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Larracuente v. United States

Court of Appeals of The District of Columbia

July 11, 2019

John Larracuente, Appellant,
United States, Appellee.

          Submitted May 24, 2019

          Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia (CF2-16339-13) Hon. Ronna Lee Beck, Motion Judge

          Paul H. Zukerberg was on the brief for appellant.

          Jessie K. Liu, United States Attorney, and Elizabeth Trosman, T. Anthony Quinn, and Elizabeth Gabriel, Assistant United States Attorneys, were on the brief for appellee.

          Before Glickman and Thompson, Associate Judges, and Washington, Senior Judge.

          Thompson, Associate Judge:

         Appellant, John Larracuente, moved pursuant to D.C. Code § 16-803.02 (2016) (the "record-sealing statute") to seal the records in Superior Court Case No. 2013-CF2-16339, a case in which he pled guilty to possession with intent to distribute (PWID) marijuana. The Superior Court denied the motion without a hearing, concluding that the government had shown by a preponderance of the evidence that appellant possessed an amount of marijuana that exceeded the amount decriminalized under D.C. Code § 48-904.01(a)(1) (2016), [1] and that sealing also was not available under the "interest of justice standard" of § 16-803.02(a)(2). Appellant contends in this appeal that (1) the Superior Court's ruling was based on an erroneous interpretation and application of the record-sealing statute; (2) the government failed to meet its burden of establishing that appellant's conviction was not for conduct that has since been decriminalized; (3) the Superior Court relied on speculation in concluding otherwise; and (4) the court abused its discretion and deprived appellant of due process in denying his motion without a hearing. For the reasons that follow, we affirm.


         In its filings opposing appellant's motion to seal, the government submitted copies of appellant's plea-proceeding transcript; the police report describing the items seized from appellant's apartment during execution of a search warrant on September 11, 2013; the Drug Enforcement Administration chemical analysis report for the substance seized; the police Gerstein affidavit; and other documents. Although the documents refer to differing estimates or measurements of the weight of the marijuana the police recovered from appellant's apartment, the documents indicate that appellant - who told officers that all of the items in the apartment were his - possessed more than the now-permissible two ounces of marijuana. The Superior Court found that the government established by a preponderance of the evidence that appellant had possessed "over the decriminalized amount of marijuana[, ]" and that, more likely than not, appellant intended to distribute more than the amount permitted by § 48-904.01(a)(1)(B) (one ounce or less). The court therefore concluded that appellant did not qualify for record-sealing under § 16-803.02(a)(1) or under the "interest of justice standard" of § 16-803.02(a)(2) (giving the Superior Court discretion, in the interest of justice, to seal records relating to a now-decriminalized offense, even if that offense was accompanied by an offense that remains illegal). See Washington v. United States, 206 A.3d 864, 869 (D.C. 2019).

         Appellant contends that the Superior Court misapplied § 16-803.02(a) by failing to take a "categorical approach," rather than a case-specific-facts approach, to determine whether the offense of which appellant was convicted had been decriminalized.[2] Specifically, appellant argues that § 16-803.02(a) should be interpreted to mandate approval of a motion to seal so long as the least culpable act(s) that would satisfy the elements of the offense to which the records relate have been decriminalized. Appellant argues that the case-specific-facts approach creates inequities, [3] and that use of a categorical approach is necessary to achieve the remedial effect the Council of the District of Columbia (the "Council") intended in enacting the record-sealing statute. Appellant further contends that the government did not negate the possibility that the marijuana found in his apartment was home-grown (thus falling within the statutory permission to possess marijuana produced by cannabis plants grown in the interior of a home) and also did not prove that appellant's intent to distribute went beyond transferring, without remuneration, one ounce or less of marijuana to another person 21 years of age or older, [4] and thus failed to prove that his conduct was not decriminalized.

         Appellant argues in the alternative that even if sealing was not mandated under § 16-803.02(a)(1), the court erroneously denied him relief under § 16-803.02(a)(2), which he contends makes sealing available in the interest of justice even as to the records of conduct that have not been decriminalized. He seeks an order directing that his records be sealed.


         Our review on matters of statutory interpretation is de novo. See Peterson v. United States, 997 A.2d 682, 683 (D.C. 2010). We look first to the statute's plain language to determine if it is "clear and unambiguous." Id. at 684 (internal quotation marks omitted). If the plain language of a statute "is clear and unambiguous and will not produce an absurd result, we will look no further." Pixley v. United States, 692 A.2d 438, 440 (D.C. 1997) (internal quotation marks omitted). If the language is ambiguous, we may "turn to legislative history to ensure that [we interpret the statute in a manner that] is consistent with legislative intent." Aboye v. United States, 121 A.3d 1245, 1249 (D.C. 2015) (internal quotation marks omitted).

         We review for abuse of discretion the Superior Court's denial without a hearing of a motion to seal. See V.C.B. v. United States, 37 A.3d 286, 290 (D.C. 2012); White v. United States, 582 A.2d 1199, 1201 (D.C. 1990). "Whether or not a hearing is held in connection with a motion to seal, a trial court's determinations in connection with that motion constitute findings of fact and are reviewed for clear error." Sepu ...

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