United States v. Roosevelt Coats, III (11th Cir. August 2021)

The Federal Docket

August 17, 2021

Firearm Possession/Rehaif – It is plain error for a district court to accept a defendant’s guilty plea to 922(g) when the defendant is not given notice regarding the elements of the offense, but reversal is not warranted

ACCA/Violent Felony – A prior conviction for burglary is a predicate violent felony under the ACCA even when based on a theory of accomplice liability under Georgia law.

Sentencing Guidelines – A defendant who receives an enhancement for obstruction does not present an “extraordinary case” warranting a reduction for acceptance of responsibility despite the obstruction enhancement solely because his obstructive conduct occurred pre-indictment.

Roosevelt Coats pleaded guilty to possession of a firearm by a convicted felon and was sentenced to 235 months in prison after the district court found he had three prior convictions for a “serious drug offense” or “violent felony” under the Armed Career Criminal Act. The court also declined to reduce Coats’ sentence based on his acceptance of responsibility based on Coats’ “obstructive conduct preceding his guilty plea.”

On appeal, Coats raises several challenges, starting with his enhanced sentence under the ACCA based on his prior conviction for burglary under Georgia law. He also argued that his conviction should be vacated since he was not aware of the knowledge element for possession of a firearm by a felon under Rehaif v. US and that he was entitled to a reduction for acceptance of responsibility despite his obstructive conduct.

Regarding Coats’ Rehaif challenge, the Court recognized that the law had changed since his guilty plea and required proof beyond a reasonable doubt that Coats knew he was a felon. Applying plain error review, the Court acknowledged that a defendant must have notice of the elements of the charges against him in order to enter a plea voluntarily and knowingly and that the district court plainly erred in accepting Coats’ plea. However, the Court declined to find that this error was structural pursuant to the Supreme Court’s opinion in Greer v. United States, and instead found that Coats was not prejudiced by his lack of notice regarding the elements.

The Court reiterated that a prior felony conviction itself is “substantial evidence” of a defendant’s knowledge regarding his status and that a defendant must make a sufficient argument or representation on appeal that he would have presented evidence at trial that he did not not have the requisite knowledge. Here, the Court concluded, Coats had not carried that burden since he had not attempted to show that he would have not pleaded guilty but for the Rehaif error. In contrast, the Court held that Coats’ criminal history, including four felonies and a prior conviction for unlawful possession of a firearm by a felon, demonstrated that the Government “could have readily proven” Coats’ knowledge.

Regarding Coats’ ACCA argument, the Court held that Coats’ prior conviction for burglary under Georgia law was a predicate conviction for a “violent felony.” In doing so, the Court rejected Coats’ argument that his conviction under Georgia law was broader than the generic definition of a burglary under the enumerated crimes clause because he was convicted under a separate statute for being a “party to” the crime rather than the substantive crime itself.

Citing prior circuit precedent, the Court held that the Georgia statute for burglary is divisible, that the modified categorical approach applied, and that the Shepard documents reflected that Coats’ offense conduct met the generic definition of burglary. The Court acknowledged that it had to determine whether Coats’ participation as a “party to the crime” affected the analysis but concluded “an ostensible predicate crime is not deprived of that status merely because the conviction may have been based on conduct that aided and abetted the crime.” Here, Coats’ participation fell within the scope of conduct under the generic definition of burglary as an aider and abettor. To win, the Court wrote, Coats would have to establish a “realistic probability that accomplice liability” under Georgia’s party-to-a-crime statute “extends significantly beyond” generic accomplice law. Citing a Georgia Supreme Court opinion, the Court concluded that the Georgia law required substantially similar intent as the generic offense. The Court also engaged in a lengthy discussion of Georgia caselaw regarding aggravated assault and how there may be a significant distinction between the generic offense of aggravated assault and the Georgia version.

Regarding the denial of acceptance of responsibility, Coats had been incarcerated pending trial in a jail where the confidential informant was also in custody. Prior to his indictment in the federal case, Coats gained access to the informant at some point and punched him in the face, which ultimately resulted in Coats pleading guilty to state charges for battery and influencing a witness.

Coats objected to the denial of a reduction for acceptance of responsibility, but did not contest the obstruction enhancement. On appeal, the Court affirmed, holding that the record did not “clearly establish” that Coats’ case was “an extraordinary case” where a defendant could receive a reduction for acceptance despite also receiving an obstruction enhancement. It was irrelevant that the conduct occurred before an indictment, the Court reasoned, because the Guidelines clearly consider pre-indictment conduct.

On appeal from the Middle District of Georgia
Opinion by J. Carnes, joined by Martin and Newsom

Click here to read the opinion.

Tom Church - Tom is a trial and appellate lawyer focusing on criminal defense and civil trials. Tom is the author of "The Federal Docket" and is a contributor to Mercer Law Review's Annual Survey in the areas of federal sentencing guidelines and criminal law. Tom graduated with honors from the University of Georgia Law School where he served as a research assistant to the faculty in the areas of constitutional law and civil rights litigation. Read Tom's reviews on AVVO. Follow Tom on Linkedin.

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