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United States v. Caraballo-Martinez

United States Court of Appeals, Eleventh Circuit

August 4, 2017

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Plaintiff-Appellee,
v.
PEDRO RAFAEL CARABALLO-MARTINEZ, Defendant-Appellant.

         Appeal from the United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida D.C. Docket No. 1:00-cr-00001-JAL-3

          Before HULL, MARCUS, and CLEVENGER, [*] Circuit Judges.

          HULL, Circuit Judge:

         Pedro Caraballo-Martinez ("Caraballo") appeals the district court's denial of his renewed motion for a sentence reduction under 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(2). Upon review of the record and the parties' briefs, and with the benefit of oral argument, we conclude that the district court had authority to entertain Caraballo's renewed § 3582(c)(2) motion but did not err in denying it. Thus, we affirm.

         I. BACKGROUND

         A. Criminal Convictions

         On December 13, 1999, Caraballo and two codefendants carried out a violent abduction and ransom scheme, kidnapping a mother and her two young children. Caraballo, a native of Venezuela, first entered the United States in 1995 and was in this country illegally at the time of the crimes.

         Specifically, Caraballo and the two other men abducted Wilma Christine Aragao, her nine-year-old son Alceau, and her one-year-old son Alexander from the parking garage at the condominium building where the family lived.[1] The men used a stun gun to incapacitate Mrs. Aragao and Alceau. The violent struggle caused Mrs. Aragao to drop her infant son onto the parking garage's concrete floor, causing him to suffer bruises and lacerations on his face.

         Caraballo and a codefendant then viciously beat Mrs. Aragao. According to medical records, Mrs. Aragao's cheekbone was fractured in three places, her jaw bone was pushed into her face so as to become painful and difficult to move, and her right eye socket was completely shattered, causing an internal hemorrhage in that area of her face. Mrs. Aragao also suffered nerve damage in her right eye socket, resulting in a lack of sensation to this part of her face and an inability to fully open her right eye. She suffered multiple additional lacerations to her face during the beating and "countless" burn marks and bruises to her upper torso from repeated application of the stun gun.

         Caraballo and the two other assailants then took Mrs. Aragao and her two young sons to a rented house, where the mother was separated from her sons. The assailants tied Mrs. Aragao to a lawn chair, blindfolded her, stuffed a piece of cloth in her mouth, and put her in a bedroom closet. The men restrained the nine-year-old, Alceau, in a similar fashion and put him in another bedroom closet. While tied up in the dark closet, Mrs. Aragao could hear her two young children crying.

         The assailants forced Mrs. Aragao to write a letter to her husband requesting a $70, 000 ransom. She also called her husband multiple times, at the kidnappers' instruction, to convey instructions from them. Law enforcement officers eventually traced these calls to the rented house where the victims were being kept and rescued them on December 17, 1999, after being held hostage for four days. Caraballo was arrested during the rescue.

         On June 2, 2000, after a 16-day trial, a jury convicted Caraballo and his two codefendants of: (1) conspiracy to commit hostage taking, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1203(a) (Count 1); (2) hostage taking, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1203(a) (Count 2); (3) conspiracy to commit carjacking, in violation of 18 U.S.C. §§ 371, 2119 (Count 3); (4) carjacking, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 2119(2) (Count 4); and (5) using and carrying a firearm during and in relation to a crime of violence, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 924(c) (Count 5).

         B. Original Sentence

         The presentence investigation report ("PSI") assigned Caraballo a total offense level of 43 and a criminal history category of I, resulting in an advisory Guidelines sentence of life imprisonment. The total offense level of 43 included a base offense level of 24 and these increases: (1) six levels because a ransom demand was made, under U.S.S.G. § 2A4.1(b)(1); (2) four levels because the victim (Mrs. Aragao) sustained permanent or life-threatening bodily injury, under § 2A4.1(b)(2); (3) two levels because a dangerous weapon was used, under § 2A4.1(b)(3); (4) two levels because the defendant knew or should have known that the victim was vulnerable, under § 3A1.1(b)(1); (5) two levels for obstruction of justice, under § 3C1.1; and (6) three levels under the multiple-count adjustment.

         Caraballo made written objections to the PSI, including objections to the enhancements for demanding a ransom, victim injury, and obstructing justice.

         Caraballo's sentencing hearing, conducted jointly with his codefendants, began on August 29, 2000, and took place over three days. The district court heard argument on, and ultimately overruled, each of Caraballo's written objections. One of Caraballo's codefendants raised a new objection-that the two-level enhancement for the use of a dangerous weapon under U.S.S.G. § 2A4.1(b)(3) was inappropriate in light of the five-year consecutive sentence for the 18 U.S.C. § 924(c) firearm conviction. The district court overruled the objection, finding that the § 2A4.1(b)(3) enhancement was "appropriate" as to all three codefendants.

         The district court adopted the PSI's factual findings and Guidelines calculations with respect to Caraballo. It then determined that Caraballo's Guidelines sentence was life imprisonment. The district court stated that it had considered the parties' statements, the PSI, the victims' statements, and the evidence presented at the sentencing hearing. The district court then sentenced Caraballo to life imprisonment on Counts 1 and 2, 60 months on Count 3, 300 months on Count 4, all to run concurrently, and 60 months on Count 5, to run consecutively.[2]

         C. Direct Appeal

         On direct appeal in 2001, this Court affirmed Caraballo's and his codefendants' convictions and sentences. United States v. Ferreira, 275 F.3d 1020, 1030 (11th Cir. 2001). On appeal, Caraballo challenged certain aspects of his sentence (e.g., the six-level increase for a ransom demand), but he did not challenge the two-level increase for use of a dangerous weapon under U.S.S.G. § 2A4.1(b)(3). See id. at 1022 & n.1. The United States Supreme Court denied Caraballo's petition for a writ of certiorari. Caraballo-Martinez v. United States, 537 U.S. 926, 123 S.Ct. 321 (2002).

