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Criminal Practice – Indictment defect did not affect defendant’s rights

Where the indictment did not instruct that the government was required to prove the defendant knew he belonged to a class of persons barred from possessing a firearm, but it separately proved he knowingly lied about whether he had been committed to a mental institution, the error was not prejudicial.

Background

A jury convicted Ronald Collins of making false statements on an ATF form and possessing a firearm after being “adjudicated as a mental defective.” He challenges only his firearm conviction. Collins claims that Rehaif v. United States, 139 S. Ct. 2191 (2019), renders the indictment and jury instructions deficient, that the conviction runs afoul of the Second Amendment and that the district court imposed an unreasonable sentence.

Indictment

The sufficiency of the indictment is reviewed for plain error because Collins did not challenge it before the district court. Plain-error review requires that a defendant establish (1) an error; (2) that is plain and (3) that affects his substantial rights.

Here, Collins has established the first two plain-error requirements. But Collins’s argument fails at the third prong because he cannot show that the error was prejudicial.

The government charged Collins with two crimes: the false statements crime in Count One and the firearms crime in Count Two. Count One alleged that Collins knowingly made a false statement that he had never been committed to a mental institution. To establish this, the government presented ample evidence at trial that Collins knew that he had been committed to a mental institution.

Because the jury found that Collins knowingly lied about whether he had been committed to a mental institution as alleged in Count One, the government’s failure to separately allege Collins’s knowledge of his commitment in Count Two could not have altered the jury’s verdict as to Count Two. Thus, Collins has not shown “a reasonable probability that, but for the error, the outcome of the proceeding would have been different.” Accordingly, he has failed to demonstrate that the erroneous omission of the knowledge-of-status element in Count Two caused any prejudice.

This court’s recent holding in United States v. Medley, 972 F.3d 399 (4th Cir. 2020), reh’g en banc granted, No. 19-4789 (4th Cir. Nov. 12, 2020), does not alter this conclusion. In Medley, the court held that the government’s failure to include Rehaif’s knowledge-of-status element in an 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1) charge amounted to plain error. Because the indictment entirely omitted this element, the court reasoned, Medley “did not receive (even constructive) notice; nor did he receive a sufficient description of the accusations against him,” which the court held necessary to satisfy the third prong.

In contrast, Collins had notice of the accusations against him and a description of these accusations. Moreover, the omission of the knowledge-of-status element in Count Two did not “seriously affect[] the fairness, integrity or public reputation of judicial proceedings.” In the context of the false statements charge, Collins had the opportunity to—and did in fact—fully litigate whether he knew he had been involuntarily committed. At trial, Collins’s testimony centered on whether he knowingly lied on the ATF form. He repeatedly claimed that he did not believe that he had made a false representation on the form, a claim that the jury rejected. But Collins never contended that he had not been committed.

Jury instruction

Collins also argues that the district court committed reversible error in failing to instruct the jury on Rehaif’s knowledge-of-status element. This court has previously held an error caused no harm when a “jury necessarily made the findings notwithstanding the omission.” Such is the case here.

Second Amendment

Collins next contends that § 922(g)(4) as applied to him violates the Second Amendment. Collins contends that his commitment under W. Va. Code § 27-6A-3(f) does not fall within the realm of ordinary § 922(g)(4) challenges because a different West Virginia statute governs “final commitment proceedings.” In United States v. Midgett, 198 F.3d 143 (4th Cir. 1999), this court expressly rejected a similar argument.

Sentencing

Collins argues that his sentence was procedurally unreasonable because the district court failed to consider the reasons he proffered as to why he should receive a shorter sentence. “[A] district court should address the party’s arguments and explain why [it] has rejected those arguments.” But here, the district court plainly did so.

Collins argues that his sentence is substantively unreasonable because the district court deviated from the sentencing guidelines range and relied too much on certain factors while failing to consider others. When a district court decides the appropriate sentence falls outside of the guidelines’ advisory range, it “must consider the extent of the deviation and ensure that the justification is sufficiently compelling to support the degree of the variance.” The court did so here.

Affirmed.

United States v. Collins (Lawyers Weekly No. 001-139-20, 12 pp.) (Diana Gribbon Motz, J.) Case No. 19-4596. Dec. 3, 2020. From S.D. W.Va. (Irene C. Berger, J.) Shawn Angus Morgan for Appellant. Louie Alexander Hamner for Appellee.


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