Court Opinion: 10th Circuit Court of Appeals Opinion for Dec. 14

The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals

Editor’s Note: Law Week Colorado edits court opinion summaries for style and, when necessary, length.

United States v. Trujillo

Victor Trujillo had an active warrant out for his arrest after he absconded from parole. Authorities found Trujillo as he entered a vehicle with a passenger. Trujillo then attempted to evade law enforcement and lost control of the vehicle. An officer observed a black handgun in plain view on the driver’s side floorboard while Trujillo was removed from the vehicle by law enforcement. The officer observed Trujillo staring at the gun and the passenger later told law enforcement Trujillo had the gun in his lap while driving. The gun was loaded with ammunition and had a defaced serial number. Officers searched and found five rounds of ammunition in his front left pocket. A second gun was found in the vehicle’s glovebox, but the ammunition found in Trujillo’s pocket did not match either weapon. The officer’s investigation report included a four-level enhancement for possessing a firearm with a defaced serial number. 

Trujillo pleaded guilty to being a felon in possession of ammunition. Based on his criminal history, Trujillo qualified for a sentencing range of 92 to 115 months. The district court sentenced him to 100 months in prison and three years of supervised release. 

He challenged the firearm enhancement to his sentence because he claimed the evidence didn’t establish his possession of the gun. The district court overruled Trujillo’s objection, determining that a preponderance of the evidence showed Trujillo constructively possessed the gun. The prosecution initially indicted Trujillo for being a felon in possession of a firearm, but it later dismissed that indictment after Trujillo pleaded guilty to the possession-of-ammunition count. The district court entered, with no objection from Trujillo, the prosecution’s preliminary forfeiture order for the two guns and the ammunition, finding “a factual basis connecting the firearms and ammunition to this case” and “a nexus between them and [the offense of conviction].”

Trujillo appealed, arguing the district court erred in imposing sentencing guidelines for possessing a firearm with a defaced serial number. The court asserted to prove constructive possession for purposes of this sentencing enhancement, the prosecution needed to show by a preponderance of the evidence that Trujillo had “both the power to control [the gun] and intent to exercise that control” per the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals’ 2020 ruling in U.S. v. Samora, which notes the burden of proof for sentencing enhancements. Trujillo claimed the district court applied an outdated and incorrect legal test for constructive possession and failed to find the required intent to include the firearm enhancement. 

The defense counsel argued the evidence failed to show Trujillo possessed the gun, asserted the passenger’s statement about the gun was not credible, and suggested the gun had been dislodged from elsewhere in the vehicle during the crash. In response, the prosecutor asserted the standard for possession was dominion and control of the weapon. While the defense counsel addressed the omission of the intent aspect of the test, the district court decided to apply the enhancement, concluding that “the preponderance of the evidence show[ed] that [Trujillo] knew that the gun was there and was in at least constructive possession of that weapon.” Furthermore, the court ruled Trujillo didn’t need to know anything about the status of the serial number and then reiterated that, although the gun “may or may not have actually belonged to him,” there was enough evidence “to show that he knew it was in the car, had constructive possession, control over that weapon while he was driving the vehicle.”

The 10th Circuit affirmed the district court’s decision. The appeals court found the district court applied the correct standard and implicitly made the requisite intent finding. 

In support, the appeals court noted defense counsel specifically raised the intent requirement at the sentencing hearing, telling the district court that “the intent part of this ha[d] been missing from this conversation thus far.” The district court didn’t take issue with that portion of defense counsel’s argument, instead moving straight from that argument to its conclusion that Trujillo constructively possessed the gun. The court found this “chain of events” suggests the district “court found the necessary intent, although [it] did not explicitly express such a finding.”

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