Please E-mail suggested additions, comments and/or corrections to Kent@MoreLaw.Com.
Help support the publication of case reports on MoreLaw
United States of America v. JOSEPH MALDONADO-PASSAGE, a/k/a Joseph Allen Maldonado, a/k/a Joseph Allen Schreibvogel, a/k/a Joe Exotic
Case Number: 20-6010
Judge: Gregory A. Phillips
Court: UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS
FOR THE TENTH CIRCUIT
Plaintiff's Attorney: Steven W. Creager, Assistant United States Attorney (Timothy J. Downing, United States Attorney; Amanda Green, Assistant United States Attorney, on the brief), Oklahoma City, Oklahoma
Denver, CO - Criminal defense lawyer represented defendant with twenty-one counts, most for wildlife crimes, but two for using interstate facilities in the commission of his murder-for-hire plots charges.
Joseph Maldonado-Passage goes by many names: The Tiger King, Joe Exotic,
and Joe Gone Wild to name a few—all a play on his owning and operating the
Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park (the Park) in Wynnewood, Oklahoma. The
Park housed several species of exotic animals, though Maldonado-Passage became
widely known for his big cats—lions and tigers and crossbred hybrids.
But with fame came scrutiny. Outspoken critics condemned his practices,
particularly his traveling road shows at which he charged mall patrons to take
photographs with young animals—usually tiger cubs. Carole Baskin was one of these
critics. Baskin is “known in the industry as an animal rights activist.” Appellant’s
App. vol. 3B at 235. She owns Big Cat Rescue, a facility in Tampa, Florida, which
she describes as a “sanctuary to about 60 exotic cats.” Id. at 50; R. vol. 3 at 417.
Because she believes that breeding big-cat hybrids is a “very cruel practice,”
Appellant’s App. vol. 3B at 57, and that it’s “abuse” to breed cubs to be
Appellate Case: 20-6010 Document: 010110548564 Date Filed: 07/14/2021 Page: 3
photographed for money, id. at 55, she began trying to discourage the malls along his
route from hosting Maldonado-Passage’s show. And when the shows went on, she
and her supporters protested them.
After learning of Baskin’s activities, Maldonado-Passage retaliated by
renaming his road shows “Big Cat Rescue Entertainment,” using similar lettering to
mimic Baskin’s “Big Cat Rescue.” Id. vol. 3A at 289; id. vol. 3B at 4, 66. After some
people confused her brand with his road shows, Baskin sued Maldonado-Passage and
obtained a $1 million judgment for copyright and trademark infringement. Then she
began trying to collect on it. Maldonado-Passage believed Baskin was trying to
drown him in lawsuits to drive him out of business. Due to his ever-growing legal
fees, he filed for bankruptcy.
Maldonado-Passage took to the internet to vent his anger with Baskin. He
readily admits that he posted “some pretty outrageous stuff” online. Id. vol. 3D at 39.
In one instance, he posted a picture of himself posing in a coffin with the caption, “I
bought my good friend in Florida a Christmas present.” Id. vol. 3B at 89–90. He also
posted a Facebook photo of a jar containing a shrunken head made to look like
Baskin’s. He even recorded a video in which he fired a gun at a “Carole blowup
doll.” Id. at 111–12. As he put it, his stunts were just about the money: “the more
viewers you have, the more money you raise.” Id. vol. 3D at 40. As Baskin put it, his
stunts showed that he was dangerously “obsessed” with her. Id. at 264.
But soon his threats weren’t just words on Facebook. In August 2017,
Maldonado-Passage took a fateful step and began plotting Baskin’s murder. He
Appellate Case: 20-6010 Document: 010110548564 Date Filed: 07/14/2021 Page: 4
enlisted one of his park employees, Alan Glover, to kill Baskin, promising to pay him
$5,000 up front and more money after the murder. Glover agreed, proposing to kill
her by “cut[ting] her head off,” though he testified that he never really intended on
going through with it. Id. vol. 3C at 31.
