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United States v. Mercado-Flores

United States Court of Appeals, First Circuit

September 22, 2017

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Appellant,
v.
JORGE MERCADO-FLORES, Defendant, Appellee.

         APPEAL FROM THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF PUERTO RICO [Hon. Gustavo A. Gelpí, Jr., U.S. District Judge]

          John P. Taddei, Attorney, Appellate Section, Criminal Division, United States Department of Justice, with whom Leslie R. Caldwell, Assistant Attorney General, Sung-Hee Suh, Deputy Assistant Attorney General, Rosa E. Rodríguez-Vélez, United States Attorney, and Nelson J. Pérez-Sosa, Assistant United States Attorney, were on brief, for appellant.

          Lisa Aidlin for appellee.

          Before Howard, Chief Judge, Selya and Lipez, Circuit Judges.

          SELYA, CIRCUIT JUDGE.

         A district court has broad authority over the sentencing phase of a criminal case. But once a sentence is imposed and a final judgment of conviction enters, that authority terminates save only for a few narrowly circumscribed exceptions. Here, the district court, after imposing a sentence and entering final judgment, attempted to undo its handiwork. The government appeals. Concluding that the district court lacked jurisdiction to revisit the sentence, we vacate the order appealed from and direct that the sentence be reinstated.

         I. BACKGROUND

         The facts giving rise to the arrest and conviction of defendant-appellee Jorge Mercado-Flores are uncontroversial. In 2013, the defendant (then twenty-eight years of age) drove a fourteen-year-old girl to a beach in Puerto Rico for the purpose of engaging in sexual intercourse. After the defendant was caught red-handed, federal authorities charged him under 18 U.S.C. § 2423(a), which criminalizes the transportation of a minor within a United States "commonwealth, territory or possession" with the intent to engage in criminal sexual activity. This statute carries a ten-year mandatory minimum sentence. See 18 U.S.C. § 2423(a).

         The defendant resisted the indictment. Facing the prospect of a steep mandatory minimum sentence, he pursued negotiations with the government. As a result, the parties entered into a plea agreement, which contemplated that the government would dismiss the original indictment in exchange for the defendant's guilty plea to a one-count information charging him with violating 18 U.S.C. § 2421(a). This statute, which carries no mandatory minimum sentence, criminalizes the transportation of an individual "in interstate or foreign commerce, or in any Territory or Possession of the United States, " intending for that individual to "engage in . . . any sexual activity for which any person can be charged with a criminal offense." Id. In Puerto Rico, it is a criminal offense to engage in sexual intercourse with a person under the age of 16. See P.R. Laws Ann. tit. 33, § 4770(a).

         In due course, the government filed the information, and the district court accepted the defendant's guilty plea. On May 11, 2015, the court sentenced the defendant to a 57-month term of immurement and dismissed the original indictment. The court promptly entered a judgment of conviction.[1]

         After the imposition of the sentence, the district court voiced a concern that 18 U.S.C. § 2421 might not apply in Puerto Rico because Puerto Rico is not a "Territory or Possession of the United States." The court added that it would reserve judgment on this "jurisdictional matter." If Puerto Rico is not a "Territory or Possession of the United States" within the purview of 18 U.S.C. § 2421(a), the court reasoned, the indictment would be nugatory and the court would have no jurisdiction over the case. The court went on to say that it would issue an opinion "as to whether the statute applies or not" within 30 days. It is luminously clear that the court was acting sua sponte: neither the government nor the defendant challenged the sentence or moved to vitiate the guilty plea.

         On June 4, 2015 - twenty-four days after imposition of the sentence - the district court filed a rescript concluding that Puerto Rico is not a "Territory or Possession of the United States" but, rather, enjoys sui generis status as a commonwealth. As such, the court opined, section 2421(a) "does not apply to a purely intrastate criminal act committed within the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico." Continuing to act sua sponte, the court vacated the sentence and dismissed the case. When the government moved for reconsideration, the district court held firm and issued two supplementary opinions reiterating its interpretation of 18 U.S.C. § 2421(a).[2]

         The government responded in two ways. First, it re-indicted the defendant under 18 U.S.C. § 2423(a), a statute that, by its terms, is not susceptible to the jurisdictional lacuna that troubled the district court. Section 2423(a), unlike section 2421(a), criminalizes the transportation of a minor with the intent to engage in criminal sexual activity "in any commonwealth, territory or possession of the United States." 18 U.S.C. § 2423(a) (emphasis supplied). Second, the government filed a timely notice of appeal challenging the district court's vacation of the earlier sentence. That appeal is presently before us, and the case arising from the re-indictment has been stayed pending its disposition. Whether the new indictment is barred on double jeopardy grounds is a serious question, see Ricketts v. Adamson, 483 U.S. 1, 8 (1987) ("We may assume that jeopardy attached at least when respondent was sentenced . . . on his plea of guilty . . . ."); see also United States v. Vinyard, 539 F.3d 589, 592 (7th Cir. 2008) (explaining that "jeopardy attached in [the defendant's] first proceeding once the court pronounced its sentence"), which is not before us.

         II. ...


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