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United States v. Dollison

United States District Court, D. Alaska

October 31, 2019

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Plaintiff,
v.
DWAYNE DOLLISON, JR., and KENNETH MARTIN DOUGLAS, Defendants.

          ORDER REGARDING MOTIONS TO VACATE

          Sharon L. Gleason United States District Judge.

         Before the Court at Docket 175 is defendant Kenneth Martin Douglas' Motion to Vacate or Set Aside Conviction on Count 5. Also before the Court, at Docket 177, is defendant Dwayne Dollison, Jr.'s Motion to Vacate or Set Aside Conviction on Count 4. The government filed a response in opposition at Docket 181.[1] With leave of the Court, Mr. Douglas filed a reply at Docket 188. Mr. Dollison joined the reply at Docket 200.[2]

         Counts 4 and 5 of the First Superseding Indictment in this case allege that the defendants, “having been convicted of a crime punishable by imprisonment for a term exceeding one year, did knowingly possess, in and affecting interstate commerce, firearms” in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1).[3] Pursuant to the then-applicable Ninth Circuit Model Jury Instructions, the jury was not instructed that the government needed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendants knew they had the relevant status-being felons-when they possessed firearms.[4] On June 12, 2019, a jury convicted both defendants of the felon in possession of a firearm charges-Mr. Douglas in Count 5 and Mr. Dollison in Count 4. On June 21, 2019, the Supreme Court issued its opinion in Rehaif v. United States, in which it held that to convict a defendant of 18 U.S.C. § 922(g), the government “must show that the defendant knew he possessed a firearm and also that he knew he had the relevant status when he possessed it.”[5]

         Relying on the statutory change announced in Rehaif, the defendants now move the Court to vacate their convictions in Counts 4 and 5 based on lack of jurisdiction and a violation of due process.

         I. The Court has jurisdiction over Counts 4 and 5

         The defendants allege that the Court does not have jurisdiction over Counts 4 and 5 because “the indictment by which [they were] charged failed to disclose the essential elements of the offense.”[6] Specifically, the First Superseding Indictment did not allege that at the time they possessed the firearms, the defendants knew that they had been previously been convicted of a crime punishable by imprisonment for a term exceeding one year. The defendants contend that because of this missing element, they were “never charged with a violation of federal law, and this court lacks subject-matter jurisdiction” over Counts 4 and 5.[7] The government responds that even though the grand jury was not instructed on the Rehaif knowledge element, and even though that knowledge element was not included in the First Superseding Indictment, this does not destroy the Court's subject matter jurisdiction.[8]

         “Overwhelming precedent indicates that even if there are defects in the indictment, this does not deprive a court of its power to adjudicate a case.”[9] In United States v. Cotton, the Supreme Court held that “defects in an indictment do not deprive a court of its power to adjudicate a case.”[10] Accordingly, the missing knowledge element in the First Superseding Indictment does not affect the Court's jurisdiction over Counts 4 and 5.

         II. Due process does not require vacating the convictions

         The defendants also allege a due process violation, in that the Court did not instruct the jury that to convict the defendants it had to find beyond a reasonable doubt that at the time of the possession of the firearms they knew they had previously been convicted of a crime punishable by imprisonment for a term exceeding one year.[11] The defendants maintain that this jury-instruction error is not harmless because “there was little or no evidence that [they] knew [they] had been convicted of an offense punishable by imprisonment exceeding one year.”[12]

         The government replies that the harmless error analysis is not applicable because the defendants did not object to the jury instruction during the trial, and thus it is the defendants' plain error “burden to show that if the jury had been instructed on knowledge, there is a reasonable probability [they] would not have been convicted.”[13] Alternatively, the government maintains that it produced sufficient evidence of the defendant's knowledge and points to the defendants' stipulations as to their prior felony convictions and the entry of their prior felony judgments and conditions of supervised release into evidence.[14]

         An instruction that omits an element of the offense does not necessarily render a trial fundamentally unfair or a verdict unreliable.[15] The Court analyzes the incorrect jury instruction under the plain error standard, which applies to an unpreserved issue “even when an intervening change in the law is the source of the error.”[16] The plain error standard allows review when the error affected a defendant's “substantial rights.”[17] Even under the more defendant-friendly harmless error standard, “[a]ny error, defect, irregularity, or variance that does not affect substantial rights must be disregarded.”[18]

         The record before the jury included a stipulation by both defendants that they had “prior felony convictions.”[19] The jury heard testimony from Travis Steward that a Smith & Wesson firearm found with the defendant had been stolen from his truck in 2017 and that the defendants traveled in a separate vehicle from the firearms.[20] The jury also heard that both defendants were subject to a court order not to possess firearms.[21] Pursuant to Federal Rule of Evidence 201, the Court takes judicial notice of the defendants' prior federal felony judgments.[22] These judgments show that Mr. Douglas was previously sentenced to 96 months in federal prison and Mr. Dollison was previously sentenced to 120 months in federal prison.[23] Thus, the government would need only point to the judgments to show that the defendants knew they had been convicted of crimes punishable by imprisonment for a term exceeding one year because they each served significantly longer than a year in prison for those crimes: “[T]he receipt of such sentences would certainly have made clear to [the defendants] the fact that [their] offenses were punishable by more than a year in prison.”[24]

         There is sufficient evidence in the record to demonstrate that the jury's verdict would have been the same even if they were instructed pursuant to Rehaif. Thus, although “the absence of an instruction requiring the jury to find that Defendant knew he was a felon was clear error under Rehaif, ”[25] the error did not affect the defendants' substantial rights under either the plain error or harmless error standard.

         In light of the foregoing, IT IS ORDERED that Mr. Douglas's Motion to Vacate or Set Aside Conviction on Count 5 at Docket 175 is denied. Mr. Dollison's Motion to Vacate or ...


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