In United States v. Laines, No. 21-11535 (June 6, 2023) (Bill Pryor, Rosenbaum, Marcus), the Court affirmed Mr. Laines’s drug- and firearm-related convictions as well as his ACCA sentence, which was based upon a prior Florida cocaine conviction.

Mr. Laines first argued that the evidence was insufficient to support two of his convictions–possession with intent to distribute and a related firearms offense–because there was no evidence that he had the intention to distribute the drugs he possessed.  The Court disagreed, finding that his intent to distribute had been proven circumstantially.

He next argued that he was entitled to a new trial based on Brady and Giglio.  More specifically, he argued he was entitled to a new trial both because the police had unconstitutionally searched his phone upon his arrest and failed to disclose said search to the defense, and because the government failed to disclose prior to trial that one of its witnesses–one of the arresting officers in the case–had committed misconduct and was the subject of multiple internal investigations.  The Court disagreed, finding no reasonable probability of a different trial outcome.

Finally, Mr. Laines argued that he was not ACCA because his prior Florida cocaine conviction was not a “serious drug offense” because its definition of cocaine is more expansive than the federal definition.  The Court, reviewing for plain error, found none, relying on its prior panel precedents in Travis Smith and Xavier Smith.  The Court expressly refused to find that its opinion in Chamu had abrogated its precedents about a prior conviction under Fla. Stat. § 893.13(1) qualifying as a “serious drug offense” under the ACCA.  The Court also clarified that Mr. Laines, as the appellant, bore the burden of establishing that the district court had plainly erred.

Judge Rosenbaum dissented in part.  She believed that the sentence should be vacated and the case remanded for the government to establish that Mr. Laines was in fact ACCA.  That is, in light of Chamu, the government bore the burden of demonstrating that Mr. Laines’s prior Florida cocaine conviction still qualified as a “serious drug offense.”  More specifically, she noted that unlike in Chamu–which was an immigration case–here, in the criminal-sentencing environment, the government bears the burden of proving any sentencing enhancement–including an ACCA enhancement–applies.

She also clarified that Mr. Laines’s argument regarding the overbreadth of his Florida cocaine conviction was not precluded by prior panel precedent.  In her view, Chamu expressly explained that there are three categories of stereoisomers: optical isomers, geometric isomers, and nongeometric diastereomers.  So if nongeometric diastereomers of cocaine exist, then Florida’s definition of the substance is categorically overbroad in comparison to the federal definition.  She would have remanded for the government to show that there are no nongeometric diastereomers of cocaine.

Finally, she also noted that a defendant’s failure to object to the ACCA classification cannot relieve the government of its burden to establish the enhancement, nor can the defendant’s failure to object to allegations of fact in the PSI.  This is so because, whether a cocaine-related conviction under section 893.13(a)(1) qualifies as a “serious drug offense” is a legal question, the answer to which is the same in every case for every defendant with such a conviction.  In her view, it would be “quite a stretch to characterize it as the type of ‘allegation[] of fact’ that we deem admitted in a PSI if a defendant fails to object.”