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United States v. Under Seal

United States Court of Appeals, Fourth Circuit

March 30, 2016

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Plaintiff - Appellant,
v.
UNDER SEAL, Defendant - Appellee

         Argued December 8, 2015.

          Appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, at Alexandria. Gerald Bruce Lee, District Judge. (1:14-cr-00347-1).

         ARGUED:

         Julia K. Martinez, OFFICE OF THE UNITED STATES ATTORNEY, Alexandria, Virginia, for Appellant.

         Keva Jeannette McDonald, THE LAW OFFICE OF KEVA J. MCDONALD, Fairfax, Virginia, for Appellee.

         ON BRIEF:

         Dana J. Boente, United States Attorney, Stephen M. Campbell, Tobias D. Tobler, Assistant United States Attorneys, OFFICE OF THE UNITED STATES ATTORNEY, Alexandria, Virginia, for Appellant.

         Frank Salvato, SALVATO LAW, Alexandria, Virginia, for Appellee.

         Before AGEE and HARRIS, Circuit Judges, and Theodore D. CHUANG, United States District Judge for the District of Maryland, sitting by designation. Judge Agee wrote the opinion, in which Judge Harris and Judge Chuang joined.

          OPINION

         AGEE, Circuit Judge:

         Pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 5032, the Government filed a motion to transfer the Defendant -- who was a juvenile at the time of the alleged offense -- for prosecution as an adult for murder in aid of racketeering, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1959(a)(1).[1] This crime carries a mandatory statutory penalty of either death or life imprisonment. The district court denied the Government's motion after concluding that the prosecution would be unconstitutional given that recent Supreme Court decisions have held that the United States Constitution prohibits sentencing juvenile offenders to either of these punishments. See Miller v. Alabama, 132 S.Ct. 2455, 183 L.Ed.2d 407 (2012) (mandatory life imprisonment); Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551, 125 S.Ct. 1183, 161 L.Ed.2d 1');">161 L.Ed.2d 1 (2005) (death penalty).

         The Government appeals the district court's decision, contending that its transfer motion should have been granted because the Defendant could have been sentenced to a term of years up to a discretionary life sentence. For the reasons set forth below, we affirm the district court's decision.

         I.

         A.

         Although the constitutionality of the juvenile transfer provisions are not at issue in this case, they form the backdrop for our discussion. The Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (" the Act" ), 18 U.S.C. § 5031 et seq., was adopted to " remove juveniles from the ordinary criminal process in order to avoid the stigma of a prior criminal conviction and to encourage treatment and rehabilitation." United States v. Robinson, 404 F.3d 850, 858 (4th Cir. 2005).[2] The Act establishes procedures for handling criminal charges brought against juveniles in federal court. United States v. Juvenile Male, 554 F.3d 456, 459 (4th Cir. 2009). To initiate a proceeding under the Act, the Government files a delinquency information rather than a criminal indictment. Id. at 460.

          In relevant part, the Act permits juveniles 15 years or older to be transferred from juvenile status for prosecution as an adult if they are alleged to have committed certain violent crimes, including murder. 18 U.S.C. § 5032. The district court has authority to grant the transfer to adult status if, after a hearing, it finds by a preponderance of the evidence that " transfer would be in the interest of justice." Id. The statute delineates six factors for the court to consider in this inquiry, including the age and social background of the juvenile, the nature of the alleged offense, and the juvenile's prior delinquency record. Id.[3]

         B.

         When he was a few months shy of his eighteenth birthday, the Defendant allegedly participated in a gang-related murder. The Government filed a delinquency information and certification against the Defendant pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 5032 and simultaneously moved to transfer him for prosecution as an adult for murder in aid of racketeering, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1959(a)(1).

         The Defendant opposed the motion, arguing that transfer would be unconstitutional given the Supreme Court's decisions holding that juvenile offenders could not be sentenced to either death or mandatory life imprisonment, which are the only penalties authorized in § 1959(a)(1) for murder in aid of racketeering. Separately, he also contested whether transfer was in the " interest of justice" under the § 5032 factors.