In November 2017, Maldonado-Passage arranged for Glover to travel to Texas
to get a fake ID so that Glover could book travel arrangements to Florida without
revealing his identity. Despite their initial agreement, Maldonado-Passage paid
Glover only $3,000 up front. Before Glover departed, Maldonado-Passage took
Glover’s phone and gave him a new one to use along the way. The new phone
contained pictures of Baskin so that Glover “wouldn’t kill the wrong person.” Id. at
Just a few days after getting his fake ID, Glover flew from Oklahoma to
Georgia under a false name and then drove to South Carolina. After a few weeks
there, he drove to Florida. He testified that he had planned on visiting Baskin to tell
her about Maldonado-Passage’s “serious” intentions to have her killed. Id. at 51. But
he got no further than partying on Florida beaches. Glover suspected that MaldonadoPassage knew he hadn’t committed the murder in light of his inaction and the lack of
news coverage of Baskin’s murder. Glover waited several months before returning to
Oklahoma, without so much as ever seeing Baskin.
Before Glover returned, Maldonado-Passage began communicating with a
friend, James, who introduced him to a man named Mark. Unbeknown to MaldonadoPassage, Mark was an undercover FBI agent. In December 2017, just one month after
Appellate Case: 20-6010 Document: 010110548564 Date Filed: 07/14/2021 Page: 5
Glover left for Florida, Maldonado-Passage and Mark discussed a plan to murder
Baskin. Days later, Maldonado-Passage offered to pay Mark a $5,000 down payment
for murdering Baskin and $5,000 more after the killing. At Mark’s request,
Maldonado-Passage agreed to get a pistol at a flea market to use for the murder. By
February 2018, Maldonado-Passage had told James that he believed Glover had
absconded with his money. And by March, Maldonado-Passage was still working on
getting the money to pay Mark. But despite all his efforts, Maldonado-Passage’s
murderous plans failed, and his actions culminated in his eventual arrest.
II. Procedural History
In November 2018, a federal grand jury indicted Maldonado-Passage in a
twenty-one-count indictment charging nineteen counts of wildlife crimes in violation
of the Endangered Species Act, 16 U.S.C. §§ 1531–1544, and the Lacey Act, 16
U.S.C. §§ 3371–3378, and, as relevant here, two counts of using interstate facilities
in the commission of a murder-for-hire plot, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1958(a)1 and
§ 2. Count 1 pertained to his use of interstate facilities to arrange for Glover to kill
1 This provision subjects to criminal liability anyone who causes another to
travel in interstate commerce, “or uses or causes another (including the intended
victim) to use the mail or any facility of interstate . . . commerce, with intent that a
murder be committed . . . as consideration for . . . anything of pecuniary value.” 18
U.S.C. § 1958(a).
Appellate Case: 20-6010 Document: 010110548564 Date Filed: 07/14/2021 Page: 6
Baskin; and Count 2, his use of interstate facilities to arrange for Mark to do the
The government listed Baskin as a trial witness, so Maldonado-Passage moved
to sequester her from the courtroom under Federal Rule of Evidence 615. In
response, the government argued that Baskin had a right to remain in the courtroom
as a crime victim under the Crime Victims’ Rights Act (CVRA), 18 U.S.C. § 3771.
The court allowed her to remain in the courtroom, rejecting Maldonado-Passage’s
argument that Baskin couldn’t qualify as a crime victim under the CVRA absent a
showing that she had suffered physical harm from his crimes.
In support of Count 1, the government offered evidence at trial of a November
7, 2017 phone call recording between Maldonado-Passage and James. During the
call, the men discussed how Glover had picked up a fake ID in Texas after
Maldonado-Passage had instructed him to conceal his identity while traveling to
Florida to murder Baskin. In addition, the government presented testimony that the
FBI had analyzed the contents of the cell phone that Maldonado-Passage had given to
Glover before he left, itself a facility of interstate commerce. The cell phone, which
Glover took with him to Florida, contained photos of Baskin to help Glover identify
her. And Glover testified that he received a cash down payment from MaldonadoPassage to kill Baskin after Maldonado-Passage sold one of his cubs.
