Remanding for resentencing, the Ninth Circuit held Thursday that it isn’t self-evident that possessing a firearm emboldens a defendant to commit a felony and thus subjects them to a sentencing enhancement.
The case arises from the arrest of Manuel Grimaldo, on whom police officers found nearly a quarter-pound of methamphetamine and an inoperable pistol in 2016. Grimaldo was found guilty of simple possession of methamphetamine and pled guilty for felon-in-possession of a firearm.
The district court sentenced Grimaldo to 120 months in prison, after adopting a four-level sentencing enhancement for possession of a weapon in connection with another felony. Grimaldo appealed the decision under 18 U.S.C. § 3742.
Holding that Grimaldo should be resentenced, a three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit found that the district court plainly erred by failing to determine whether Grimaldo used the pistol “in futherance” of his methamphetamine possession. It is “not self-evident that possessing a firearm emboldens a person to seek more narcotics,” the panel held.
“As Grimaldo assures us, for emboldening drug possession, addiction alone may suffice,” Judge Kenneth Lee wrote for the panel. “The district court needed to make factual findings connecting Grimaldo’s possession of a firearm with his likelihood of owning illegal narcotics.”
Absent such a finding, the court reasoned, a defendant found with a firearm could face a sentencing enhancement “for virtually any felony because a firearm theoretically may embolden him or her to commit a crime.”
But in imposing sentencing enhancements “we cannot be swayed by speculation or convinced by conjecture,” Lee alliteratively asserted.
The court vacated Grimaldo’s 120-month sentence and remanded for resentencing.
Devin Burstein, who represented Grimaldo, said in an email that he agrees with the Ninth Circuit’s decision.
“As the Court of Appeals explained, the government did not meet its burden to support the gun enhancement,” Burstein said. “We are hopeful Mr. Grimaldo will receive a mitigated sentence on remand.”
The U.S. Department of Justice could not be immediately reached for comment on the ruling.
The case is U.S. v. Grimaldo, case number 19-50151, in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.
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