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United States v. Sorensen

United States Court of Appeals, Eighth Circuit

June 26, 2018

United States of America Plaintiff- Appellee
Shawn Russell Sorensen Defendant-Appellant

          Submitted: March 14, 2018

          Appeal from United States District Court for the District of South Dakota - Sioux Falls

          Before GRUENDER, BEAM, and KELLY, Circuit Judges.


         Shawn Russell Sorensen appeals following his jury trial conviction and sentence, arguing that the district court[1] erred in failing sua sponte to exclude the testimony of the government's fingerprint expert, in determining that the government's error in initially misstating Sorensen's predicate offense was clerical and not substantive, and that the court's[2] imposition of life without parole in this case violates Sorensen's rights under the Eighth Amendment. We affirm.

         I. BACKGROUND

         On April 25, 2016, a United States Postal Inspector in Minneapolis applied for and received a search warrant for a postal package sent from a post office in Arizona, addressed to "Gayle Hartz, 404 S. Donaldson, Luvern [sic], Minn. 56156." A certified canine alerted to the odor of narcotics. The return label read "Dave Beckman, 13580 W. Port Royale, Suprise [sic], AZ, 85379." Through the execution of the warrant, the inspector found various items such as clothing, toilet paper, paper towels, 192 grams of cocaine, and over four kilograms of methamphetamine wrapped in bundles of plastic and black electrical tape. The inspector then contacted a counterpart in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, which is very near Luverne, Minnesota, and requested that he conduct a controlled delivery of the package. He did.

         Prior to the delivery, an anticipatory search warrant was granted for the residence and Hartz's person. After the controlled delivery to the home in Luverne, officers observed a vehicle drive from the residence. An officer stopped the vehicle and arrested Hartz, the driver, while other officers executed the search warrant at Hartz's home, ultimately locating the unopened, delivered package in a bedroom. When stopped, Hartz told the officers that she received the package on behalf of Shawn Sorensen. Hartz and Sorensen had communicated via text regarding the status of the package prior to its delivery. Just after delivery, Hartz texted Sorensen saying, "Its here. So get ur butt here." Sorensen replied, "I'm on my way."

         The Minnesota agents informed members of the Sioux Falls Area Drug Task Force (SFADTF) about Sorensen's involvement. SFADTF began conducting surveillance almost immediately at Sorensen's residence in Sioux Falls. Between the SFADTF and Minnesota law enforcement, officers followed Sorensen from his home to Hartz's residence. Officers immediately arrested Sorensen when he entered Hartz's home. After his arrest, officers found $15, 700 cash in Sorensen's pocket. A search warrant executed at Sorensen's residence turned up methamphetamine, drug paraphernalia, and a USPS mailing label for what appeared to be a different package sent to Hartz on September 21, 2015. The label's return address, similar to the intercepted package return address, listed "Dave Beckman" with a Phoenix, Arizona, address. A warrant executed on Sorensen's vehicle turned up, among other items: Sorensen's wallet and driver's license, treasury checks addressed to Sorensen, four cell phones, methamphetamine, marijuana, cocaine, and other drug substances, three firearms, drug paraphernalia, and the USPS package mailing label and printed receipt for the intercepted package.

         Inspectors extracted data from two of Sorensen's cell phones. The extraction reports and physical examinations showed that Sorensen had "Gayle" saved as a contact in two of the phones displayed to the jury. He saved Hartz's address under each of the "Gayle" contact listings, misspelling "Luverne" just as the label had ("Luvern"). The only other address in each of the phones was the exact return address, including the misspelling of the city of "Surprise" as was used on the mailing label of the intercepted package as well. The inspection also confirmed the existence of text messages between Hartz and Sorensen regarding the intercepted package. Too, they received proof that Sorensen called the ASK USPS hotline to check on the status of the intercepted package. Additionally, the inspectors discovered USPS records showing packages sent from Arizona to Hartz at addresses in Sioux Falls and Luverne on at least six occasions, and flight records revealing that Sorensen took flights from Sioux Falls to Phoenix on dates corresponding with the delivery of many of the packages.

         A jury trial commenced in October 2016. At trial Hartz provided extensive testimony regarding her introduction to, and involvement with, Sorensen. Hartz testified that she met Sorensen in the early to mid-2000's when she and her boyfriend would do methamphetamine with Sorensen and his wife. After losing her job in 2014, Hartz began working for Sorensen, accepting packages in exchange for money and drugs. Hartz testified that she received approximately six packages containing methamphetamine for Sorensen.

         A forensic latent print analyst with the United States Postal Inspection Service Forensic Laboratory testified about latent prints found on the adhesive side of the packing tape on the intercepted package. During her examination she identified three prints on the tape that matched Sorensen's known prints. Sorensen did not file any pretrial motions concerning this testimony, nor did he object to her testimony at trial.

         In September 2016 (prior to trial), the government filed an information pursuant to 21 U.S.C. § 851(a) notifying Sorensen of its intent to seek increased punishment due to Sorensen's two prior felony drug convictions. These two convictions were listed as: 1) possession of a controlled substance, on or about December 2, 2002, Second Judicial Circuit Court, Minnehaha County, South Dakota; and 2) "transporting or selling dangerous drug" on or about March 10, 2008, Superior Court for Mojave County, Arizona. After the jury found Sorensen guilty, the parties discussed for the first time that there was an error in the description of the Arizona conviction in the § 851(a) information. On April 12, 2017, the government filed an amended information pursuant to § 851(a) that changed the description of Sorensen's prior conviction in Arizona from "transporting or selling" to "possession," and additionally added the specific case number from the Arizona conviction. Sorensen filed a written objection, arguing that given the changes made by the government to the original information, he did not receive "reasonable notice" of its intent to rely upon that particular Arizona conviction and thus it should be stricken from consideration or calculation. At the sentencing hearing, the district court held that the government's amended information merely corrected a clerical mistake, as the initial information had the correct county and date of conviction and the amended notice provided the correct description of the offense. The district court sentenced Sorensen to life in prison for conspiracy to distribute a controlled substance in violation of 21 U.S.C. §§ 841(a)(1) and 846 and 120 months for being a felon in possession of a firearm in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1), to run concurrently.

         II.DISCUS ...

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