Appellate Case: 20-6010 Document: 010110548564 Date Filed: 07/14/2021 Page: 7
In support of Count 2, the government played a recorded cell phone call2 from
December 5, 2017, in which Maldonado-Passage agreed to meet with James and
Mark to discuss killing Baskin. The government also played a recorded conversation
that took place when Maldonado-Passage, James, and Mark met up at the Park, in
which Maldonado-Passage suggested that he could get a clean pistol from a flea
market for Mark to commit the murder. Maldonado-Passage also suggested the best
place to do it—on the bike path that Baskin took to work. When Mark agreed to
commit the murder for $10,000, Maldonado-Passage said that he’d “get James the
money,” in part, by selling “a bunch of tigers.” Appellant’s App. vol. 3D at 183–84.
The jury convicted Maldonado-Passage on all counts. The district court
sentenced him to 264 months’ imprisonment, based on an advisory Guideline range
of 262 to 327 months. In doing so, the court adopted the recommendations in the
Presentence Investigation Report, including its recommendation against grouping the
two murder-for-hire convictions under § 3D1.2(b) of the Guidelines.
3 On that point,
the court reasoned that Maldonado-Passage had engaged in “two distinctly separate
courses of conduct devising two separate plots [for] murder.” R. vol. 3 at 1141. This
appeal followed, and we have jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1291.
2 The trial judge instructed the jury that the cell phone Maldonado-Passage was
using for this call was a “facility of interstate commerce” in itself. Appellant’s App.
vol. 1B at 51.
3 We agree with the parties that § 3D1.2(b) is the only applicable subsection.
Appellate Case: 20-6010 Document: 010110548564 Date Filed: 07/14/2021 Page: 8
I. Sequestering a Witness
“We review for abuse of discretion a district court’s sequestration decisions.”
U.S. ex rel. Bahrani v. ConAgra, Inc., 624 F.3d 1275, 1296 (10th Cir. 2010) (citation
omitted). But because a district court would “necessarily abuse its discretion if it
based its ruling on an erroneous view of the law,” “we review subsidiary legal
questions de novo.” Johnson v. Spencer, 950 F.3d 680, 701 (10th Cir. 2020)
Federal Rule of Evidence 615 includes this general rule: “At a party’s request,
the court must order witnesses excluded so that they cannot hear other witnesses’
testimony.” “But this rule does not authorize excluding . . . (d) a person authorized by
statute to be present.” Id. One such statute is the CVRA, which grants crime victims
“[t]he right not to be excluded from any such public court proceeding, unless the
court, after receiving clear and convincing evidence, determines that testimony by the
victim would be materially altered if the victim heard other testimony at that
proceeding.” 18 U.S.C. § 3771(a)(3). The CVRA defines a crime victim as “a person
directly and proximately harmed as a result of the commission of a Federal offense.”
Id. § 3771(e)(2)(A).
Whether Baskin qualifies as a crime victim under the CVRA depends on
whether Maldonado-Passage’s commission of the crimes “directly and proximately
harmed” her. Id. Maldonado-Passage urges us to interpret this as requiring physical
harm. And because “[i]t is undisputed that Baskin suffered no physical harm,” he
Appellate Case: 20-6010 Document: 010110548564 Date Filed: 07/14/2021 Page: 9
contends that she can’t qualify as a “victim” under the CVRA. Appellant’s Opening
Br. at 10. The district court disagreed; by allowing Baskin to remain in the
courtroom, the district court necessarily determined that physical harm isn’t a
prerequisite, since all agree that she suffered no physical harm. We conclude the
Beginning with the text, § 3771(e)(2)(A) doesn’t require physical harm. And
Maldonado-Passage can’t simply read that condition into the statute. We have
reasoned that “this mode of statutory interpretation—which effectively adds words to
the statute—is generally impermissible, and it is so here.” Exby-Stolley v. Bd. of
Cnty. Comm’rs, 979 F.3d 784, 810 (10th Cir. 2020) (citations omitted), cert. denied,
No. 20-1357, 2021 WL 2637869 (U.S. June 28, 2021).
