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United States of America v. Jeremias Robertson
Case Number: 18-2165
Judge: Paul Joseph Kelly Jr.
Court: UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS
FOR THE TENTH CIRCUIT
On appeal from The United States District Court for the District of New Mexico - Albuquerque
Plaintiff's Attorney: Howard R. Thomas, Assistant United States Attorney (and John C. Anderson, United
States Attorney, with him on the brief)
Denver, CO - Criminal defense lawyer represented defendant with a possession of a firearm and ammunition by a felon charge.
The district court held an evidentiary hearing. In August 2017, Albuquerque
Police Department officer Steven Arias responded to a 911 call reporting a man walking
through the downtown part of the city “pulling out a gun” and “pointing it at people.”
Aplee. Br. at 1 (citing V R. Ex. W). Mr. Robertson, who matched the description given
by the 911 caller, was walking in the area when the officer arrived. Id. at 2. Mr.
The district court based the sentence upon an offense level of 27. In addition to the
enhancements, the district court applied a three-level reduction for acceptance of
responsibility and reduced his criminal history category to category IV. The guideline
range for a person in category IV, level 27 who was convicted of this crime is 100–120
months’ imprisonment (the upper bound of the range is capped at 120 months, the
statutory maximum for the crime).
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Robertson crossed First Street and headed northeast through a dirt parking lot. Aplt. Br.
at 5. Officer Arias stopped his police vehicle at the north end of First Street. Id.
Spotting Mr. Robertson, Officer Arias accelerated toward him. Id. Mr. Robertson
quickened his pace, crossed to the sidewalk on the east side of First Street, and passed out
of Officer Arias’s line of sight behind a tow truck. IV R. 21–22. Officer Arias stopped
his vehicle next to the tow truck and exited. Id. The officer testified that based on the
description on the 911 call and Mr. Robertson’s proximity to the area, he believed there
was a high likelihood that an object in Mr. Robertson’s right hand was a gun. Id. at 23.
Officer Arias rounded the tow truck and spotted Mr. Robertson, who continued to
move through the parking lot while partially obscured by cars. Id. 23:24–24:1. Officer
Arias crouched behind a car for cover and twice shouted “show me your hands.” Id. at
24:22; see Aplt. Br. at 6. According to Officer Arias, Mr. Robertson then “kind of turned
to the west looking over his left shoulder with a small caliber handgun in his right hand,
and he pointed it at [Officer Arias].” IV R. 23:1–11; Aplt. Br. at 3. Officer Arias then
took cover behind a sedan. IV R. 23:20–24:3.
When Officer Arias looked back, Mr. Robertson was again “moving at a brisk
pace” toward the northeast. Aplt. Br. at 4. Officer Arias testified that he repeated his
commands and Mr. Robertson responded by saying something to the effect of “I didn’t
do anything wrong,” and “don’t shoot me.” Id. 56:1–13. Officer Arias testified that Mr.
Robertson then again pointed a gun at him over his shoulder, and the officer identified it
as a gun “because of the barrel.” Id. at 25:9–13. Fearing that Mr. Robertson might shoot,
Officer Arias fired a single round from his service rifle toward Mr. Robertson’s chest. Id.
Appellate Case: 18-2165 Document: 010110283856 Date Filed: 01/06/2020 Page: 3
at 14–17. The bullet entered Mr. Robertson’s chest under his left armpit and
incapacitated him. Id. at 20–24. A handgun was later recovered near where Mr.
Robertson fell to the ground. Aplt. Br. at 7.
The district court also heard testimony from Johnny Pinson, a bystander. Mr.
Pinson testified that he saw Mr. Robertson cross First Street before Officer Arias arrived.
IV R. 123:20–24. According to Mr. Pinson, Mr. Robertson appeared to be listening to
music at the time and did not have a gun in his hand. Id. at 123:2–10. Mr. Pinson also
testified that he did not see a gun in Mr. Robertson’s hands when he turned in response to
Officer Arias’s commands. Id. at 123:13–15. However, he later testified that “wouldn’t
have seen” whether Mr. Robertson had a gun in his right hand. Id. at 135:8–9.
Mr. Robertson also presented evidence of Officer Arias’s troubled disciplinary
record and his “proclivity for violent confrontation.” Aplt. Br. at 8. Officer Arias was
removed from a Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) team because he fired three “bean
bag” shots at a man’s head. Id. He was also given a 32-hour suspension and a letter of
reprimand for that incident. Id. Officer Arias received a verbal reprimand for improper
use of force after he pointed his firearm at a man who had reported domestic violence
involving his neighbor. Id. at 8–9. He was suspended for 40 hours and sent to anger
management counseling for assaulting a police lieutenant. Id. at 9.
