All Physical Force is Not “Physical Force” – Update for Wednesday, March 15, 2017

We post news and comment on federal criminal justice issues, focused primarily on trial and post-conviction matters, legislative initiatives, and sentencing issues.


With all of the recent news about Beckles v. United States, where the Supreme Court held that constitutional vagueness cannot apply to Guidelines sentences, it’s easy to forget that there is still a burgeoning legal industry in weighing whether crimes once thought to be violent for Armed Career Criminal Act cases are still violent.

violent170315The ACCA enhances the sentence of a felon caught with a gun if he (or in rare cases, she) has three prior qualifying convictions. The convictions may be serious drug offenses or “crimes of violence.” A “crime of violence” has traditionally been (1) burglary, arson, extortion or use of explosives (the “Enumerated Clause”); (2) a crime that involves use or attempt to use physical force (the “Force Clause”); or (3) a crime that involves significant risk that physical force may be used (the “Residual Clause”).

In 2015, Johnson v. United States held that the Residual Clause was unconstitutionally vague. In the wake of the decision – which was held by the Supreme Court to retroactively apply to people already convicted of ACCA offenses – prisoners have been returning to court to escape harsh ACCA sentences (which start at 15 years) where their predicate offenses no longer qualify.

A substantial procedural problem for a lot of the defendants is that the district courts often did not bother to explain under which ACCA clause their prior crimes fit. It hardly seemed to matter: if someone had been convicted of robbery, it seemed to fit under the Force Clause or the Residual Clause, so it hardly mattered to the outcome which clause it was on which the sentencing judge relied.

After Johnson, however, it suddenly made a big difference. It certainly did to Bobby Winston, who got 275 months back on 2002 for a felon-in-possession charge, where one of the predicate crimes was Virginia common-law robbery. The Johnson retroactivity gave prisoners a one-year window to file motions under 28 U.S.C. Sec. 2255 seeking relief if Residual Clause cases had been used to bootstrap their convictions into ACCA sentences. Bobby filed, arguing that the Virginia common-law robbery could no longer be a predicate for his lengthy sentence.

buzzsaw70315Bobby ran straight into a procedural buzzsaw. The government argued that his 2255 motion had to be dismissed., because the district court had never said Virginia common-law robbery was a Residual Clause offense. The government contended it was a Force Clause offense, which was consistent with a 22-year old 4th Circuit decision that the Virginia crime employed physical force.

Monday, the 4th Circuit handed Bobby a win. First, the Circuit rejected the government’s procedural roadblock, holding that which the sentencing record did not establish that the Residual Clause served as the basis for concluding that Bobby’s common-law robbery conviction was a violent felony, “nothing in the law requires a court to specify which clause… it relied upon in imposing a sentence.” The appellate panel said, “We will not penalize a movant for a court’s discretionary choice not to specify under which clause of Section 924(e)(2)(B) an offense qualified as a violent felony. Thus, imposing the burden on movants urged by the government in the present case would result in selective application of the new rule of constitutional law announced in Johnson, violating the principle of treating similarly situated defendants the same.”

But is Virginia common-law robbery a violent crime? The 4th noted that since its 1995 decision that the offense qualified, the Supreme Court had ruled that the Force Clause only applied to “violent force… capable of causing physical pain or injury to another person.” Applying that standard, the Circuit said, requires that the federal court adhere to how state courts apply the offense, focusing on “the “minimum conduct criminalized by state law, including any conduct giving rise to a realistic probability, not a theoretical possibility that a state would apply the law and uphold a conviction based on such conduct.”

Common-law robbery or a simple purse-snatching?
Common-law robbery or a simple purse-snatching?

Virginia courts have held that commission of common-law robbery by violence requires only a “slight” degree of violence, “for anything which calls out resistance is sufficient.” The violence used to commit common-law robbery “does not need to be great or cause any actual harm to the victim.” Thus, in one case, when a defendant grabbed a woman’s purse with force enough to spin her around but not cause her to fall, the force was enough for common-law robbery, but was not violent force within the U.S. Supreme Court’s definition.

Therefore, the 4th said, Virginia common-law robbery was no longer a crime of violence, and it will not support an ACCA conviction.

United States v. Winston, Case No. 16-7252 (4th Cir., March 13, 2017)

– Thomas L. Root


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