What’s more, we haven’t required physical harm for a person to be a “victim”
under the Mandatory Victim Restitution Act (MVRA), 18 U.S.C. § 3663A. See, e.g.,
United States v. Gallant, 537 F.3d 1202, 1247–49 (10th Cir. 2008) (applying victim
status under the MVRA to a person who had incurred expenses because of
defendants’ crime). This matters because “[t]he definition of ‘victim’ in the [MVRA
and in the CVRA] . . . is virtually identical.” United States v. Speakman, 594 F.3d
1165, 1171 n.3 (10th Cir. 2010) (citations omitted).4 Accordingly, we hold that when
4 The MVRA defines “victim” as “a person directly and proximately harmed as
a result of the commission of an offense for which restitution may be ordered.” 18
U.S.C. § 3663A(a)(2).
Appellate Case: 20-6010 Document: 010110548564 Date Filed: 07/14/2021 Page: 10
a defendant’s commission of a crime results in emotional or pecuniary harm, the
harmed person qualifies as a crime victim under the CVRA.5
Here, Maldonado-Passage’s commission of the murder-for-hire crimes directly
and proximately caused Baskin’s harms. After learning of Maldonado-Passage’s
original plan to kill her, Baskin “stepped . . . up” her security precautions, which
already included carrying a firearm, installing security cameras at her home and
business, installing blinds, and hiring security for her events. Appellant’s App. vol.
3B at 92–93, 105–06. For a time, she even avoided going out in public. Later, she
started taking different routes to work, leaving at different times, to avoid being seen.
She testified that she “s[aw] every bystander as a potential threat” and never felt safe.
Id. vol. 3D at 263. In short, because Maldonado-Passage’s plan to have Baskin
murdered was both the but-for and proximate cause of these emotional and pecuniary
injuries, the district court acted within its discretion in allowing Baskin to stay in the
courtroom as a crime victim under the CVRA.
II. Grouping the Two Murder-for-Hire Counts of Conviction
Maldonado-Passage argues that the district court erred by not grouping Counts
1 and 2 as “closely related counts” under § 3D1.2(b) of the Guidelines. Had the
district court grouped the two counts, Maldonado-Passage’s total offense level would
have been 37. But not grouping the two counts led to an additional two offense
levels, for a total of 39. See U.S.S.G. § 3D1.4(a). This increased his advisory
5 Maldonado-Passage hasn’t contested that Baskin suffered emotional or
Appellate Case: 20-6010 Document: 010110548564 Date Filed: 07/14/2021 Page: 11
Guidelines range from 210 to 262 months to 262 to 327 months.6 We agree with
Maldonado-Passage that the district court should have grouped the two counts.
“[W]hen reviewing a district court’s application of the Sentencing Guidelines,
we review legal questions de novo and we review any factual findings for clear error,
giving due deference to the district court’s application of the guidelines to the facts.”
United States v. Wolfe, 435 F.3d 1289, 1295 (10th Cir. 2006) (citation omitted).
“Ultimately, our task in interpreting the Guidelines is to determine the intent of the
Sentencing Commission.” United States v. Thomas, 939 F.3d 1121, 1123 (10th Cir.
2019) (quoting United States v. Rivera-Oros, 590 F.3d 1123, 1129 (10th Cir. 2009)).
In doing so, we apply “traditional techniques of statutory construction.” Id. (citation
omitted). Generally, “we interpret a word or phrase in a statute or the guidelines in
accordance with its ordinary, everyday meaning.” Id. (citations omitted). And we
review de novo the district court’s interpretation of the Sentencing Guidelines.
United States v. Maltais, 961 F.2d 1485, 1486 (10th Cir. 1992) (first citing United
6 The Sentencing Commission was mindful that the grouping rules could in
unusual circumstances provide inadequate or excessive sentencing adjustments.
U.S.S.G. § 3D1.4 cmt. background. In this regard, it spoke to a district court’s
latitude to depart from the guideline range to reach the proper sentence. Id. In the
advisory-guideline regime post-United States v. Booker, 543 U.S. 220 (2005), courts
can vary from the applicable sentencing range in accordance with 18 U.S.C.