         The district court concluded that although the interest-of-justice factors supported transfer, it would be unconstitutional to grant the Government's motion. This was so, it explained, because district courts do not have discretion to sentence a defendant to less than the statutory mandatory minimum penalty, which, for violating § 1959(a)(1), is life imprisonment. It recognized that under the Supreme Court's decision in Miller v. Alabama, 132 S.Ct. 2455, 183 L.Ed.2d 407 (2012), imposing a mandatory life sentence on a juvenile, like the Defendant, is constitutionally prohibited. The district court further observed that no authority permitted it to impose a sentence lower than the mandatory minimum provided by the statute. In so doing, it rejected the Government's argument that § 1959(a)(1) could be excised to permit a sentence of a term of years for a juvenile offender.

         The Government noted a timely appeal, and we have jurisdiction to consider this interlocutory appeal under the collateral order doctrine. See United States v. Smith, 851 F.2d 706, 708 (4th Cir. 1988); see also United States v. Leon, 132 F.3d 583, 588-89 (10th Cir. 1997).

         II.

         A.

         The parties agree that the Supreme Court's recent decisions prohibit a straight-forward transfer, prosecution, and sentencing of a juvenile under the terms of the federal murder in aid of racketeering statute. This is so because over the past eleven years the Supreme Court has issued several decisions affecting the constitutional boundaries of sentences imposed on offenders who were juveniles when their crimes were committed. Montgomery, 577 U.S. __, 136 S.Ct. 718, 725, 193 L.Ed.2d 599.

         In Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551, 125 S.Ct. 1183, 161 L.Ed.2d 1 (2005), the Supreme Court held that the Constitution's guarantee against cruel and unusual punishment prohibited juvenile offenders from being sentenced to death. Id. at 578 (" The Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments forbid imposition of the death penalty on offenders who were under the age of 18 when their crimes were committed." ). In Graham v. Florida, 560 U.S. 48, 130 S.Ct. 2011, 176 L.Ed.2d 825 (2010), the Supreme Court held that the Constitution also prohibits juvenile offenders convicted of nonhomicide offenses from being sentenced to life imprisonment without parole. Id. at 82.[4] The Supreme Court concluded in Miller that the Constitution prohibits juvenile offenders who commit murder from being sentenced to mandatory life without parole. 132 S.Ct. at 2460. And, most recently, in Montgomery v. Louisiana, 577 U.S. __, 136 S.Ct. 718, 193 L.Ed.2d 599 (2016), the Supreme Court clarified that Miller contained both a substantive and procedural component:

Because Miller determined that sentencing a child to life without parole is excessive for all but the rare juvenile offender whose crime reflects irreparable corruption, it rendered life without parole an unconstitutional penalty for a class of defendants because of their status--that is, juvenile offenders whose crimes reflect the transient immaturity of youth.
. . . . Miller, it is true, did not bar a punishment for all juvenile offenders, as the Court did in Roper[, but it] did bar life without parole . . . for all but the rarest of juvenile offenders[.]
To be sure, Miller's holding [also] has a procedural component. Miller requires a sentence to consider a juvenile offender's youth and attendant characteristics before determining that life without parole is a proportionate sentence. . . .

577 U.S. __, 136 S.Ct. 718, 734, 193 L.Ed.2d 599.

         It is in the context of the foregoing decisions that we examine the statute under which the Government seeks to prosecute the Defendant: murder in aid of racketeering. This offense is included in the federal violent crimes in aid of racketeering activity statute, which provides, in relevant part:

(a) Whoever, as consideration for the receipt of, or as consideration for a promise or agreement to pay, anything of pecuniary value from an enterprise engaged in racketeering activity, or for the purpose of gaining entrance to or maintaining or increasing position in an enterprise engaged in racketeering activity, murders, kidnaps, maims, assaults with a dangerous weapon, commits assault resulting in serious bodily injury upon, or threatens to commit a crime of violence against any individual in violation of the laws of any State or the United States, or attempts or conspires so to do, shall be punished--
(1) for murder, by death or life imprisonment, or a fine under this title, or both; and for kidnapping, by imprisonment for any term of years or for life, or a ...

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