To most people, the image of someone carjacking a car is a one of extreme violence, fear and danger. The image of a man jumping into a car and pushing the driver over to the passenger seat or violently pulling the surprised driver out onto the road is reinforced on television and movies. Often the suspect is holding a pistol and trying to evade law enforcement at the time. Carjacking is a “classic” serious and violent felony under California’s Three Strikes Law.
Therefore, it seems counterintuitive that carjacking under California law (Penal Code § 215) may not be considered a crime of violence under federal law at U.S. Sentencing Guidelines § 4A1.1(e).
This interesting result came about in the case of United States v. Lecharles Baldon on appeal to the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.
In 2016, the FBI received a tip that Baldon was selling heroin and meth in Reno, Nevada. The FBI and the DEA then used an informant and set up four controlled buys in late 2016. Agents noticed that Baldon used a storage unit, they suspected for storing his drugs, so they sought a search warrant and received one for both the unit and his home.
At Baldon’s home, they found meth, cocaine, two scales, packaging material and 9-millimeter ammunition. In the storage unit they found more meth, heroin and a loaded 9-millimeter gun.
Baldon was then arrested and charged with various methamphetamine and heroin offenses, as well as being a felon in possession of a firearm. Baldon eventually pleaded guilty to one count of possession with intent to distribute methamphetamine in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 841(a)(1) and (b)(1)(C).
The U.S. District Court judge, under the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines, calculated a total offense level of 31 with a criminal history for Baldon in category V based on 11 criminal history points, resulting in a sentencing range from 168 to 210 months in federal prison.
The district court calculated two criminal history points under U.S.S.G. § 4A1.1(e) for Baldon’s prior carjacking convictions.
Baldon was then sentenced to 184 months (fifteen years and four months) in federal prison.
Baldon appealed the sentence on more than one ground, but this article will limit its scope to just his argument that carjacking is not a crime of violence under the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines. The appeal was to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.
The Ninth Circuit issued a textbook opinion on its reasoning that carjacking is not a crime of violence under U.S.S.G. and should be read by anyone interested in how a federal court evaluates a state court conviction for criminal history points.
The Ninth Circuit began its analysis by noting that its review of a district court’s determination of whether a prior conviction qualifies as a crime of violence is de novo. This means it evaluates the determination from the beginning and not for, i.e., an abuse of discretion.
The Ninth Circuit began its analysis using the categorical approach set forth in Taylor v. United States (1990) 495 U.S. 575. Under this approach, the judge “compares the elements of each offense with the federal definition of a crime of violence to determine whether the [state] offense criminalizes a broader range of conduct than the federal definition captures.” United States v. Edling (9th Cir., 2018) 895 F.3d 1153, 155. If the state offense proscribes conduct beyond the federal definition or scope, it will not qualify as a crime of violence. United States v. Bankston (9th Cir., 2018) 901 F.3d 1100, 1102-1103.
Before applying this methodology, the Ninth Circuit commented that in Solorio-Ruiz v. Sessions (9th Cir., 2018) 881 F.3d 733, the Ninth Circuit had held that carjacking was not a crime of violence under 8 U.S.C. § 1101(a)(43)(F), which referenced the definition of a crime of violence under 18 U.S.C. § 16. The question for the Ninth Circuit was whether this holding was bound by this finding in light of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling on the same issue in Stokeling v. United States (2019) 139 S. Ct. 544.
The Ninth Circuit decided that the Solorio-Ruiz and Stokeling rulings were irreconcilable, so the Ninth Circuit was not bound to follow Solorio-Ruiz.
Then the Ninth Circuit had to decide if it had to consequently follow Nieves-Medrano v Holder (9th Cir., 2010) 590 F.3d 1057, because Solorio-Ruiz overruled Nieves-Medrano. In other words, does Nieves-Medrano control again?
The Ninth Circuit ruled that it did not need to follow Nieves-Medrano for two reasons. First, it was because its basis, a case called United States v. Becerril-Lopez (9th Cir., 2008) 541 F.3d 881, 893, had itself been abrogated. Second, in Nieves-Medrano, the definition of a crime of violence was for a different federal statute and not 4B1.2(a), the one applicable to Baldon in this case.
So, finally, the Ninth Circuit just compared Penal Code § 215’s scope to that in U.S.S.G. § 4B1.2 and found it criminalized a broader range of conduct than 4B1.2, so it was not a crime of violence under this federal statute. Penal Code § 215 can include taking a car through fear of injury to property alone, without fear to injury to a person, whereas under the federal definition of a crime of violence, the fear is only for fear to injury to a person.
This meant Baldon’s case was remanded to the district court for further sentencing with less criminal history points.
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