§ 3553(a). Thus, the grouping decision may be less important than it was during the
Appellate Case: 20-6010 Document: 010110548564 Date Filed: 07/14/2021 Page: 12
States v. Norman, 951 F.2d 1182, 1184 (10th Cir. 1991); then citing United States v.
Agbai, 930 F.2d 1447, 1448 (10th Cir. 1991)).
Under § 3D1.2(b) of the Guidelines, courts must group counts as involving
“substantially the same harm” if three conditions are met: (1) the counts involve the
same victim; (2) the counts involve two or more acts or transactions; and (3) the acts
or transactions are connected by a “common criminal objective.”8 The parties agree
that the first two conditions are met. Thus, the grouping decision depends on whether
the acts or transactions underlying the two murder-for-hire counts were connected by
a “common criminal objective”—making them “closely related counts.” U.S.S.G.
This decision is as straightforward as § 3D1.2(b)’s “common criminal
objective” language is plain. An object is “something sought to be attained or
accomplished; an end, goal, or purpose.” Object, Black’s Law Dictionary (11th ed.
7 Within the context of grouping decisions under § 3D1.2, some other circuits
have done the same. See, e.g., United States v. Vasquez, 389 F.3d 65, 77 (2d Cir.
2004) (applying de novo review in assessing “whether grouping of offenses involving
the same [victim] on different days [was] appropriate” under § 3D1.2); United States
v. Toler, 901 F.2d 399, 402 (4th Cir. 1990) (“Since this issue [of grouping under
§ 3D1.2] involves a legal interpretation of guidelines terminology and the application
of that terminology to a particular set of facts, we review de novo.” (citation
8 Section 3D1.2(b) also provides an alternate route to grouping when (1) the
counts involve the same victim; (2) the counts involve two or more acts or
transactions; and (3) the acts or transactions constitute part of a “common scheme or
plan.” Because we conclude that Maldonado-Passage’s two murder-for-hire counts
group as part of a “common criminal objective,” we do not consider whether the
underlying acts or transactions of the two counts constitute part of a “common
scheme or plan.” Id.
Appellate Case: 20-6010 Document: 010110548564 Date Filed: 07/14/2021 Page: 13
2019). “Criminal” is something “[o]f, relating to, or involving a crime.” Black’s Law
Dictionary, supra, Criminal. And “in common,” means “[s]hared equally.” Black’s
Law Dictionary, supra, In Common. Here, Maldonado-Passage hired two different
hitmen on two different occasions, though his “end, goal, or purpose,” was the same.
Thus, the acts or transactions of the two counts shared a common criminal
objective—Baskin’s murder. Otherwise stated, the charged uses of interstatecommerce facilities shared the same criminal objective. Accordingly, by the plain
text of § 3B1.2(b) itself, the district court erred by not grouping the two murder-forhire counts.
Section 3D1.2 also states that “[a]ll counts involving substantially the same
harm shall be grouped together into a single Group.” U.S.S.G. § 3D1.2. The
commentary explains that counts “represent[ing] essentially one composite harm to
the same victim are to be grouped.” Id. at cmt. n.4. At oral argument, the government
asserted an uncertain belief that Baskin knew about the second murder plot, trying to
establish that Baskin had experienced separate fear from each plot. But we see
nothing in the record to support such an assertion.
The Guidelines examples do not undermine the plain meaning of “common
criminal objective.” At oral argument, the government suggested that MaldonadoPassage’s murder-for-hire plots correspond to the rape and assault examples given in
the commentary to § 3D1.2(b) as improper for grouping. For instance, the
commentary provides that grouping is inappropriate if a defendant is convicted of
“two counts of assault on a federal officer for shooting at the officer on two separate
Appellate Case: 20-6010 Document: 010110548564 Date Filed: 07/14/2021 Page: 14
days” or if a defendant is convicted of “two counts of rape for raping the same person
on different days.” Id. § 3D1.2 cmt. nn.3–4. But these examples—involving two
separate instances of rape or assault to the same victim—differ from our situation.
