top of page

Circuit Court Confirms U.S. Code Ambiguity

United States v. Lopez Court: US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, Docket: 19-50305, Opinion Date: May 21, 2021. Lopez, attempting to drive across the border in Otay Mesa, California, was referred to secondary inspection. The inspection of Lopez’s vehicle revealed packages containing methamphetamine. Lopez pleaded guilty under 21 U.S.C. 952 and 21 U.S.C. 960, triggering a mandatory minimum sentence of five years’ imprisonment. The 18 U.S.C. 3553(f) “safety valve” allows a district court to sentence a criminal defendant below the mandatory minimum sentence for certain drug offenses if the defendant meets the criteria in section 3553(f)(1)-(f)(5). A 2018 amendment, the First Step Act, focuses only on the defendant’s prior criminal history as determined under the Sentencing Guidelines and requires a defendant to prove that he does not have: (A) more than 4 criminal history points . . . (B) a prior 3-point offense . . . and (C) a prior 2-point violent offense.” Lopez’s only relevant conviction was for vandalism in 2008. Because of a probation violation, he served 13 months of imprisonment, so that conviction constituted a “3-point offense” under U.S.S.G. 4A1.1(a) The district court concluded that section 3553(f)(1)’s “and” is ambiguous and invoked the rule of lenity to reach a conjunctive interpretation, then sentenced Lopez to four years of imprisonment. The Ninth Circuit affirmed, finding 3553(f)(1)’s “and” unambiguously conjunctive.

10 views0 comments
bottom of page