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Media Alerts - United States v. Burns -- Fourth Circuit
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April 4, 2015
  United States v. Burns -- Fourth Circuit
Headline: Fourth Circuit Fires Warning Shot to Defendants Accepting Responsibility at Sentencing

Area of Law: Criminal Law

Issue Presented: Whether the district court improperly denied an acceptance of responsibility sentencing reduction for a defendant who argued the requisite mens rea for the relevant conduct of attempted murder, rather than aggravated assault, was lacking.

Brief Summary: On February 1, 2013, Otis Eugene Burns and Eric Poole were involved in an altercation at a convenience store. Later that same evening, Burns went to Poole's ex-girlfriend's apartment looking for Poole, and fired a shot into the air with his handgun before leaving. The next day, Burns told his ex-fiance he wanted "to kill" Poole for "jumping him at the store." A few hours later, Burns spotted Poole in the driver's seat of a parked vehicle with four other passengers. Burns approached Poole and said, "You thought that was funny from last night, what happened, what you did at the store. I told you I was going to kill you." Burns returned to his own car to retrieve his gun and told his ex-fiancé, "I'm going to shoot him." The front seat passenger exited Poole's vehicle, but Poole remained in the driver's seat. Burns approached the open passenger door and fired one shot into the car, hitting the now empty front passenger's seat. Poole fled his vehicle on foot, and Burns chased him in his own car. Burns fired another shot into the air, before he stopped chasing Poole.

Burns pled guilty to being a felon in possession of a firearm. The Presentence Investigation Report recommended a base offense level of 27. This base offense level was calculated by cross-referencing the offense guideline for attempted murder based on the events of the shooting. Burns objected to the cross-reference and argued the appropriate cross-reference was to aggravated assault instead. If calculated as Burns suggested, his sentencing guideline range would have been reduced from 92-115 months imprisonment to 70-87 months imprisonment. At sentencing, Burns argued that he did not intend to cause Poole bodily harm, and the shot was just "a warning shot." The district court disagreed due to the government's overwhelming evidence and denied Burns the downward sentence adjustment to aggravated assault.

The United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court's ruling. After examining the relevant Guidelines sections and the district court's application of those sections, the majority considered whether Burns could receive a downward adjustment (from his base offense level of 27) for his acceptance of responsibility. Section 3E1.1 cmt. n.1 of the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines provides that a defendant is entitled to an acceptance-of-responsibility reduction for, "truthfully admitting or not falsely denying any relevant conduct." Relevant conduct is not specifically defined by the Guidelines, but is instead determined by considering factors like the "acts and omissions committed." While Burns opined that his relevant conduct only encompassed his physical acts, the Fourth Circuit disagreed and found the relevant "acts" must include more than just physical movement. To hold otherwise, the court found would make it difficult to cross-reference crimes of attempt. Therefore, when Burns denied that his acts and omissions included shooting with the intent to kill, he denied relevant conduct attributable to his actions. Falsely denying said conduct was inconsistent with his acceptance of responsibility and therefore the sentence reduction would be inappropriate.

To read the full opinion, please click">here.[/L]

Panel: Judges Wilkinson, Gregory, and Duncan

Argument Date: 12/11/2014

Date of Issued Opinion: 02/13/2015

Docket Number: Case No. 13-4662

Decided: Affirmed by published opinion.

Case Alert Author: Alexandra A. Stulpin, Univ. of Maryland Carey School of Law

Counsel: ARGUED: Sophia L. Harvey, LIAO HARVEY PC, Winston-Salem, North Carolina, for Appellant. Graham Tod Green, OFFICE OF THE UNITED STATES ATTORNEY, Greensboro, North Carolina, for Appellee. ON BRIEF: Ripley Rand, United States Attorney, OFFICE OF THE UNITED STATES ATTORNEY, Greensboro, North Carolina, for Appellee.

Author of Opinion: Judge Duncan

Case Alert Circuit Supervisor: Professor Renée Hutchins

    Posted By: Renee Hutchins @ 04/04/2015 04:23 PM     4th Circuit  

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