United States Court of Appeals For the First Circuit
Nos. 17-1181, 18-1047
UNITED STATES OF AMERICA,
WILLIAM NOEL MORALES-NEGRÓN,
APPEALS FROM THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF PUERTO RICO
[Hon. Aida M. Delgado-Colón, U.S. District Judge]
Howard, Chief Judge, Torruella and Kayatta, Circuit Judges.
Franco L. Pérez Redondo, with whom Eric Alexander Vos, Federal Public Defender, Vivianne M. Marrero, Assistant Federal Public Defender, Supervisor, Appeals Section, and Liza L. Rosado- Rodríguez, Research and Writing Specialist, were on brief, for appellant. Kaitlin E. Paulson, Appellate Section, Criminal Division, U.S. Department of Justice, with whom Mainon A. Schwartz, Assistant United States Attorney, Rosa Emilia Rodríguez-Vélez, United States Attorney, and Mariana E. Bauzá-Almonte, Assistant United States Attorney, Chief, Appellate Division, were on brief, for appellee.
September 8, 2020
HOWARD, Chief Judge. William Noel Morales-Negrón
("Morales") was apprehended in February 2016 by Drug Enforcement
Administration agents and U.S. Marshal Service deputies during a
search for fugitives in Yauco, Puerto Rico. In the course of the
apprehension, Morales fled from the agents, throwing a fanny pack
onto the roof of a nearby residence as he tried to escape by
running across adjacent rooftops.
The agents arrested Morales and seized the fanny pack,
which contained one loaded Glock pistol modified to fire as a
machinegun. Agents also seized four Glock magazines (including
one high-capacity magazine), fifty-seven rounds of ammunition,
various drugs, and 700 dollars. A background check revealed that
Morales had an outstanding arrest warrant for a state probation
A federal grand jury indicted Morales for being a felon
in possession of a firearm and ammunition, 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1),
and for unlawfully possessing a machinegun, 18 U.S.C. § 922(o).
He pled guilty to both counts without a plea agreement.
At sentencing, the district court noted that Morales
faced a total offense level of seventeen, a criminal history
category of IV, and a guideline sentencing range ("GSR") of thirty-
seven to forty-six months' imprisonment. The government advocated
for forty-six months, stressing that Morales had been apprehended
with a loaded machinegun "capable of inflicting damage beyond . . .
other types of firearms." Morales requested a thirty-seven-month
sentence, emphasizing his traumatic upbringing and violent
episodes between his parents, his struggles with substance abuse,
his physical and mental health issues, and his need to provide for
The court determined that an above-guidelines sentence
was warranted for "plenty of reasons": Morales had "[t]wice [been]
given very lenient sentences" for previous offenses and twice had
his supervised release revoked; Morales had abandoned his last
court-ordered treatment program and was a fugitive at the time of
his arrest; Morales's crime had facilitated the use of dangerous
weapons "in the streets by members of a drug organization"; and,
in light of Puerto Rico's rising homicide rate, his conduct was
The court also emphasized that the evidence contradicted
Morales's claims that, by the time of his arrest, he had
rehabilitated himself and ceased engaging in illegal conduct or
associating with individuals in the drug or weapons business. The
court ultimately sentenced Morales to seventy months in prison.
Six months later, Morales filed a motion in the district
court to access the written Statement of Reasons ("SOR") in order
to prepare his appeal. Eventually, the district court denied the
request, explaining that "[f]or sentencing and appeal purposes the
grounds upon which a sentence is based are specifically outlined
on the record and not reflected within the SOR." The court added
that any "technical discrepancies within the SOR or even the
judgment entered are corrected based on the record of in court
proceedings which controls and specifies the criteria for and the
Morales appeals his sentence on procedural and
substantive grounds and challenges the district court's denial of
his motion to access the SOR.
First, Morales argues that the district court "committed
procedural error by unduly relying on conjecture to impose an
upward variant sentence." Specifically, Morales challenges the
district court's factual findings concerning Morales's connection
to a video, which Morales says the court relied on in rejecting
his claim that he had rehabilitated himself already.
Selecting a sentence "based on clearly erroneous facts"
constitutes a significant procedural error. See United States v.
Millán-Isaac, 749 F.3d 57 , 66 (1st Cir. 2014). Morales and the
government dispute whether Morales properly preserved this
procedural objection, but Morales's claim fails even under the
clear-error standard of review applicable to preserved claims.
See United States v. Molloy, 324 F.3d 35 , 39 (1st Cir. 2003).
