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United States v. Rios-Rivera

United States Court of Appeals, First Circuit

January 9, 2019

HILTON RÍOS-RIVERA, Defendant, Appellant.


          Alejandra Bird Lopez for appellant.

          Julia M. Meconiates, Assistant United States Attorney, with whom Rosa Emilia Rodríguez-Vélez, United States Attorney, Mariana E. Bauzá-Almonte, Assistant United States Attorney, Chief, Appellate Division, were on brief for appellee.

          Before Howard, Chief Judge, Thompson and Barron, Circuit Judges.


         Hilton Ríos-Rivera pled guilty to transporting a minor to a hotel in Puerto Rico with the intent to engage in criminal sexual activity with her, in violation of the Mann Act, 18 U.S.C. § 2423(a). After accepting his plea, the district court sentenced Ríos to an above-guidelines incarcerative term of 216 months. Ríos now challenges both Congress's authority to criminalize his conduct and the district court's sentence. For the reasons discussed below, we affirm Ríos's conviction and his sentence.


         The parties do not dispute the events leading to this prosecution. All of the material conduct took place within Puerto Rico. In early April 2013, Ríos, a fifty-year-old man, met the fourteen-year-old victim at a bar where he was performing with his band. While the victim's mother was in the restroom, he gave the victim his band's compact disc and his business card and asked her to contact him. The following day, the victim's mother discovered a text message from Ríos on her daughter's phone. She called Ríos to inform him of her daughter's age and warned him not to contact her daughter again. Despite those admonitions, Ríos continued contacting the victim. In one conversation, Ríos asked the victim if she was fourteen, to which the victim responded affirmatively. In a subsequent conversation on April 8, 2013, Ríos asked the victim where she went to school. The victim told Ríos the name of her middle school, and he arranged to pick her up during her lunch period the next day.

         On April 9, 2013, Ríos drove to the victim's middle school. The middle school had a sign clearly labeling it as such, and its students wore school uniforms. Ríos met the victim at a gas station across the street from her school and took her to a motel, where he had sexual intercourse with her. Ríos repeated this behavior the next day. On April 11, at 8:00 a.m., Ríos once more met the victim at the gas station near her middle school. He again took her to a motel where he had sexual intercourse with her and then dropped her off at 3:00 p.m. at the bus stop near her house.

         After an investigation, in August 2013 the Puerto Rican authorities charged Ríos with three counts of sexual assault. In February 2014, a federal grand jury indicted Ríos for three violations of § 2423(a), which prohibits "knowingly transport[ing]" a minor "in any commonwealth, territory or possession of the United States, with intent that the individual engage . . . in any sexual activity for which any person can be charged with a criminal offense." Before trial, Ríos entered into a plea agreement with the government. In exchange for the government dropping two counts of the three-count indictment, Ríos pled guilty to one count and waived his right to appeal so long as the district court sentenced him within a certain range calculated in accordance with the sentencing guidelines.

         The district court calculated the sentencing guidelines range as the plea agreement suggested, but declined to sentence Ríos within that range. It found that Ríos's statements at sentencing were "geared to minimize his responsibility."[1] During his hearing, Ríos protested that the victim and her mother misrepresented her age to him. These assertions contradicted not only the victim's and her mother's statements to the probation officer, but also the recitations in the plea agreement. The district court also expressed concern that the presentence investigation report revealed that Ríos had been previously charged with five counts of sexually assaulting his stepdaughter, although he ultimately pled guilty to one count of aggravated assault. Further, the district court noted that one of Ríos's neighbors told probation officers that Ríos "always [had] young girlfriends who looked to be 18 or 19 years of age." The district court also cited what it characterized as Ríos's manipulative behavior and the government's unrebutted evidence that the victim suffered psychological harm as a result of it. After considering this evidence in light of the 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a) sentencing factors, the district court announced that it would "depart" from the sentencing guidelines' recommendation and sentence Ríos to 196 months. Shortly afterward, the court corrected a mathematical error in its initial calculation and clarified that Ríos was sentenced to 216 months, which was "in essence . . . a variance of 2.5 years."

         Ríos timely appealed. For the first time, he challenges the constitutionality of his conviction on the grounds that Congress lacked the authority to enact § 2423(a) and that the statute impermissibly discriminates against Puerto Ricans in violation of the equal protection component of the Fifth Amendment's Due Process Clause. He also claims that his sentence was procedurally and substantively unreasonable.


         As an initial matter, Ríos has forfeited his challenges to the constitutionality of § 2423(a). After his indictment, Ríos agreed to plead guilty without ever contesting the indictment in the district court. Ríos cannot point to any instances in the record where he so much as hinted at the constitutional arguments he seeks to ...

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