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United States v. Mejia

United States Court of Appeals, Seventh Circuit

June 13, 2017

United States of America, Plaintiff-Appellee,
v.
Guadalupe I. Mejia, Jr., Defendant-Appellant.

          Argued March 1, 2017

         Appeal from the United States District Court for the Central District of Illinois. No. 15-cr-40068-001 - Sara Darrow, Judge.

          Before Posner, Sykes, and Hamilton, Circuit Judges.

          HAMILTON, CIRCUIT JUDGE.

         The issue in this appeal is whether the district court had a sufficient basis for imposing an above-guideline sentence on appellant Guadalupe Mejia, Jr., who pled guilty to being a felon in possession of a firearm in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1). The evidence and argument at Mejia's sentencing hearing focused on a bar fight in which Mejia pulled a knife and either Mejia or another man pulled a gun and fired shots that struck a building and a vehicle.

         The conflicting factual accounts of the bar fight convinced the district judge to reject the probation officer's recommendation to increase Mejia's guideline offense level by four levels on the theory that he had "used or possessed" a gun "in connection with another felony offense" or else had "possessed or transferred" the weapon with "knowledge, intent, or reason to believe that it would be used or possessed in connection with another felony offense." See U.S.S.G. § 2K2.1(b)(6)(B). From the facts about the bar fight that could be found with confidence, however, as well as Mejia's lengthy criminal history, the district judge concluded that no matter who fired the shots at the bar, an above-guideline sentence was appropriate. We affirm.

         I. Factual and Procedural Background

         Mejia pled guilty without a plea agreement. During the plea colloquy he did not admit any factual allegations beyond the essential elements of the § 922(g)(1) charge, so he admitted nothing about the bar fight. Afterward, he also declined to discuss the offense with the probation officer. Without the defendant's version of the offense, the probation officer used police reports to put together an account of the bar fight that blamed Mejia for firing the shots.

         At the center of the fight was a confrontation between Mejia and a man named Winters, apparently over a woman whom Winters viewed as his girlfriend. It is not clear who threw the first punch, but Winters and Mejia started fighting. Mejia pulled a switchblade knife. Then two other men entered the fray, one on each side. Winters got help from a man named Tarkington, and Mejia called for help from fellow gang member McClain. After McClain arrived, several gunshots were fired. Some struck Tarkington's truck and the building where the bar was located.

         The combatants separated. Mejia took the gun and hid it. When police questioned him the next day, he led them to the gun. Mejia told the police that he was not the shooter. He has maintained that position throughout this federal prosecution for being a felon in possession of the firearm.

         At sentencing, the principal factual dispute was whether Mejia had fired the shots and thus whether his offense level should have been raised by four levels under § 2K2.1(b)(6)(B) for using or possessing the gun in connection with another felony or for possessing or transferring the gun to Mejia with knowledge, intent, or reason to believe it would be used or possessed in connection with another felony. Mejia did not testify or present evidence in his sentencing hearing, but he challenged the government's effort to prove the enhancement should apply.

         We need not recount all the details of the conflicting accounts of the bar fight from Winters, Tarkington, police officers, and Mejia's post-arrest statement. Suffice it to say the conflicts among those accounts made it impossible for the court to determine who fired the shots and thus whether Mejia handled the gun "in connection with another felony offense, " as necessary to apply the upward adjustment under § 2K2.l(b)(6)(B). Without the adjustment, Mejia's offense level was 17 and his criminal history category was VI, for a guideline range of 51 to 63 months in prison. The judge imposed a sentence of 93 months.

         The judge stressed that no matter who started their fight, "the initial contact between the defendant and Mr. Winters was forceful." And though the judge said she did not "really know what happened/' she continued that it was clear "there was a fight and there was a knife involved, a knife possessed by the defendant." Still, the judge added, the aftermath "gets a little foggy." The evidence did prove, the judge said, that Mejia had been "in the thick of it" and summoned McClain to the bar.

         The judge explained that the guideline range is just one of the factors in 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a) and that it was in this case "slightly inadequate to address the seriousness of the offense." The events at the bar, the court said, were "incredibly troubling." "You were there, " the judge told Mejia, and "you ultimately possessed" the gun used in the shooting after "you called the individual to come there, ...


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