibility, that the State would apply its statute to conduct that falls outside the generic definition of a crime." ); James v. United States, 550 U.S. 192, 208, 127 S.Ct. 1586, 167 L.Ed.2d 532 (2007) (" We do not view [the categorical approach] as requiring that every conceivable factual offense covered by a statute must necessarily present a serious potential risk of injury before the offense can be deemed a violent felony." ).

Sometimes the Court cannot determine, categorically, whether the crime of conviction constitutes an aggravated felony because the statute can be violated in multiple ways, not all of which would be aggravated felonies. That situation may arise if the state statute of conviction is " divisible," i.e., it sets forth " multiple, alternative versions of the crime," thereby " effectively creat[ing] several different crimes." Descamps, 570 U.S. at 2284-85 (citation omitted). In that case, the Court may use the " modified categorical approach," examining certain " approved documents" in the record to determine what form of the crime the defendant was convicted of.[4]Id. at 2284.


Defendant argues his conviction for attempted sexual abuse of a child in the third degree is not an aggravated felony under 8 U.S.C. § 1227(a)(2)(A)(iii). The Court finds that the modified categorical approach is properly applied in this case, and that Defendant's conviction was for an aggravated felony.

A. The Modified Categorical Approach Applies to the Utah Attempt Statute, Utah Code § 76-4-101

Where a defendant is convicted of an attempt crime, the sentencing court must determine " whether the defendant's conviction establishes that he committed the elements of the generic definition of 'attempt' and that the underlying offense he attempted meets the generic definition of that offense." United States v. Gonzalez-Monterroso, No. 12-10158, 745 F.3d 1237, 2014 WL 575952, *1 (9th Cir. 2014) (quoting United States v. Gomez-Hernandez, 680 F.3d 1171, 1175 (9th Cir. 2012)). The Utah attempt statute provides, in pertinent part:

(1) For purposes of this part, a person is guilty of an attempt to commit a crime if he: (a) engages in conduct constituting a substantial step toward commission of the crime; and (b) (i) intends to commit the crime; or (ii) when causing a particular result is an element of the crime, he acts with an awareness that his conduct is reasonably certain to cause that result.
(2) For purposes of this part, conduct constitutes a substantial step if it strongly corroborates the actor's mental state as defined in Subsection (1)(b).

Utah Code § 76-4-101. Defendant does not dispute that sections (1)(a) and (b)(1) of the Utah attempt statute are identical to the federal generic definition of attempt. (Mot. at 11.) He nonetheless argues that the statute was overbroad at the time of his plea. (Mot. at 11-12.) More specifically, he argues that an intervening judicial

Page 1020

ruling temporarily rendered the Utah statute broader than the federal definition.[5]

Pointing to State v. Arave, 2009 UT App. 278, 220 P.3d 182 (Utah App. 2009), Defendant argues that because solicitation was, " for the space of a couple years straddling Mr. Morales' plea," within the ambit of the Utah attempt statute, his conviction is based on a statute that sweeps too broadly in comparison with its federal counterpart. (Mot. at 11.) In Arave, the trial court found that Mr. Arave's conduct amounted to not just solicitation, but a " substantial step" in furtherance of the crime (sodomy of a child). 220 P.3d at 185-86. Mr. Arave was thus convicted of attempted sodomy rather than solicitation. The intermediate appellate court affirmed. The Utah Supreme Court reversed, finding that Mr. Arave's conduct amounted to solicitation, and that mere solicitation is not a substantial step in furtherance of an attempt. State v. Arave, 2011 UT 84, 268 P.3d 163, 169-70 (Utah 2011).

Citing J.S v. P.K. (In re Adoption of I.K.), 2009 UT 70, 220 P.3d 464 (Utah 2009), Defendant argues that the 2009 Arave decision was in force at the time of his plea, operating as an ex post facto judicial expansion of the scope of Utah's attempt statute. See generally Carmell v. Texas, 529 U.S. 513, 120 S.Ct. 1620, 146 L.Ed.2d 577 (1999) (finding application of post-offense change in law reducing the quantum of evidence required for conviction to be an ex-post facto clause violation). Thus, Defendant argues, this case is like United States v. Gonzales-Monterroso, 745 F.3d 1237, 2014 WL 575952 (9th Cir. Feb. 14, 2014), where the Ninth Circuit ruled that a Delaware attempt statute was broader than generic federal attempt because its definition of a " substantial step" encompasses mere preparations. The federal generic definition, by contrast, requires a finding that an act was " of such substantiality that, unless frustrated, the crime would have occurred." United States v. Saavedra-Velazquez, 578 F.3d 1103, 1107 (9th Cir. 2009).

