United States v. Caplinger

CourtUnited States District Courts. United States District Court (Columbia)
Docket NumberCRIMINAL 21-0342 (PLF)
Decision Date07 June 2022


On November 1, 2021, defendant Jeramiah Caplinger pleaded guilty to a violation of 40 U.S.C. § 5104(d), a petty offense Class B misdemeanor, for his involvement in the events at the United States Capitol on January 6, 2021. The government has requested that the Court impose a “split sentence” comprised of three months of incarceration followed by thirty-six months of probation. See Government Sentencing Memorandum (“Gov't Sentencing Mem.”) [Dkt. No. 46] at 1. Mr. Caplinger and amicus curiae, the Federal Public Defender (“FPD”) oppose this sentence and argue that the Court has no authority to impose a split sentence for a single petty offense. See Defendant's Supplemental Brief Regarding “Split Sentence” (“Def. Suppl. Br.”) [Dkt. No. 51] at 5; Brief of Amicus Curiae Federal Public Defender (“FPD Br.”) [Dkt. No. 52] at 5. Upon careful consideration of the parties' filings the FPD's amicus brief, and the applicable authorities the Court concludes that a split sentence is permissible for a petty offense and therefore is an option for the Court in Mr. Caplinger's case. The Court will sentence Mr. Caplinger at a later date.[1]


On May 5, 2021, Mr. Caplinger was charged by information with five misdemeanors stemming from his participation in the January 6, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol. See Information. Mr. Caplinger subsequently pleaded guilty to one count of stepping, climbing, removing, or injuring property on the U.S. Capitol grounds in violation of 40 U.S.C. § 5104(d). See Plea Agreement. This offense is classified as a Class B misdemeanor, a petty offense, as defined by 18 U.S.C. § 3559(a)(7), and it carries a maximum sentence of six months of imprisonment. Plea Agreement at 1-2. The government and Mr. Caplinger stipulated that Mr. Caplinger entered the U.S. Capitol grounds on January 6, 2021; scaled a wall of the U.S. Capitol to reach the upper terrace level of the Capitol building; and once inside, joined rioters who had pushed past law enforcement, and proceeded through the Crypt, the Speaker Suites, and the Rotunda. See Statement of Offense at ¶¶ 8-11.

On January 25, 2022, the parties submitted their sentencing memoranda in advance of Mr. Caplinger's sentencing that had been scheduled for February 1, 2022. The government requested that the Court impose a split sentence comprised of three months of incarceration followed by thirty-six months of probation; and it argued at length that the Court has authority to impose a split sentence pursuant to federal sentencing laws. See Gov't Sentencing Mem. at 41-50. Defense counsel disagreed, maintaining that, under 18 U.S.C. § 3551(b), the Court has no such authority. Def. Sentencing Mem. at 6. The Court concluded that this was an important legal question that deserved more extensive briefing. Order [Dkt. No. 48] at 2. On January 31, 2022, the Court vacated the date scheduled for the sentencing hearing, directed the parties to submit supplemental briefs addressing this issue, and appointed the FPD as amicus. Id.

At the present time, there is no binding precedent on this legal question. See United States v. Little, Crim. No. 21-315, 2022 WL 768685, at *3 (D.D.C. Mar. 14, 2022); United States v. Sarko, Crim. No. 21-591, 2022 WL 1288435, at *1 (D.D.C. Apr. 29, 2022) (noting that the D.C. Circuit “has not yet opined on this issue”). The Fourth Circuit, the only court of appeals to have addressed this question, concluded in United States v. Posley that Section 3561(a)(3) [u]nquestionably provided statutory authority to sentence the petty-offense defendant to ‘a term of six months of continuous imprisonment plus probation.' 351 Fed.Appx. 807, 809 (4th Cir. 2009) (per curiam). See also 3 Charles Alan Wright & Sarah N. Welling, Federal Practice and Procedure § 547 n.13 (4th ed. 2021) (“A defendant may be sentenced to probation unless . . . the defendant is sentenced at the same time to imprisonment for an offense that is not petty, or the crime of conviction is one for which probation is expressly precluded.”).