Here, Baskin was neither murdered multiple times nor assaulted multiple times
during attempted murders. Her harm was one sustained, ongoing harm. She learned
that Maldonado-Passage intended to have her killed and lived with that fear. None of
the Application Note 4 examples, which specifically address § 3D1.2(b), speak to this
case’s situation—successive plans to achieve the same criminal end. See id. § 3D1.2
cmt. n.4. Unlike the robbery victim mentioned in Note 4, in which a defendant robs
the same victim on different occasions, Baskin did not sustain “multiple, separate
instances of fear and risk of harm.” Id. So the district court erred in finding that
Baskin had suffered individual harms—not a “composite harm”—from the two
murder plots. Id.; Appellant’s App. vol. 3D at 246.
Moreover, the district court didn’t specifically interpret the legal meaning of
the controlling § 3D1.2(b) text—that is, “connected by a common criminal
Appellate Case: 20-6010 Document: 010110548564 Date Filed: 07/14/2021 Page: 15
objective.”9 Instead, the court leaned on Application Note 4’s language that “counts
that are part of a single course of conduct with a single criminal objective and
represent essentially one composite harm to the same victim are to be grouped
together, even if they constitute legally distinct offenses occurring at different times.”
U.S.S.G. § 3D1.2 cmt. n.4 (emphasis added). Focusing on this language, the district
court sided with the government: “[W]hile I do agree it was a close call, I do not
believe that this was a single course of conduct as contemplated in the application
notes of Section 3D1.2(b).” Appellant’s App. vol. 3D at 247.
The district court reasoned that though a “broad, cursory view” of the two
murder-for-hire plots pointed to a common criminal objective of murdering Baskin,
the specific facts underlying the two plans diverged, making grouping inappropriate.
Id. at 246. The court further noted that though “generally speaking,” the two counts
involved a common criminal objective to have Baskin murdered, MaldonadoPassage’s acts related to “two distinctly separate courses of conduct devising two
9 The district court’s error in not interpreting and enforcing the plain text of
“common criminal objective” distinguishes this case from United States v. Patton,
927 F.3d 1087 (10th Cir. 2019). In that case, the district court did interpret the
Guidelines text at issue—“immediate flight,” as used in U.S.S.G. § 3A1.2(c)(1). Id.
at 1101–02. And we agreed with the district court’s interpretation of that term. Id. at
1102. After that, we gave due deference to the district court’s application of the
Guidelines, reviewing for clear error in view of the fact-intensive inquiry needed to
resolve “immediate flight.” Id. at 1102–03. Though we acknowledge that “the
standard of review for a mixed question all depends—on whether answering it entails
primarily legal or factual work,” U.S. Bank Nat’l Ass’n ex rel. CWCapital Asset
Mgmt. LLC v. Vill. at Lakeridge, LLC, 138 S. Ct. 960, 967 (2018), because the
district court here failed to engage in the proper legal analysis, we must address the
underlying legal question.
Appellate Case: 20-6010 Document: 010110548564 Date Filed: 07/14/2021 Page: 16
separate plots to murder the same victim.” Id. The court found separate courses of
conduct on grounds that the two counts involved separate hitmen, separate murder
plans, and separate timelines.10 Thus, the court focused on the means, not the ends, of
Baskin’s planned murder, not whether the acts underlying the two counts were
connected by a common criminal objective.
The district court’s approach conflicts with our precedent. In United States v.
Norman, James Norman anonymously called an airline to report that a man aboard its
flight was carrying a handgun and explosives. 951 F.2d at 1183. But before lawenforcement officers could respond, the airplane had landed, and its passengers
dispersed. Id. So two days later, Norman called the airline again, this time reporting
that the same man had boarded another of its flights carrying explosives. Id. Though
the man had not in fact boarded that flight, officers located him after he boarded
another flight and removed him from the airplane in handcuffs. Id. As it turned out,
Norman was lying to cause trouble for the man dating Norman’s ex-wife. Id. at
1183–84. Norman confessed to his crimes and pleaded guilty to two counts based on
the two calls. Id.