         D. Retroactive Application of Amendment 599

         As of November 1, 2000, the United States Sentencing Commission adopted Amendment 599 to the Sentencing Guidelines. U.S.S.G. App. C, Vol. II, Amend. 599. Amendment 599 changed the language in the application note for U.S.S.G. § 2K2.4, the relevant Sentencing Guideline for convictions under 18 U.S.C. § 924(c). Id. The amended language clarified that when a defendant is convicted and sentenced under § 924(c), the defendant cannot also receive a Guideline enhancement for use of a weapon during the commission of the underlying offense. Id. ("If a sentence under this guideline is imposed in conjunction with a sentence for an underlying offense, do not apply any specific offense characteristic for possession, brandishing, use, or discharge of . . . [a] firearm when determining the sentence for the underlying offense."); see also United States v. Brown, 332 F.3d 1341, 1344-45 (11th Cir. 2003) (acknowledging and explaining Amendment 599). Amendment 599 was made to apply retroactively. U.S.S.G. § 1B1.10(d).

         On October 10, 2014, Caraballo filed a pro se motion for sentence reduction under 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(2) based on the retroactive application of Amendment 599. Caraballo pointed out that the application of Amendment 599 would reduce his total offense level from 43 to 41, resulting in an advisory Guidelines range of 324 to 405 months' imprisonment, instead of life, on Counts 1 and 2.

         E. July 10, 2015 Order Denying First § 3582(c)(2) Motion

         In a July 10, 2015 order, the district court concluded that Caraballo was eligible for relief under Amendment 599 and that it had discretion to reduce Caraballo's sentence. The district court then decided that, in its discretion, the 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a) factors did not warrant a sentence reduction, and it denied Caraballo's § 3582(c)(2) motion.

         The district court pointed out that Caraballo had "participated in a heinous and brutal crime that involved serious physical violence against a mother and two of her children." The district court determined that Caraballo's life sentence "is necessary to reflect the seriousness of the offense, to promote respect for the law, . . . to provide just punishment . . . [, and] to adequately deter similar criminal conduct and to protect the public." The district court took Caraballo's post- conviction good conduct into consideration but found it "wholly insufficient to justify a reduction in sentence" given that Caraballo "continues to evade any substantial responsibility for the horrific crime and continues to express[] little remorse for the harm that he has caused."

         Caraballo did not appeal the denial of his initial § 3582(c)(2) motion.

         F. October 20, 2015 Renewed § 3582(c)(2) Motion

         On October 20, 2015, three months after the denial of his first § 3582(c)(2) motion, Caraballo, through counsel, filed a "renewed" motion for sentence reduction based on Amendment 599. Caraballo included a signed personal statement expressing his remorse and accepting responsibility for his actions. Caraballo asked for an evidentiary hearing to "properly determine the sincerity of his remorse."

         The government opposed Caraballo's renewed § 3582(c)(2) motion, arguing that it (1) was barred by the law-of-the-case doctrine and (2) was filed more than three months after the district court denied his first § 3582(c)(2) motion and was thus untimely under the 14-day time limit in Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 35 ("Rule 35(a)").

         On April 11, 2016, the district court denied Caraballo's renewed § 3582(c)(2) motion. The district court reasoned (1) that its July 10, 2015 denial of Caraballo's first § 3582(c)(2) motion was a decision on the merits, (2) that the order therefore constituted a "resentencing, " (3) that Rule 35(a)'s 14-day time limit applied, and (4) that Caraballo's renewed challenge to the sentence was procedurally barred under Rule 35(a) and this Circuit's precedent in United States v. Phillips, 597 F.3d 1190 (11th Cir. 2010) and United States v. Anderson, 772 F.3d 662 (11th Cir. 2014). Because Caraballo's renewed motion was filed 102 days, not 14 days, after the first § 3582(c)(2) order, the district court concluded it lacked the authority to consider it.

         Alternatively, the district court held that, even if it did have the authority to consider Caraballo's renewed § 3582(c)(2) motion, and even after considering Caraballo's newly raised expressions of remorse, it would impose the same sentence of life imprisonment for the reasons detailed in its July 10, 2015 order. The district court reasoned, in part:

Having considered Defendant's expression of remorse - which relates to his history and characteristics - and having weighed all of the remaining § 3553(a) factors, the Court finds that Defendant's sentence of life is sufficient, but not greater than necessary, to reflect the seriousness of the offense (which was heinous), promote respect for the law, provide just punishment of the offense, afford adequate deterrence to criminal conduct, protect the public from further crimes of the defendant and provide the defendant with needed educational or vocational, training, medical care or other correctional treatment.

Caraballo timely appealed.

         II. STANDARDS OF REVIEW

         "In a § 3582(c)(2) proceeding, we review de novo the district court's legal conclusions regarding the scope of its authority under the Sentencing Guidelines. We review de novo questions of statutory interpretation." Phillips, 597 F.3d at 1194 n.9 (quoting United States v. Moore, 541 F.3d 1323, 1326 (11th Cir. 2008)). If § 3582(c)(2) applies, we review a district court's decision to grant or deny a sentence reduction only for abuse of discretion. United States v. Hamilton, 715 F.3d 328, 337 n.8 (11th Cir. 2013).

         III. SECTION 3582(c)

         As background, we first discuss § 3582(c) in general and the limits of a § 3582(c)(2) proceeding. As explained in Phillips, ยง 3582(c) provides that a federal court "may not modify a term of imprisonment once it ...


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