Court Opinions: 10th Circuit Court of Appeals Opinion from June 30

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. Littlejohn-Conner 

In 2012, Rhyan Littlejohn-Conner pleaded guilty to a pair of Colorado felony offenses involving robbery, making him ineligible to possess a firearm or ammunition. 

Littlejohn-Conner and his wife were in their apartment in 2020 and heard a loud noise. Littlejohn-Conner looked outside and saw a man breaking into their vehicle. Littlejohn-Conner retrieved a firearm and went outside to confront the man. The man returned to the vehicle in which he had arrived. 

Littlejohn-Conner fired at least 12 shots in the general direction of the vehicle. One of the bullets struck an occupant of the vehicle in the back of the head, resulting in the individual seeking medical care. Another bullet shattered the second-floor window of a nearby apartment that was occupied at the time of the shooting.

A grand jury charged Littlejohn-Conner with one count of possession of ammunition by a prohibited person. Littlejohn-Conner pleaded guilty to the charged offense. The district court imposed a sentence of 84 months’ imprisonment, which fell at the bottom end of the sentencing guidelines range and three years below the statutory maximum. 

During the sentencing hearing, the district court said it couldn’t impose a lesser sentence based on Littlejohn-Conner’s family circumstances and the impact a lengthy sentence would have on his family. The court also discussed a sentence it imposed in a somewhat similar case. Littlejohn-Conner didn’t object to either of these matters, but argued that, separately and cumulatively, they constitute errors requiring resentencing.

The sentence the district court gave was adopted using calculations from a presentence investigation report, or PSR. The report assigned Littlejohn-Conner a criminal history category based on five criminal history points and advanced a guideline range for his sentence of 84 to 105 months imprisonment. But the PSR also noted Littlejohn-Conner’s family circumstances, explaining he had a wife and children and was convicted of third-degree assault on his wife before they were married. 

Littlejohn-Conner’s wife and sisters all spoke on his behalf at sentencing, noting the impact a lengthy sentence would have on Littlejohn-Conner’s family and that his children were dependent on him for financial support. Littlejohn-Conner argued for a below-guidelines sentence of 57 months’ imprisonment. He contended he had reformed his behavior and noted he was steadily employed, a good worker and supporting his family in the years prior to the offense.

The government acknowledged Littlejohn-Conner had more family support than most defendants and that “[a]ny sentence [was] going to have a horrible impact on [his] family.”

Weighing these considerations, the district court determined a bottom-end sentence of 84 months’ imprisonment was fair. Counsel for Littlejohn-Conner didn’t raise any objection to the district court’s discussion of the factors and sought only placement in a facility in Arizona. 

Littlejohn-Conner argued the district court erred in believing it couldn’t consider Littlejohn-Conner’s family circumstances and the district court plainly erred by not focusing on sentences typically imposed nationally when discussing the need to avoid unwarranted sentencing disparities. And Littlejohn-Conner contends even if one of the two errors by the district court doesn’t warrant resentencing, the combined impact of the errors does.

The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals concluded both matters are subject to plain error review and found Littlejohn-Conner cannot satisfy the third and fourth prongs of that review. 

To satisfy the plain error standard, the defendant must establish “an error that has not been intentionally relinquished or abandoned,” “the error must be plain—that is to say, clear or obvious,” “the error must have affected the defendant’s substantial rights” and “the error seriously affects the fairness, integrity or public reputation of judicial proceedings.” 

The appellate court found that Littlejohn-Conner needed to raise an objection at his sentencing hearing to preserve the issue about consideration of his family circumstances. Littlejohn-Conner contended the district court didn’t believe it could consider his family circumstances. But the government suggests the district court didn’t believe Littlejohn-Conner’s family circumstances were so persuasive as to warrant a different sentence when weighed with the other factors. The 10th Circuit found the government’s reading of the statements from the district court was more likely.

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