After the district court declined to group the two resulting counts for
threatening communications, this court reversed. Id. at 1186. We noted that though
10 The “single course of conduct” condition mentioned in Application Note 4
ties more naturally to § 3D1.2(b)’s second alternative—“constituting part of a
common scheme or plan,” than it does to that Guideline’s first alternative—
“connected by a common criminal objective.” After all, a defendant who fails to
achieve a criminal end may later try again with an unrelated course of conduct.
Appellate Case: 20-6010 Document: 010110548564 Date Filed: 07/14/2021 Page: 17
Norman had placed the two calls on separate days, his crimes were still “connected to
his criminal objective of bringing harm to [his ex-wife’s suitor].” Id. at 1185. We
concluded that “there was only one course of conduct (making false reports to [the
airline]), only one criminal objective (to harm [this man]), and only one composite
harm to one victim (subjecting [this man] to arrest).” Id. at 1186. The similarities in
Norman to Maldonado-Passage’s case are obvious.
In the district court, the parties didn’t raise Norman. Unsurprisingly then, the
court didn’t include Norman in its oral ruling declining to group the two counts. But
on appeal, Maldonado-Passage raised Norman and relied primarily on that case at
oral argument to support grouping. The government responded by trying to
distinguish the case. In doing so, the government pointed out that in Norman, this
court had to analyze the facts in the first instance because the district court had
applied an inappropriate substantive-offense guideline. In other words, the
government argued that unlike in the present case, the district court in Norman had
not found the operative facts, meaning that this court had no fact findings requiring
deference. But this gives the government no lifeline; in Norman and in this case, the
underlying facts of the crime were undisputed.
Despite this, the government maintains that we should defer to what it
describes as the district court’s factual findings. The government argues that the
district court determined as a fact that Maldonado-Passage had engaged in two
distinctly separate “courses of conduct,” which it contends is a question best left to
the district courts on institutional grounds. Appellant’s App. vol. 3D at 246.
Appellate Case: 20-6010 Document: 010110548564 Date Filed: 07/14/2021 Page: 18
For support, the government relies on United States v. Garcia, 946 F.3d 1191
(10th Cir. 2020). In Garcia, this court considered U.S.S.G. § 1B1.3(a)(2) which
instructs that for “‘offenses of a character for which [Guidelines] § 3D1.2(d) would
require grouping of multiple counts,’ relevant conduct includes ‘all acts or
omissions . . . that were part of the same course of conduct . . . as the offense of
conviction.’” Id. at 1202–03 (alterations and ellipses in original) (citing U.S.S.G.
§ 1B1.3(a)(2)). We determined that under that provision, the same-course-of-conduct
standard was a fact question, reviewed for clear error. Id. at 1203 (citations omitted).
On this point, the government argues that we too must apply deference to the district
court’s factual determination that Maldonado-Passage’s conduct amounted to two
separate “courses of conduct.”
Though “course of conduct” raises a fact question in the context of “relevant
conduct” for sentencing under § 1B1.3(a)(2), see, e.g., id. at 1202–03 (citations
omitted), we conclude for a variety of reasons that § 3D1.2(b) presents a different
First, as previously mentioned, § 3D1.2(b)’s text—not its commentary—
controls. And that language requires that the acts underlying the two counts be
connected by a “common criminal objective.” The application note’s use of “same
course of conduct” must yield to the Guidelines’ “common criminal objective”
language—not the other way around. Though the text of § 1B1.3(a)(2) itself includes
the term “course of conduct,” § 3D1.2(b) does not.
Appellate Case: 20-6010 Document: 010110548564 Date Filed: 07/14/2021 Page: 19
Second, even in a § 1B1.3(a)(2) case (i.e., Garcia), a court can’t ignore that
subsection’s underlying framework—which in measuring “course of conduct”
requires consideration of the “degree of similarity of the offenses, the regularity
(repetitions) of the offenses, and the time interval between the offenses.” U.S.S.G.
