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United States v. Meraz

argued: May 4, 1993.

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, APPELLANT.
v.
DIANE B. MERAZ, A/K/A R. MENA, ARTURO A. GARCIA, A/K/A CHRIS GARCIA, GEORGE T. MILLWARD, THEODORE F. STREMP



On Appeal from the United States District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania. (D.C. Criminal Docket No. 92-00078)

Before: Cowen, Roth, and Rosenn, Circuit Judges

Author: Roth

ROTH, Circuit Judge.

I.

Diane Meraz was convicted in 1992 of a federal drug offense. Federal statute provides for enhanced sentencing for repeat drug offenders whose prior convictions have become final. See 21 U.S.C. § 841(b)(1)(B). Meraz was previously convicted on two felony drug charges in New Mexico in 1989. The New Mexico court deferred Meraz's sentence for a two-year probationary period. The government moved to increase Meraz's sentence for her 1992 offense in light of her prior state conviction. The district court held that Meraz's prior conviction was not a "final" conviction under the federal statute and denied the government's motion. The government appeals.

II.

On March 24, 1992, Diane Meraz and three co-conspirators received a shipment in Pittsburgh of roughly 500 pounds of marijuana that had been transported in a Ryder truck from El Paso. Unfortunately for Meraz, the Ryder truck had picked up federal agents along the way. The Missouri Highway Patrol had discovered the truckload of drugs in Missouri and law enforcement officials followed it straight to Meraz. The police promptly arrested Meraz and her three co-conspirators. Meraz agreed to cooperate with the police and pled guilty on June 16, 1992, to conspiracy to distribute in excess of 100 kilograms of marijuana. Meraz's co-conspirators had planned to distribute the marijuana in the Pittsburgh area. Meraz's role in the conspiracy involved renting a truck in El Paso, paying the driver in advance to make the trip, and arranging for the transfer of the marijuana after it had arrived in Pittsburgh.

The federal district court held an initial sentencing hearing on September 11, 1992, at which the government moved for an enhanced sentence based on Meraz's prior conviction in New Mexico. Meraz pled nolo contendere to two felony charges in New Mexico for marijuana possession and conspiracy on June 6, 1989. Meraz had been arrested at the U.S.-Mexico border as she attempted to drive a car into New Mexico that contained roughly 185 pounds of marijuana in the trunk. The New Mexico court entered a judgment of guilty on both counts and deferred her sentence for a two-year probationary period. After the successful completion of her probation on June 6, 1991, Meraz was entitled to have the state dismiss the charges against her.

The district court held that Meraz's prior conviction under New Mexico law did not constitute a final conviction for sentence enhancement purposes under 21 U.S.C. § 841(b)(1)(B). The government promptly appealed this ruling and the district court did not impose a sentence pending the appeal. On October 27, 1992, this Court ordered that the appeal be stayed "pending entry of a sentencing order." Meanwhile, on September 29, 1992, a New Mexico state court Judge approved the dismissal with prejudice of the 1989 state drug charges against Meraz. On November 20, 1992, the federal district court held a final sentencing hearing at which Meraz was sentenced to sixty months imprisonment, the mandatory statutory minimum for her crime. The government appeals the district court's denial of its motion to increase Meraz's sentence in light of her prior conviction in New Mexico.

III.

The jurisdiction of the district court rested on 18 U.S.C. § 3231. This Court's jurisdiction over an appeal challenging a denial of sentence enhancement based upon a prior conviction arises from 21 U.S.C. § 851(d)(2). Our appellate jurisdiction over this matter also rests upon 28 U.S.C. § 1291 and 18 U.S.C. § 3742(b). We are reviewing a Conclusion of law by the district court which was based upon statutory construction; thus, the standard of review is plenary. Manor Care, Inc. v. Yaskin, 950 F.2d 122 (3d Cir. 1991).

A. "Finality" under the federal repeat offender statute

The federal statutory provision at issue here states, in pertinent part:

If any person commits such a violation after one or more prior convictions . . . for a felony under any other provision of this subchapter . . . or other law of a State . . . relating to narcotic drugs, marijuana, or depressant or stimulant substances, have become final, such person shall be ...


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