There are a few holes in Defendant's argument. First, he provides no basis for his assumption that the law at the time of conviction is controlling. By focusing on the time that the plea was entered, he ignores the fact that the substantive law at the time of the offense typically governs, even in Utah. See, e.g., United States v. Sher, 421 F.2d 784, 786 (9th Cir. 1970) (applying the National Firearms Act " as it read at the time of the offense" ); State v. Lafferty, 2001 UT 19, 20 P.3d 342, 373 (Utah 2001) (upholding death sentence applying law, including the insanity defense, as it existed at the time of the offense). The state of the law at the time of the plea or conviction is thus irrelevant to the question of whether the conduct alleged was proscribed by a particular statute.

Defendant's argument implies that the immigration officers should review state court rulings sua sponte to ensure that the scope of the state statute has not been expanded. As Defendant points to no case

Page 1021

where the law changed after the offense but before the conviction, as he alleges it did here, the Court rejects his argument as baseless.[6] See generally McNeill v. United States, U.S., 131 S.Ct. 2218, 2223, 180 L.Ed.2d 35 (2011) (" This natural reading of [the Armed Career Criminal Act] also avoids the absurd results that would follow from consulting current state law to define a previous offense." ) (citing United States v. Wilson, 503 U.S. 329, 334, 112 S.Ct. 1351, 117 L.Ed.2d 593 (1992) (" [A]bsurd results are to be avoided" )); United States v. Turkette, 452 U.S. 576, 580, 101 S.Ct. 2524, 69 L.Ed.2d 246 (U.S. 1981). Because the September 2009 ruling in Arave came after Defendant's July 2009 offense, it is irrelevant. Moreover, there is no indication that the scope of the statute under Arave was an issue at any point in this case. Additionally, Defendant misconstrues both of the opinions he relies upon. The full passage from In re I.K. reveals that Defendant overstates the temporary precedential effect of one intermediate appellate decision:

When a case is granted certiorari review, it remains unresolved until the higher court takes final action. This is not to say that lower courts do not have the obligation to follow an intermediate appellate decision until it is reviewed. Indeed, " [w]hen the court of appeals renders a decision on an issue, that decision is automatically part of the law of this state, unless and until contravened by this court, the legislature, or the people through the processes authorized for the making of new law." Grand County v. Rogers, 2002 UT 25, P 16, 44 P.3d 734. Thus, a lower court is not free to act in opposition to a court of appeals decision simply because the decision is under review by a higher court. See, e.g., Lakeside Cmty. Hosp. v. Tahoe Reg'l Planning Agency, 461 F.Supp. 1150, 1153 (D. Nev. 1978) (" [T]his Court is duty bound to follow the law as articulated by the Court of Appeals for this Circuit. That a writ of certiorari has issued from the United States Supreme Court to the Court of Appeals does not relieve this Court of that duty." (internal citation omitted)). However, once the certiorari review is complete and a decision is announced by the higher court, that new decision becomes the law in that case, replacing the decision announced by the intermediate court to the extent it reverses, vacates, or otherwise modifies it. The new ruling also has retroactive effect. Thus, the decision of the court of appeals in Helen G. I, though binding on lower courts at the time it was announced, represented an intermediate step in a case that was not yet final. Now that certiorari review is complete, the decision of the supreme court in Helen G. II

Page 1022

constitutes the binding rule of law.

In re I.K., 220 P.3d at 469 (emphasis added). See also Rivers v. Roadway Express, Inc., 511 U.S. 298, 312-13, 114 S.Ct. 1510, 128 L.Ed.2d 274 (1994) (" A judicial construction of a statute is an authoritative statement of what the statute meant before as well as after the decision of the case giving rise to that construction." ); Id. n.12 (" [W]hen this Court construes a statute, it is explaining its understanding of what the statute has meant continuously since the date when it became law." ) Defendant asks the Court to ignore the retroactive effect of the Utah Supreme Court ruling in Arave reversing the expansive interpretation of " substantial step." Indeed, although neither precedent existed at the time of the removal proceedings, Defendant asks the Court to ignore the Utah Supreme Court decision on one hand while applying Descamps retroactively on the other. The Court declines to do so.

Finally, in his reply memorandum, Defendant relies upon the recent decision in Gonzales-Monterroso, to argue that the Utah attempt statute is indivisible and overbroad. In Gonzales-Monterroso, the Ninth Circuit held that a subsection of the Delaware attempt statute was indivisible and overbroad. F.3d, 2014 WL 575952. The ruling was based on Delaware's statutory definition of " substantial step," not upon an intervening judicial interpretation of the statute. As Defendant concedes, the attempt statute sub judice is coextensive with the federal generic definition. (See Mot. at 11.) The Court accordingly finds that the inchoate offense of conviction to be coextensive with federal generic attempt, and turns to the statute defining the underlying offense.

B. Sexual Abuse of a Child in the Third Degree Under Utah Code § 76-5-404.1 Is Not Categorically An Aggravated Felony

Utah Code ยง ...

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