§ 1B1.3 cmt. n.5(B)(ii). A legal error in misconstruing that framework would not be a
Third, even assuming that § 1B1.3(a)(2)’s “course of conduct” meaning
transports to § 3D1.2(b), a question we do not decide, the district court here didn’t
apply § 1B1.3(a)(2)’s course-of-conduct factors or explain how they might result in
Maldonado-Passage’s two murder-for-hire counts not being part of the same course
of conduct. And in reviewing § 1B1.3(a)(2)’s three factors, we note that MaldonadoPassage’s two counts meet those factors—his two murder-for-hire plots were similar,
regular, and almost contemporaneous. See id.
Fourth, the purpose of the “course of conduct” language in § 3D1.2(b) differs
from that of § 1B1.3(a)(2). Under § 1B1.3(a)(2), the course-of-conduct term includes
for Guidelines offense-level calculations uncharged conduct that would have grouped
under § 3D1.2(d) if charged and convicted. See U.S.S.G. § 1B1.3 cmt. n.5(A). The
commentary to § 1B1.3(a)(2) provides as an example a defendant who engages in
three drug sales of 10, 15, and 20 grams of cocaine “as part of the same course of
conduct or common scheme or plan.” Id. Under subsection (a)(2), even if the
defendant is convicted of just one count resulting from a single drug sale, the total
Appellate Case: 20-6010 Document: 010110548564 Date Filed: 07/14/2021 Page: 20
quantity of drugs (45 grams) is used to determine the defendant’s offense level if
proved by a preponderance at sentencing. Id.
Yet under § 3D1.2(b), grouping excludes even convicted conduct for
sentencing purposes. Considering the previous example, if the defendant were
convicted of all three drug sales, a court would nonetheless group all charges for
sentencing purposes if the counts were “part of a single course of conduct with a
single criminal objective.” U.S.S.G. § 3D1.2 cmt. n.4. Thus, a defendant fears a
same-course-of-conduct finding for relevant-conduct purposes but cheers a samecourse-of-conduct finding for grouping purposes. For all these reasons, we cannot
analogize Garcia to § 3D1.2(b)’s realm.
Beyond this, the government’s argument rests primarily on just one case,
United States v. Scott, 145 F.3d 878 (7th Cir. 1998). There, Ms. Scott hired a hitman
to kill her lover, but the plan failed when the hitman was arrested on his way to
commit the murder. Id. at 881. While in jail, the hitman tried to get a cellmate to
finish the job. Id. But Ms. Scott didn’t need the help—she hired a second hitman by
herself. Id. at 882. Fortunately for the victim, this second hitman wasn’t so depraved
as the first—he warned the target of the murder plan. Id.
At sentencing, then under the pre-Booker, mandatory-guidelines regime, the
district court grouped the two murder-for-hire counts of conviction, but departed
upward on grounds that the case was “atypical and outside the ‘heartland’ of cases
considered by the Commission in formulating the grouping rule under U.S.S.G.
§ 3D1.2(b).” Id. at 883. Ms. Scott appealed the district court’s upward departure, but
Appellate Case: 20-6010 Document: 010110548564 Date Filed: 07/14/2021 Page: 21
the government didn’t cross-appeal the unfavorable grouping decision. Id. In
affirming the upward departure, the Seventh Circuit noted that the defendant’s two
murder plots had been independent of each other and had been concurrently viable.
Id. at 887. On the latter point, the court noted that “[t]he separate transactions
enhanced the risk of harm” because the likelihood of the victim’s death “increased
Scott is unhelpful for the government. First, the district court in Scott did
group the counts, and the Seventh Circuit didn’t even consider, let alone reverse, that
grouping on appeal. Id. at 883. So all of Scott’s language bearing on the grouping
issue is dicta. Second, if anything, the Seventh Circuit appears to support the district
court’s decision to group the two counts. See id. at 887 n.3 (“Scott’s case involves a
departure from U.S.S.G. § 3D1.2(b), the guideline that requires forming a single
group from different criminal offenses, in this case multiple violations of 18 U.S.C.
§ 1958.”). In any event, we determine that Norman controls.
Accordingly, the two counts must be grouped under § 3D1.2(b)
Outcome: For the foregoing reasons, we affirm Maldonado-Passage’s conviction but vacate the sentence and remand for resentencing.