Two judges of this court have issued decisions on this issue. See United States v. Sarko, 2022 WL 1288435 (Kollar-Kotelly, J.); United States v. Little, 2022 WL 768685 (Lamberth, J.); United States v. Spencer, Crim. No. 21-147 (D.D.C. Jan. 19, 2022) [Dkt. No. 70] (Kollar-Kotelly, J.). In United States v. Little, Judge Royce Lamberth concluded that a judge may “impose a term of probation at the same time as a term of imprisonment when a defendant is sentenced to imprisonment for only a petty offense or offenses.” 2022 WL 768685, at *8. Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly reached this same conclusion in United States v. Sarko, where she agreed with Judge Lamberth's reasoning in Little and the government's interpretation of the relevant statute. See United States v. Sarko, 2022 WL 1288435, at *2-3. In Sarko, Judge Kollar-Kotelly also announced a reversal from her earlier decision in Spencer, where she had “found that a split sentence for a petty offender defendant was inappropriate” based on her “initial reading of the relevant statutes, the dearth of cases addressing this issue, and limited briefing by the parties.” United States v. Sarko, 2022 WL 1288435, at *1 n.2. At least two other judges in this district have imposed split sentences for a single petty offense without issuing opinions. See, e.g., United States v. Meteer, Crim. No. 21-0630 (D.D.C. Apr. 22, 2022) (McFadden, J.) [Dkt. No. 37]; United States v. Smith, Crim. No 21-0290 (D.D.C. Mar. 24, 2022) (Walton, J.) [Dkt. No. 44].


As always, the Court begins with the plain language of the statute. In re Rail Freight Fuel Surcharge Antitrust Litigation, 520 F.Supp.3d 1, 10 (D.D.C. 2021); United States v. Braxtonbrown-Smith, 278 F.3d 1348, 1352 (D.C. Cir. 2002); Group Life & Health Ins. Co. v. Royal Drug Co., 440 U.S. 205, 210 (1979). The first step in interpreting a statute is “to determine whether the language at issue has a plain and unambiguous meaning with regard to the particular dispute in the case.” Robinson v. Shell Oil Co., 519 U.S. 337, 340 (1997). The words of a statute should be interpreted according to their ordinary meaning. Taniguchi v. Kan.Pac. Saipan, Ltd., 566 U.S. 560, 566 (2012). Where the language of the statute is clear and “the statutory scheme is coherent and consistent, ” that is the end of judicial inquiry. Robinson v. Shell Oil Co., 519 U.S. at 340 (internal quotations omitted). “The plainness or ambiguity of statutory language is determined by reference to the language itself, the specific context in which that language is used, and the broader context of the statute as a whole.” Robinson v. Shell Oil Co., 519 U.S. at 341.

If the language is ambiguous, the Court looks to Congress's purpose in enacting the statute. United States v. Braxtonbrown-Smith, 278 F.3d at 1352; United States v. Cordova, 806 F.3d 1085, 1099 (D.C. Cir. 2015). The Court ‘must avoid an interpretation that undermines congressional purpose considered as a whole when alternative interpretations consistent with the legislative purpose are available.' United States v. Braxtonbrown-Smith, 278 F.3d at 1352 (quoting United States v. Am. Trucking Ass'ns, Inc., 310 U.S. 534, 543 (1940)). [T]he function of the courts is to “construe the language so as to give effect to the intent of Congress.” United States v. Am. Trucking Ass'n, Inc., 310 U.S. at 542. To determine “the general purpose of Congress in enacting the statute the Court may look to the statute's “legislative history for helpful clues.” United States v. Braxtonbrown-Smith, 278 F.3d at 1352.


A. Statutory Construction

Chapter 227 (Sentences) of Title 18 of the United States Code sets forth the federal sentencing scheme. It consists of four subchapters: A (General Provisions); B (Probation); C (Fines); and D (Imprisonment). The question at issue is whether this statutory scheme, or any particular statute, permits the Court to impose both a custodial sentence and a sentence of probation for a violation of 40 U.S.C. § 5104(d), a petty offense and Class B misdemeanor.

Subchapter A, codified at 18 U.S.C. §§ 3551-59, contains general sentencing provisions. Section 3551, entitled “Authorized sentences, ” states in part:

(b) Individuals. - An individual found guilty of an offense shall be sentenced, in accordance with the provisions of section 3553, to-
(1) a term of probation as authorized by subchapter B;
(2) a fine as authorized by subchapter C; or
(3) a term of imprisonment as authorized by subchapter D.

18 U.S.C. § 3551(b). It further provides that [a] sentence to pay a fine may be imposed in addition to any other sentence.” Id.

Subchapter B, codified at 18 U.S.C. §§ 3561-66, governs sentences of probation. Section 3561, entitled “Sentence of probation, ” states in part:

(a) In general. - A defendant who has been found guilty of an offense may be sentenced to a term of probation unless-
(1) the offense is a Class A or Class B felony and the defendant is an individual;
(2) the offense is an offense for which probation has been expressly precluded; or
(3) the defendant is sentenced at the same time to a term of imprisonment for the same or a different offense that is not a petty offense.

18 U.S.C. § 3561(a) (emphasis added).

The parties agree that the “default rule” under Section 3551(b) provides that a sentencing court may only sentence a defendant to either a sentence of probation or incarceration for the same offense. See 18 U.S.C. § 3551(b); United States v. Little, 2022 WL 768685, at *4 (§ 3551(b)...

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