The video at issue, obtained from Morales's cell phone,
depicts two men sleeping on a rooftop and a rifle resting against
a nearby wall. An unidentified male is heard off-screen saying in
Spanish, "in spite of the fact of what I had told you last night,
you didn't even safe keep it." The video was taken six months
before Morales's arrest.
The district judge said that the two men sleeping
appeared to be keeping guard with the rifle on the rooftop and
that another photo from Morales's cell phone showed Morales holding
the same rifle on the same rooftop just two months before his
arrest. Morales, the court inferred, plainly had contact with the
people, the premises, and the rifle shown in the video.
Morales contests that there is sufficient evidence to
support this inference. The "inferences [a sentencing court] draws
from th[e] evidence need not be compelled but, rather, need only
be plausible." United States v. Nuñez, 852 F.3d 141 , 146 (1st
Here, based on a visual comparison, the court plausibly
found that the rifle and the rooftop in the photo and video were
the same. And from the presence of the video on Morales's cell
phone, as well as his admissions to law enforcement that he had
delivered weapons to and associated with individuals in the drug
and weapons business, the court also plausibly inferred that
Morales had contact with the men depicted in the video.
Any error would also be harmless, see United States v.
Fernández-Garay, 788 F.3d 1 , 5 (1st Cir. 2015), because other
recent photos of Morales posing with weapons, the weapons and
ammunition seized from Morales after his arrest, and his admissions
to law enforcement gave the court ample reason to reject his
assertions that he had rehabilitated himself already.
Second, Morales contends his sentence is substantively
unreasonable because the district court "did not properly
balance the § 3553(a) factors." Review is for abuse of
discretion, United States v. Vargas-García, 794 F.3d 162 , 165 (1st
Cir. 2015), and here there was none.
Morales alleges that the district court mis-weighed
relevant factors, giving too much weight to his prior convictions
and too little weight to his personal circumstances,
rehabilitation efforts, and role in the instant offense. But "a
disagreement with the district court's weighing of the different
sentencing factors" does not alone constitute error. United States
v. Contreras-Delgado, 913 F.3d 232 , 242 (1st Cir. 2019) (quotations
omitted). The "hallmarks of a substantively reasonable sentence
are a plausible sentencing rationale and a defensible result."
United States v. Caballero-Vázquez, 896 F.3d 115 , 122 (1st Cir.
2018) (quotations omitted).
Here, the district court provided several plausible
rationales for the upward variance. These included the substantial
amount of ammunition and multiple-high-capacity magazines involved
in the offense, the lenience shown toward Morales at his prior
sentencings, the need for specific deterrence, given Morales's
repeated flouting of court-imposed conditions, and the prevalence
of gun violence in Puerto Rico.
As the district court noted, we previously have upheld
similarly sized variances on similar facts. See, e.g., United
States v. Vázquez, 854 F.3d 126 , 129-130 (1st Cir. 2017); United
States v. Díaz-Arroyo, 797 F.3d 125 , 129-130 (1st Cir. 2015).
Thus, Morales's sentence is within the "universe of reasonable
sentences." United States v. Alejandro-Rosado, 878 F.3d 435 , 440
(1st Cir. 2017).
Morales also appeals from the district court's order
denying him access to the SOR. Given the adequacy of the court's
oral explanation at sentencing, the court's failure to grant access
to the SOR does not provide grounds to vacate Morales's sentence
or stay the merits portion of this appeal. On the other hand, we
see no basis for withholding the document from Morales here. So
we remand for the limited purpose of having the district court
docket the SOR and grant defense counsel's request for access.
The SOR is an outgrowth of the statutory framework
governing the United States Sentencing Commission. 28 U.S.C.
§ 991. 28 U.S.C. § 994(w)(1)(B) provides that:
The Chief Judge of each district court shall ensure that, within 30 days following entry of judgment in every criminal case, the sentencing court submits to the Commission, in a format approved and required by the Commission, a written report of the
sentence, the offense for which it is imposed, the age, race, sex of the offender, and information regarding factors made relevant by the guidelines. The report shall also include . . . the written statement of reasons for the sentence imposed (which shall include the reason for any departure from the otherwise applicable guideline range and which shall be stated on the written statement of reasons form issued by the Judicial Conference and approved by the United States Sentencing Commission).
The federal sentencing statute incorporates this
requirement, noting that a court imposing a non-Guidelines
sentence must state the reasons for the sentence "with specificity
in a statement of reasons form." 18 U.S.C § 3553(c)(2).
