United States v. Francisca Rodriguez-Gamboa (9th Cir. December 2019)
Drug Offenses – Unlike federal law, which defines methamphetamine only by its optical isomer, California law defines methamphetamine by its optical and geometric isomer, and a defendant cannot be removed and later charged with illegal reentry based on a conviction under state law that is broader than federal law allows.
Francisca Rodriguez was arrested and charged with illegal reentry under 8 U.S.C. § 1326 when she returned to the U.S. after she was deported following her California conviction for possession of methamphetamine for sale. Rodriguez initially pleaded guilty.
Shortly after Rodriguez’s guilty plea, however, the Ninth Circuit held in Lorenzo v. Sessions, 902 F.3d 930 (9th Cir. 2018) that California’s definition of methamphetamine was broader than the definition under federal law. Specifically, and unlike California law, federal law only recognizes methamphetamine by its optical isomer, whereas California law recognizes methamphetamine by its optical and geometric isomer. As a result of this decision, the district court allowed the Rodriguez to withdraw her guilty plea and dismissed the charges against her, since it meant that her original conviction was no longer a qualifying offense for deportation.
However, after she withdrew her plea and while the Government’s appeal was pending, the Ninth Circuit “unpublished” its opinion in Lorenzo I and clarified that the Government was not foreclosed from arguing in later cases that “any difference between California and federal law” regarding the definition of meth “is illusory.”
Back before the Ninth Circuit, the Government advocated that there was no meaningful difference between defining methamphetamine by its geometric or optical isomers, thus making it irrelevant that California law and federal law differed. Essentially, the Government argued that “there is no such thing as a geometric isomer of methamphetamine.”
The Court declined the Government’s “invitation to rewrite California law.” Looking “beyond the statutory language to matters of organic chemistry,” the Court noted that the California legislature acted deliberately in distinguishing between isomers of controlled substances and conditioning a substance’s definition according to “a particular isomer.” However, since the Government’s assertion that geometric isomers of meth don’t exist was a factual assertion, the Court remanded the case to the district court to resolve that factual issue.
On Appeal from the Central District of California
Opinion by Hurwitz, joined by Wardlaw and Bataillon (by designation from D. Nebraska).