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United States v. Vineyard

United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Northeastern Division

December 13, 2017

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA,
v.
NATHAN RICHARD VINEYARD, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          R. DAVID PROCTOR UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         In this case, the court is asked to resolve a dispute about the meaning of a federal statutory term and compare certain anatomical terms which Congress and the Tennessee Legislature have used to describe people's private parts. Defendant Nathan Vineyard contends he was not required to register as a sex offender because the Tennessee sexual battery statute he was convicted under in 2012 contained a categorically broader definition of “sexual contact” than that provided by the Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act (“SORNA”). To assess his argument, the court must examine the provisions of two statutes and look to the language of anatomy.

         This matter is before the court on Defendant's Motion to Dismiss Indictment, or in the Alternative, Motion in Limine to Exclude Evidence of Conviction under Tenn. Code § 39-13-505(a)(3). (Doc. # 11). The Motion (Doc. # 11) has been fully briefed. (Docs. # 11, 12, 14). On November 29, 2017, the Government filed a Supplement to Response in Opposition to Defendant's Motion to Dismiss, to which Defendant replied on December 1, 2017. (Docs. # 15, 17). For the reasons explained below, the Motion (Doc. # 11) is due to be denied.

         I. Background

         In March 2012, Defendant Nathan Richard Vineyard (“Defendant” or “Vineyard”) was charged with rape and false imprisonment in Campbell County, Tennessee. (Doc. # 12 at p. 2). On May 7, 2012, Vineyard pleaded guilty to sexual battery in violation of Tenn. Code § 39-13-505 and aggravated assault in violation of Tenn. Code § 39-13-102. (Doc. # 15-2 at p. 4). Vineyard was sentenced to a total effective sentence of eight years imprisonment. (Doc. # 12 at p. 2). On September 5, 2017, a grand jury charged Vineyard with failing to register as a sex offender under SORNA, 34 U.S.C. § 20911, et seq., in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 2250(a). (Doc. # 1). According to the Indictment, between July 8, 2017 and August 9, 2017, Vineyard was required to register under SORNA, traveled in interstate commerce, and knowingly failed to register and update his registration as required by SORNA. (Id.).

         On November 3, 2017, Defendant moved to dismiss his indictment, arguing that his conviction for Tennessee sexual battery is not a “sex offense” under 34 U.S.C. § 20911(5)(A) and, therefore, he is not required to register as a sex offender under SORNA. (Doc. # 11). The court evaluates the merits of Defendant's arguments, in turn.

         II. Law and Discussion

         Under SORNA, a sex offender must comply with certain registration requirements, and failure to do so is a criminal offense. See 34 U.S.C. § 20913; 18 U.S.C. § 2250(a). A “sex offender” is “an individual who was convicted of a sex offense.” 34 U.S.C. § 20911(1). A “sex offense” includes “a criminal offense that has an element involving a sexual act or sexual contact with another.” Id. at § 20911(5)(A)(i) (emphasis added).

         A. The Categorical Approach Applies Here

         Because SORNA requires courts to compare a defendant's prior conviction to criteria set forth in a federal statute, the court must first determine whether to consider the prior conviction under the categorical, modified categorical, or circumstance-specific approach. See, e.g., United States v. Berry, 814 F.3d 192, 195 (4th Cir. 2016); United States v. White, 782 F.3d 1118, 1130-31 (10th Cir. 2015). Under the categorical approach, the court examines only the elements of the crime of conviction and does not consider the facts underlying the conviction. See Taylor v. United States, 495 U.S. 575, 588-89 (1990). And, if the statute under which the defendant was convicted “sweeps more broadly than the generic crime, ” the underlying conviction does not categorically match the generic crime. Descamps v. United States, 133 S.Ct. 2276, 2283 (2013). The modified categorical approach allows a court to use the categorical approach when a defendant was convicted of violating a divisible statute by permitting “a court to determine which statutory phrase was the basis for the conviction.” Id. at 2284-85. Under the circumstance-specific approach, the court focuses on the facts, rather than the elements, of the prior conviction. See Nijhawan v. Holder, 557 U.S. 29, 34 (2009). When a federal statute refers to a generic crime, the categorical approach applies; however, when a federal statute refers to the specific way in which an offender committed the crime on a specific occasion, the circumstance-specific crime applies. See id.

         In this case, both parties agree that the categorical approach applies (Docs. # 11, 12, 14), and the court agrees that the phrase “element involving a sexual act or sexual contact with another” found in 34 U.S.C. § 20911(5)(A)(i) signals a categorical analysis. See Johnson v. United States, 135 S.Ct. 2551, 2562 (2015) (“This emphasis on convictions indicates that ‘Congress intended the sentencing court to look only to the fact that the defendant had been convicted of crimes falling within certain categories, and not to the facts underlying the prior convictions.'”); see also United States v. Price, 777 F.3d 700, 708 (4th Cir. 2015), cert. denied, 135 S.Ct. 2911 (2015) (“Congress expressly referenced the ‘elements' of the offense in subsection (5)(A)(i), providing that one such element must involve ‘a sexual act or sexual contact with another.'”); United States v. Gonzalez-Medina, 757 F.3d 425, 430 (5th Cir. 2014)(“The definition's focus on the “element[s]” of the predicate offense strongly suggests that a categorical approach applies to (5)(A)(i).”); United States v. George, 223 F.Supp.3d 159, 165(S.D.N.Y. 2016) (holding that “the categorical approach applies to § 16911(5)(A)(i) of SORNA”). As such, the court compares the elements of Vineyard's Tennessee sexual battery offense to SORNA's definition of “sex offense” and does not consider the facts underlying Vineyard's sexual battery conviction. See, e.g., Descamps, 133 S.Ct. at 2283; Taylor, 495 U.S.at 588-89.

         B. The Court Considers the Plain Meaning of “Sexual Contact, ” Not the Definition of “Sexual Contact” Found in Title 18

         The parties' principal disagreement relates to the federal definition of “sexual contact” as used in SORNA. See 34 U.S.C. § 20911(5)(A)(i); see also (Docs. # 11, 12, 14). The Government argues that sexual battery under Tenn. Code § 39-13-505 is a “sex offense” under 34 U.S.C. § 20911(5)(A)(i), making Defendant a “sex offender” under § 20911(1) and, thus, subject to the SORNA registration requirements. (Doc. # 12). Conversely, Defendant maintains that sexual battery under Tennessee law does not qualify as a “sex offense” under SORNA because the Tennessee definition of “sexual contact” is broader than the federal definition of that term in Title 18. (Docs. # 11, 14).

         Originally, Defendant raised a question as to whether sexual battery under Tennessee law qualifies as a “sex offense” under SORNA because sections 39-13-501 and 39-13-505(a) of the Tennessee Code define “sexual battery” to include the intentional “touching of semen and vaginal fluid, which are not body parts.” (Doc. # 14 at p. 5). As the Government pointed out in its Supplement to Response in Opposition to Defendant's Motion to Dismiss, however, “semen” and “vaginal fluid” were added to Tennessee's definition of “sexual contact” in 2013, which was after Defendant pleaded guilty to sexual battery. See Tenn. Code § 39-13-501(2) (2013). (Seealso Doc. # 15-4). Thus, as both parties agree, Defendant's argument regarding the inclusion of “semen” and “vaginal fluid” in Tennessee's definition of “sexual contact” is off the mark. (Docs. # 15, 17). ...


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