United States v. Hilaire, 052120 FED2, 19-640

Docket Nº:19-640
Opinion Judge:Jacobs, Circuit Judge:
Party Name:United States of America, Appellee, v. Robert St. Hilaire, Defendant-Appellant.
Attorney:MATTHEW B. LARSEN, Federal Defenders of New York, New York, NY, for Defendant-Appellant Robert St. Hilaire. JONATHAN E. ALGOR, Assistant United States Attorney (Samuel P. Nitze, Assistant United States Attorney, on the brief), for Richard P. Donoghue, United States Attorney for the Eastern Distri...
Judge Panel:Before: JACOBS, CALABRESI, CHIN, Circuit Judges.
Case Date:May 21, 2020
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit
 
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United States of America, Appellee,

v.

Robert St. Hilaire, Defendant-Appellant.

No. 19-640

United States Court of Appeals, Second Circuit

May 21, 2020

Argued: February 7, 2020

Robert St. Hilaire appeals from the judgment of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York (Glasser, J.) following his guilty plea to possessing a firearm as a previously convicted felon, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 922(g). St. Hilaire challenges a four-level sentencing enhancement for possessing a firearm with "an altered or obliterated serial number," imposed pursuant to U.S.S.G. § 2K2.1(b)(4)(B). We consider for the first time the meaning of that phrase and hold that a serial number is "altered" whenever any character on any iteration of a gun's serial number is illegible to the naked eye. Although the district court necessarily proceeded under precedents from other circuits that articulate a somewhat different standard, the court found as fact that at least one iteration of the serial number was illegible to the naked eye, a finding that is not clearly erroneous. Accordingly, we AFFIRM.

MATTHEW B. LARSEN, Federal Defenders of New York, New York, NY, for Defendant-Appellant Robert St. Hilaire.

JONATHAN E. ALGOR, Assistant United States Attorney (Samuel P. Nitze, Assistant United States Attorney, on the brief), for Richard P. Donoghue, United States Attorney for the Eastern District of New York, Brooklyn, NY, for Appellee United States of America.

Before: JACOBS, CALABRESI, CHIN, Circuit Judges.

Jacobs, Circuit Judge:

After Robert St. Hilaire pleaded guilty to being a felon in possession of a firearm, the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York (Glasser, J.) applied a four-level sentencing enhancement pursuant to U.S.S.G. § 2K2.1(b)(4)(B) for possessing a firearm that "had an altered or obliterated serial number" (the "Enhancement"). Since this Court had not yet considered what it means for a serial number on a gun to be altered or obliterated, the district court relied on out-of-circuit case law. St. Hilaire argues that the Enhancement does not apply because, of the three serial numbers on his gun, one was clearly legible, thus dispelling ambiguity as to the iterations that were more scored and legible only in part.

Consistent with our sister circuits, we hold that the Enhancement applies if a single iteration of a serial number has been altered or obliterated, notwithstanding whether another may be legible. Moreover, we hold that "altered" means illegible to the naked eye. Under the circumstances, it was not error for the district court to apply the Enhancement.

BACKGROUND

The few relevant facts are straightforward. St. Hilaire was arrested by the New York City Police Department on November 24, 2017, on suspicion of attempting to leave the scene of a car accident. A protective frisk turned up a loaded Taurus 9mm semiautomatic pistol. The police report prepared later that night described the gun as "SERIAL# TJN86665 WITH PARTIALLY DEFACED SERIAL#." (App. at 12.) Using that number, the police made a Lost/Stolen Firearm Inquiry, which yielded "No Hits." (App. at 22.)

In general terms, a serial number is an identifier composed of a unique sequence of characters, mainly numbers or letters. Guns are usually manufactured with matching iterations of one serial number on different components, such as the frame and the slide. St. Hilaire's gun bears a serial number in three places. One is slightly scratched but clearly legible; one is scratched but still shows most of the characters clearly; the third is so heavily scratched that some numbers are not obvious. The correspondences are sufficient that it would be uncanny for the numbers to baffle anyone who looks closely, makes deductions, and starts with the assumption that the serial numbers are likely the same. (App. at 24-27.)

Since St. Hilaire had been convicted of two state felonies, he was charged with one count of possessing a firearm as a previously convicted felon, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 922(g); and he pleaded guilty. The PSR calculated his advisory range under the United States Sentencing Guidelines (the "Guidelines") to be 84-105 months' imprisonment based on a total offense level of 25 and a criminal history category IV.

At the sentencing hearing (and in advance of it), St. Hilaire objected to the inclusion in that calculation of a four-level enhancement for possessing a firearm that "had an altered or obliterated serial number." See U.S.S.G. § 2K2.1(b)(4)(B). He argued that one iteration of the serial number on his gun was clear and that the characters on the others could be easily inferred. Since this Court had not construed the phrase "an altered or...

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