Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals - Published Opinions

Friday, May 21, 2010

Garcia: Defining Generic "Aggravated Assault"

In U.S. v. Garcia, No. 09-10534 (May 21, 2010), the Court rejected a statute of limitations challenge to an illegal re-entry conviction, but vacated a sentence because a prior Arizona aggravated assault conviction was incorrectly counted as a “crime of violence.”

Because the illegal re-entry statute provides no specific statute of limitations, the general five-year term applied to the charged offense. An illegal reentry offense is deemed complete, triggering the commencement of the five-year limitations period, when, with the exercise of diligence, law enforcement could have discovered the illegality of the defendant’s presence in the United States.

The Court rejected Garcia’s argument that law enforcement could have discovered his presence in the United States more than five years before the indictment, when his wife filed an application for his citizenship which disclosed his prior deportation. The Court found that immigration officials reasonably delayed an investigation of Garcia’s status until his application process was complete. The delay in the completion of the application process – which pushed the investigation and discovery of Garcia’s unlawful status within the limitations period – was attributable to incorrect information his wife had filled out. Hence, immigration officials were sufficiently diligent in investigating Garcia’s unlawful status.

Turning to sentencing, the Court rejected the government’s argument that it was unfeasible to define a generic offense of “aggravated assault,” and that any offense labeled “aggravated assault” should therefore qualify as a “crime of violence” for purposes the 16-level Guideline enhancement. The Court determined that the generic offense “involves a criminal assault accompanied by the aggravating factors of either the intent to cause serious bodily injury to the victim or the use of a deadly weapon.” The Court found that Garcia’s prior Arizona offense was a “simple assault,” for which the only aggravating factor was the status of the victim: a law enforcement officer. The offense therefore did not qualify as a generic “aggravated assault” for Guideline purposes.

The Court further found that because recklessness was a sufficient mens rea to commit aggravated assault in Arizona, the offense did not qualify as a “crime of violence” because it did not involve the intentional use of physical force.

The Court therefore vacated the 16-level “crime of violence” enhancement.