Historically the SOR was publicly available as part of
the judgment; but, in 2001, the Judicial Conference determined
that SORs should no longer be disclosed to the public to protect
the identity of cooperating defendants. See United States Judicial
Conference Report, March 14, 2001, at 17 (available at
also Administrative Office of US Courts, Memorandum re: Policy
Change Restricting Routine Public Disclosure of Statement of
Reasons, at 2 (Aug. 13, 2001). In 2010, Congress decoupled the
SOR from the judgment to facilitate the 2001 change. See Federal
Judiciary Administrative Improvements Act of 2010, Pub. L. No.
111-174, § 4, 124 Stat. 1216. As part of its determination, the
Judicial Conference specified that "the Statement of Reasons
will continue to be forwarded to appropriate entities, such as the
United States Sentencing Commission, the Federal Bureau of
Prisons, defense counsel, government attorneys, and the appellate
courts." United States Judicial Conference Report, at 17.
The standing order in the District of Puerto Rico also
presumes that, upon request, defense counsel can obtain access to
the SOR. Standing Order No. 17-205 (April 28, 2017),
neral%20standing%20order_0.pdf. This order provides that, once
finalized, the SOR shall be docketed electronically under seal and
that "[r]equests for access by the United States Attorney or by
trial or appellate counsel shall be granted by order of the Court."
Id. (emphasis added).
An SOR "serves a largely administrative purpose," United
States v. Vazquez-Martinez, 812 F.3d 18 , 25 (1st Cir. 2016), by
helping the Commission gather data on criminal sentences in order
to make recommendations to Congress. Accord, e.g., United States
v. Lee, 897 F.3d 870 , 874–75 (7th Cir. 2018); United States v.
Jackson, 848 F.3d 460 , 464 (D.C. Cir. 2017).
A district court's failure to docket, or even complete,
an SOR "does not require vacation of the sentence absent a showing
of prejudice." United States v. Fields, 858 F.3d 24 , 31 (1st Cir.
2017); see also United States v. Pagán-Walker, 877 F.3d 415 , 417
(1st Cir. 2017). When a defendant receives an adequate in-court
explanation for the sentence, this Court has repeatedly held that
showing cannot be made. See United States v. Pedroza-Orengo, 817
F.3d 829 , 837 (1st Cir. 2016); see also Vazquez-Martinez, 812 F.3d
at 25 .
Here, there is nothing to suggest that the contents of
the SOR--even if they contained some discrepancy or error, as
Morales alleges they might--in any way affected or undercut the
district court's sentencing decision. Indeed, when "the district
court's oral expression of its sentencing rationale varies
materially from its subsequent written expression of that
rationale, appellate courts have tended to honor the former at the
expense of the latter." United States v. Muniz, 49 F.3d 36 , 42
n.5 (1st Cir. 1995). This makes particular sense here because the
SOR, though ultimately sent to the sentencing judge for final
approval, is prepared by the U.S. Probation Office, after
sentencing, based on the judge's prior in-court statements.
Standing Order No. 17-205 (April 28, 2017).
Accordingly, because Morales cannot establish how any
error in the SOR would invalidate his otherwise justifiable
sentence and therefore prejudice his case, Morales cannot show
that the district court's denial was erroneous because the document
was necessary for his appeal.
Morales offers an alternative argument, however: that,
even if the SOR is immaterial to his sentence and his appeal, the
district court cannot simply deny him access to a document
associated with his own criminal case.
Decisions are seemingly rare, if any exist, as to whether
a district court can deny defense counsel access to the SOR. But
the Second Circuit has said that even if the SOR has no bearing on
a defendant's sentencing appeal, denying defense counsel access to
the SOR would nonetheless be "cause for concern." United States
v. Espinoza, 514 F.3d 209 , 212 n.5 (2d Cir. 2008).
In Puerto Rico, the practice is that the SOR be made
available to defense counsel upon request. Standing Order No. 17-
205 (April 28, 2017). Judicial Conference policy also indicates
that the SOR will be available to counsel directly involved in the
case. United States Judicial Conference Report, at 17; see also
In re Sony BMG Music Ent., 564 F.3d 1 , 6 (1st Cir. 2009) (explaining
that Judicial Conference policy, "even if not binding in the
strictest sense, is not lightly to be discounted, disregarded, or
dismissed"). And concealment without a given reason or a reason
that otherwise should be obvious to the defendant invites avoidable
suspicion. We affirm the sentence, but remand for the district
court to docket a sealed copy of the SOR and grant defense
counsel's request for access.
It is so ordered.