The court acknowledged that it “had serious questions” about Officer Arias
because of his disciplinary history. IV R. 161:23. Nevertheless, it found his testimony
“supported in this case.” Id. at 161:24. The court also stated the following: “I’m a little
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surprised that I didn’t hear from the main player who would tell us that ‘no, I did not
point a gun at Officer Arias.’ I didn’t hear that testimony.” Id. at 161:25–162:2.
Counsel stated Mr. Robertson’s position that he never pointed a gun at Officer
Arias. Id. at 162:3–10. The district court then said: “But he ha[s]n’t testified to that
under oath . . . And I’ve heard other testimony under oath that is not countered by that.”
Id. The district court explained that Mr. Pinson, while an “honest person,” had given
testimony that did “not fit what was shown on the video” evidence. Id. at 163. The
district court ultimately found that “testimony under oath, uncontradicted by direct
testimony to the contrary,” supported a finding that Mr. Robertson had twice pointed the
gun at Officer Arias. Id. at 166.
This court reviews a district court’s factual findings at sentencing for clear error
and its legal conclusions de novo. United States v. Lozano, 921 F.3d 942, 946 (10th Cir.
2019). Factual findings are clearly erroneous if they are without factual support in the
record or if the court is left with a definite and firm conviction that a mistake has been
made. Id. We view the evidence in the light most favorable to the government. Id.
Mr. Robertson urges a higher standard of proof. The district court found—over
Mr. Robertson’s objection—that he pointed a gun at a law enforcement officer. This
resulted in an increase of 10 levels, which more than doubled the initial guidelines range
from 46–57 months to 120 months (the statutory maximum). Aplt. Br. at 24. Because
this disputed fact had a disproportionate effect on his sentence, Mr. Robertson contends
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that due process requires the government to prove it by clear and convincing evidence
rather than by a preponderance of the evidence. Id. at 22 (citing United States v. Ray,
704 F.3d 1307, 1314 (10th Cir. 2013)).
Generally, factual findings at the sentencing stage must be supported by a
preponderance of the evidence. United States v. Olsen, 519 F.3d 1096, 1104 (10th Cir.
2008). The Supreme Court has not yet held that due process requires a heightened
standard when a contested fact significantly changes the guidelines range of the sentence.
Five circuits have rejected that argument. See United States v. Villareal-Amarillas, 562
F.3d 892, 894–98 (8th Cir. 2009); United States v. Grubbs, 585 F.3d 793, 800–03 (4th
Cir. 2009); United States v. Fisher, 502 F.3d 293, 295–308 (3d Cir. 2007); United States
v. Brika, 487 F.3d 450, 461–62 (6th Cir. 2007); United States v. Reuter, 463 F.3d 792,
792–93 (7th Cir. 2006). Mr. Robertson points to a test adopted by the Ninth Circuit to
determine whether a fact must be proven by heightened standard at sentencing. Aplt. Br.
at 22; see United States v. Hymas, 780 F.3d 1285, 1290 (9th Cir. 2015). The Ninth
Circuit is the only circuit to adopt such a standard.
The Supreme Court has not adopted a heightened standard of proof at sentencing
for contested facts, thus we hold that the correct standard of proof in this case was a
preponderance of the evidence. This issue has been foreclosed in this Circuit. See
United States v. Constantine, 263 F.3d 1122, 1125 n.2 (10th Cir. 2001) (“The Supreme
Court has left the choice of standard to the discretion of the courts of appeals . . . and
within the Tenth Circuit[,] the arguments for higher standards are ‘foreclosed by binding
precedent.’” (quoting United States v. Valdez, 225 F.3d 1137, 1143 n.2 (10th Cir. 2000));
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United States v. Washington, 11 F.3d 1510, 1516 (10th Cir. 1993) (“We have clear
holdings that the preponderance standard applies to fact finding in the sentencing process.
. . . At least as concerns making guideline calculations the issue of a higher than a
preponderance standard is foreclosed in this circuit.”).2
Mr. Robertson next contends that the district court’s factual finding that he
assaulted Officer Arias in a manner creating a substantial risk of bodily injury was
improper “[u]nder any standard of proof.” Aplt. Br. at 26. We review a district court’s
factual findings for clear error; because we decline to adopt a heightened standard for the
fact at issue in this case, we look for clear error in the findings that the judge made by a
preponderance of the evidence. See Lozano, 921 F.3d at 946.
