Thursday, July 26, 2012

Is possession with intent to distribute a “substantial step” towards committing a crime, thereby establishing federal venue?

On July 16, 2012, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in United States v. Pariseau that possession with intent to distribute qualifies as a substantial step towards the commission of a crime; therefore, it established federal venue in the district where the crime began.

Two cases from other circuits have addressed this issue directly: United States v. Muhammad, 502 F.3d 646 (7th Cir. 2007) and United States v. Zidell, 323 F.3d 412 (6th Cir. 2003). Both cases affirmed venue on the principle that possession with intent to distribute is a continuing crime, and venue is proper wherever the crime began, continued or was completed. 18 U.S.C. § 3237(a).

It was held in United States v. Scott, 767 F.2d 1308, 1312 (9th Cir. 1985) that prior conduct may “be of such a nature that a reasonable observer, viewing it in context, could conclude beyond a reasonable doubt that it was undertaken in accordance with a design to violate the underlying statute.”

In United States v. Pariseau, the defendants’ girlfriend testified that he traveled from Alaska to Arizona to obtain the methamphetamine, and strapped the drugs to his legs with ACE bandages to avoid detection. Thus, it was held that the defendant’s prior conduct established sufficient substantial steps taken towards completing the offense.

The district court did not err in finding that venue was proper in Alaska because possession with intent to distribute methamphetamine is a continuing offense, and the defendant took substantial steps in Alaska in pursuit of that offense.

The judgment was affirmed.

United States v. Pariseau; 9th Cir; July 16, 2012; 10-30237

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

When do prior convictions become final for federal sentencing purposes?

On June 22, 2012, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in United States v. Suarez that upon successfully completing California’s deferred entry of judgment program, that conviction cannot be subsequently used in a later federal sentencing for a California drug charge.

As held in People v. Mazurette, 14 P.3d 277, 230 (Cal.2001), if a defendant successfully completes a rehabilitation program, the charges against him would be dismissed. This is done because it has been found that most nonviolent drug offenders could benefit much more from treatment and education than from jail and a criminal record. California’s deferred entry of judgment (“DEJ”) allows such an alternative, as it permits eligible defendants to be diverted out of the criminal court and into a drug rehabilitation program.

Here, the 9th Circuit held in that when a plea never ripens into a final judgment or a legally cognizable sentence, there is no “final” prior conviction for purposes of later drug charge sentencing. Thus, to apply a mandatory minimum sentence based on a previous drug conviction that was resolved via DEJ would be in error.

Suarez's conviction was affirmed, sentence vacated and remanded for resentencing in conformity with this opinion.

United States v. Suarez, 9th Cir; June 22, 2012; 10-10393