Sunday, September 02, 2018

Case o' The Week: Ninth Rejects Gov't's Optical Illusion - Lorenzo v. Sessions, Cal H&S 11378 and Federal "Controlled Substances"

  For Alain Baxter, and for Elisio Atenia Lorenzo, isomers make all the difference.
Lorenzo v. Sessions, 2018 WL 4100360 (9th Cir. Aug. 29, 2018), decision available here.

British alpine skier Alain Baxter, disqualified because of a (legal) isomer of meth

Players: Decision by Judge Fisher, joined by C.J. Thomas and Judge Bea.

Facts: Lorenzo, a citizen of the Philippines, was convicted of possession of meth for sale in violation of Cal. Health and Safety Code § 11378. Id. at *2.
  Homeland Security initiated removal proceedings. Id. The removal relied on the characterization of Lorenzo’s priors as “relating to a controlled substance,” as defined (by cross-references) in the INA. Id. at *2.
   Lorenzo moved to terminate proceedings, arguing that the Cali definition of meth was broader than the Fed definition of “controlled substances,” because the federal Controlled Substance Act (“CSA”) included only optical isomers of methamphetamine. California’s definition included both optical and geometric isomers of methamphetamine. Id. at *3.
  The IJ rejected Lorenzo’s challenge, the BIA affirmed, Lorenzo appealed.

Issue(s): “We recognize that, in applying the first step in the categorical approach in this case, we have had to examine a disjunctive list within another disjunctive list. At the more general level, we must examine the disjunctive list of drug types – e.g., cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine – covered by California law. . . . At the more specific level, however, California law also includes disjunctive lists within a drug type, listing, for example, several types of methamphetamine – methamphetamine, its salts, its optical and geometric isomers, and salts of its isomers.” Id. at *7 (citation omitted).

Held: “Although we may not have expressly addressed this situation before, it is apparent that, when this situation arises, we must conduct a Taylor analysis with respect to both disjunctive lists.” Id.
  We hold Lorenzo’s methamphetamine convictions under §§ 11378 and 11379(a) do not qualify as grounds for removal under 8 U.S.C. § 1227(a)(2)(B)(i).” Id. at *3.
  “In sum, California law demonstrates that optical and geometric isomers of methamphetamine are alternative means of committing a single controlled substance offense under California law. The government does not argue otherwise. The overly broad methamphetamine element, therefore, is not divisible. Because the California statute is overbroad and not divisible with respect to the overbroad element, we do not apply the modified categorical approach to determine whether Lorenzo’s convictions involved a type of methamphetamine covered by the CSA.” Id. at *8.

Of Note: This is a huge win for Benjamin Aiken and his Orrick colleagues, and the immigration bar is excited at prospects for relief. Lorenzo, however, has important ramifications for criminal defense as well. Most obviously, § 1326 clients with H&S § 11378 priors now have a challenge to their prior removals. 
  (And other opportunities beckon . . . .)

How to Use: If H&S § 11378 (meth) doesn’t qualify as a “controlled substance” for the INA, does it qualify as a “controlled substance” for the Guidelines (Career Offender, § 2K2.1, etc.), or for a § 851 federal prior?
    Nope (we think).
  In United States v. Leal-Vega, 680 F.3d1160, 1167 (9th Cir. 2012), Judge M. Smith explained that “controlled substances” in the Guidelines refer to the federal drug schedules (the Controlled Substance Act, or “CSA.”). That’s the very same CSA analyzed by Judge Fisher in Lorenzo
  Big red flag for clients with H&S § 11378 priors: they may not be Career Offenders, may have substantially lower felon-in-possession guidelines, and may not be “prior-able” under 21 USC § 851.   
For Further Reading: As Lorenzo illustrates, “categorical analysis” – huzzah!
  In a worrisome development, however, the Sentencing Commission is mulling whether to instead look at “actual conduct” for priors. See final notice here, Priority Three.
  Although Commissioners Barkow and Breyer both have reservations, see hearing video here, at 7:00 – 13:55, a Commission “examination” of the categorical analysis is nonetheless underway.

 Imagine the mischief we’ll make with mini-sentencing trials in federal court, bickering over decades-old evidence from dusty old state proceedings!  

Image of "old evidence" from 

Image of Alain Baxter from

Steven Kalar, Federal Public Defender, Northern District of California. Website at


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