By: Michael Klotz

Today, in the published opinion of United States v. Burns, the Fourth Circuit affirmed the decision of Judge Catherine Eagles of the District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina. A downward reduction in the sentence of a criminal defendant is disallowed when the defendant disputes the mens rea for the underlying crime, and thus fails to accept responsibility for relevant conduct.


On February 1, 2013, Mr. Burns was involved in an altercation with Eric Poole at a convenience store. Following the incident, Mr. Burns went to Mr. Poole’s house with a loaded gun, asked to find him, and fired a shot into the ceiling before leaving.

The next day, on February 2, 2013, Mr. Burns told his girlfriend, Brittney Wilson, that he intended to kill Mr. Poole. Later that day, Mr. Burns saw Mr. Poole in the driver’s seat of a parked car. Mr. Burns initially approached the car unarmed, but then returned to his car, told Ms. Wilson “I’m going to shoot him,” and retrieved his gun. Mr. Burns then told Mr. Poole “Motherfucker, I’m going to kill you.” After the occupant of the passenger’s seat exited the car, Mr. Burns fired a shot into the vehicle. The bullet did not hit Mr. Poole, who then exited the vehicle and fled on foot. Mr. Burns initially followed Mr. Poole in his vehicle, and fired a bullet into the air, but later halted his pursuit.

Mr. Burns was later arrested, on February 9, 2013, and charged as a felon in possession of a firearm. Mr. Burns pleaded guilty in a written plea agreement. The plea agreement stated that if the district court found Mr. Burns eligible for a two-level sentence reduction due to acceptance of responsibility for his conduct, and Mr. Burns’ total offense level was 16 or higher prior to that reduction, that the United States would request an additional one-level sentence reduction for timely assisting authorities with the investigation.

At His Sentencing Mr. Burns Denied That He Intended to Kill Mr. Poole, And Was Not Given a Sentence Reduction

At his sentencing, Mr. Burns stated that he had not intended to kill Mr. Poole when he fired a bullet into his car, and he disputed the testimony of Ms. Wilson. Mr. Burns argued that the downward trajectory of his shot demonstrated that he had not intended to shoot Mr. Poole, but rather to “give a warning shot.”

As a result, Mr. Burns contended that the sentencing guidelines for aggravated assault rather than for attempted murder should be cross-referenced in imposing his sentence. Thus, he claimed that the relevant sentencing guideline should be 70 to 87 months imprisonment rather than 92 to 115 months imprisonment.

Based upon these contentions, the government argued that Mr. Burns had refused to accept “relevant conduct,” and thus he was ineligible for the downward variance in his sentence due to acceptance of responsibility.

The District Court agreed. The court observed that there was strong evidence supporting attempted second degree murder, and in denying that he intended to kill Mr. Poole Mr. Burns had falsely denied relevant conduct. As a result, Mr. Burns was found to be ineligible for a sentence reduction. Based upon Mr. Burns’ criminal history, the appropriate sentencing range was 120 to 150 months imprisonment. The court imposed a sentence of 120 months, the statutory maximum under 18 U.S.C. § 924(a)(2). Mr. Poole subsequently filed the present appeal.

Does the Mens Rea of a Defendant Constitute “Relevant Conduct”?

The legal question on appeal was whether, in disputing that he had the mental state necessary for the uncharged crime of attempted murder, Mr. Burns rendered himself ineligible for a downward sentence reduction due to his refusal to accept responsibility for his crime. Pursuant to U.S.S.G. § 3E1.1(a), a defendant is only eligible for a sentence reduction when he “clearly demonstrates acceptance of responsibility for his offense.” An appropriate consideration in determining whether a defendant is entitled to a sentence reduction is whether he has “truthfully admit[ed] or not falsely den[ied] any additional relevant conduct for which the defendant is accountable.” Thus, the question before the court was whether a criminal defendant’s mental state during the commission of a crime constitutes “relevant conduct” at the time of the offense. If so, Mr. Burns’ claim that he did not intend to shoot Mr. Poole when he fired a bullet into his car would amount to his refusal to accept additional relevant conduct.

The Fourth Circuit Affirms the District Court Decision

The Fourth Circuit, in an opinion authored by Judge Allyson K. Duncan, affirmed the lower court decision that the mental state of a defendant at the time of the crime does constitute “relevant conduct.” The court observed that the sentencing guidelines do not provide a definition of “relevant conduct.” The relevant factors in determining “relevant conduct” include the “acts and omissions committed…by the defendant.” U.S.S.G. § 1B1.3(a)(1)(A). The mental state of a defendant at the time of a crime would arguably not be considered given that it is not a physical act. However, clear precedent in the Fourth Circuit forestalls this conclusion. Attempted crimes (for example, attempted murder or attempted sexual abuse) have been previously cross-referenced under the “acts and omissions” provision, and these crimes contain a mens rea element based on the mental state of the defendant. As a result, the court concluded that when Mr. Burns denied that his “acts and omissions” included shooting toward Mr. Poole with the intent of killing him, he denied relevant conduct and thus became ineligible for a sentence reduction. Based upon the foregoing reasoning, the judgment of the lower court was affirmed.