Mr. Robertson argues essentially that the district court erred when it credited
Officer Arias’s testimony that Mr. Robertson simultaneously pointed a handgun at him
and pleaded not to be shot. See Aplt. Br. at 26–31. The district court heard and
considered a variety of claims about that moment and assessed the credibility of the
officer under direct and cross-examination. Because the district court is in the best
position to observe witnesses, “[t]his court is loath to second-guess a district court’s
determination of a witness’s credibility.” United States v. Asch, 207 F.3d 1238, 1243
(10th Cir. 2000). The fact that the district court “had serious questions” about Officer
2 We note that in Ray, we stated that we have “left open the possibility” that an
exceptional case might exist where a heightened standard is proper. 704 F.3d at 1314.
However, our caselaw predating Ray is clear that the issue was already settled and one
panel cannot overrule another. See United States v. Holcomb, 853 F.3d 1098, 1100 (10th
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Arias’s background but nonetheless decided that “his testimony is supported in this case”
shows that it engaged in exactly the kind of on-the-ground balancing and demeanor
judgments for which district courts administering hearings are particularly well-suited.
See IV R. 161:23–24. The district court’s findings by a preponderance thus have support
in the record and were not in clear error.
Mr. Robertson’s final argument is that the district court drew a negative inference
from his decision not to testify at the sentencing hearing. Aplt. Br. at 31. Mr. Robertson
argues that United States v. Mitchell, 526 U.S. 314 (1999) establishes that it is reversible
error for a sentencing judge to “draw an adverse inference from the accused’s silence at
sentencing.” Aplt. Br. at 32. At sentencing, the court made the following remark:
THE COURT: I have some serious questions about [Officer Arias], frankly.
But I think his testimony is supported in this case. I’m a little surprised that
I didn’t hear from the main player who would tell us that, “No, I did not
point a gun at Officer Arias.” I didn’t hear that testimony.
IV R. 161:23–162:2. Mr. Robertson argues that this comment shows a violation of his
Fifth Amendment right to remain silent and to due process. Aplt. Br. at 31.
Mr. Robertson contends that he sufficiently objected at sentencing by reminding
the court that Mr. Robertson did not have to testify to challenge the application of
enhancements because other testimony contradicted Officer Arias’s version of events,
and that any further objection would have been futile. Aplt. Reply Br. at 22; see IV R.
162:11–14. We disagree that counsel’s objection was sufficient. Because Mr. Robertson
raises this specific issue for the first time on appeal, we review the district court’s
statement for plain error. See United States v. Garcia-Caraveo, 586 F.3d 1230, 1232
Appellate Case: 18-2165 Document: 010110283856 Date Filed: 01/06/2020 Page: 8
(10th Cir. 2009). Plain error is (1) error, (2) that is plain, (3) which affects Mr.
Robertson’s substantial rights, and (4) which seriously affects the “fairness, integrity, or
public reputation of judicial proceedings.” Id. (quoting United States v. Romero, 491
F.3d 1173, 1178 (10th Cir. 2007)). The error must be “clear or obvious.” United States
v. Pablo, 696 F.3d 1280, 1290 (10th Cir. 2012). It is a high standard for the appellant.
Garcia-Caraveo, 586 F.3d at 1232.
The district court’s comments in this case are ambiguous. Had the district court
said it was basing the sentence on Mr. Robertson’s silence, the district court would have
committed error. The district court expressed “surprise” that it had not heard from Mr.
Robertson, which could mean that the court was relying upon his failure to take the stand.
But the statement also could be taken at face value. The court’s statement that Officer
Arias’s testimony “was uncontradicted by direct testimony to the contrary” was merely
an observation that after discounting Johnny Pinson’s testimony, see IV R. 135:4–16,
157:18–158:6, the only remaining testimony on the issue was that Mr. Robertson pointed
the gun at Officer Arias. Given the ambiguity in the court’s statements, if there was
error, it was not “clear or obvious” and would not satisfy the second element of the plain
error test. See United States v. Fonseca, 744 F.3d 674, 684 (10th Cir. 2014) (concluding
that ambiguity in the district court’s ruling was not “plainly or obviously improper”); see
also United States v. Draffin, 286 F.3d 606, 610 (D.C. Cir. 2002).