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United States v. Benally.

No. 20-2157. D.N.M. Judge Briscoe. Involuntary Manslaughter in Indian Country—Mandatory Victim’s Restitution Act—Victim and Witness Protection Act—Plain Error Review.

December 13, 2021

Defendant was responsible for a head-on car crash within the Acoma Pueblo Indian Reservation that resulted in the death of her boyfriend and passenger, L.C., and severe injuries to the other driver, J.G. Defendant admitted to consuming numerous drinks before the crash. She was charged with involuntary manslaughter in Indian Country and assault resulting in serious bodily injury. Under the terms of a plea agreement, defendant agreed to plead guilty to involuntary manslaughter in exchange for the dismissal of the assault charge.

The plea agreement provided for restitution under the Mandatory Victim’s Restitution Act (MVRA). While the parties acknowledged in their plea agreement that involuntary manslaughter in Indian Country is not an offense designated in and directly subject to the MVRA, they expressly agreed that the district court should apply the MVRA in sentencing defendant. The presentence investigation report (PSR) noted that L.C.’s mother sought $779.70 in restitution for trips to collect his belongings from defendant’s apartment, and J.G. would be seeking more than $27,000 relating to medical costs and lost work. Defendant objected to the PSR. Following a hearing, the district court ordered restitution of $515.20 to L.C.’s mother and $5,424 to J.G. for the loss of his vehicle and $4,216 for his medical expenses.

On appeal, defendant argued that J.G. was neither a victim of the “offense of conviction” as the term is defined in the MVRA, nor listed in the plea agreement as a person entitled to restitution. After the appeal was filed, the US Supreme Court issued its decision in Borden v. United States, 593 U.S. __ (2021). In light of that decision, defendant filed a supplemental brief arguing that the district court lacked the authority to grant restitution under the MVRA at all, and instead could only grant restitution under the Victim and Witness Protection Act (VWPA).

In Borden, the US Supreme Court held that a criminal offense with a mens rea of recklessness does not qualify as a violent felony for purposes of the Armed Career Criminals Act. Because the MVRA incorporates the federal criminal code’s definition of crime of violence, the Borden decision effectively means that the MVRA does not apply to any criminal offense that has a mens rea of recklessness. Applying the plain error test, the Tenth Circuit first held that in light of Borden and its impact on the MVRA, the district court erred in ordering restitution under the MVRA. However, the error did not affect defendant’s substantial rights because the district court possessed discretionary authority to impose restitution under the VWPA, which defines “victim” in the same manner and employs the same causation standard as the MVRA. Accordingly, the district court’s restitution ruling did not constitute plain error.

The judgment was affirmed.

Official US Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit proceedings can be found at the US Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit website.

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