Tag Archives: beckles

Draco Would Be Proud of the 2nd Circuit – Update for October 10, 2017

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

LISAStatHeader2small
BITE ME

bite171010Not much shocks us anymore, an unfortunate by-product of the equally unfortunate aging process, but a 2nd Circuit decision the other day made us feel like kids again… amazed, disgusted, shocked kids.

Corey Jones, a 39-year old with an IQ of 69, was in his last 5 months of an 8-year felon-in-possession conviction. While a resident of a halfway house, Corey “allegedly grumbled and was insolent to a staff member,” as two concurring judges described it. The halfway house called the U.S. Marshals to haul Corey back to prison to complete his final few months. Corey “resisted arrest,” which – again according to the dissent – did not consist of kicking or punching, or even stepping towards the marshals in a threatening manner. But when the marshals “were trying to lower his head to the ground,” which is a euphemistic way to describe throwing Corey to the floor, “the hand of the marshal who was apprehending Jones slipped down Jones’ face, and Jones bit him, causing the finger to bleed.”

The injured marshal was a tough guy, or maybe just had more common sense that the United States Attorney. He figured it was no big deal. He suffered no loss because of the injury, and – despite the notoriously generous government policies giving paid time off and God knows what else to employees injured on the job, he did not request any compensation.

Even the Assistant United States Attorney admitted that the bite was “not the most serious wound you’ll ever see.” But such a niggling technicality did not inconvenience the U.S. Attorney’s Office, which asked for and got a single-count indictment against Corey for assaulting a federal officer.

Corey was convicted after a trial. His sentencing Guidelines calculation ended up at a whopping 17½ to 20 years. The judge mercifully sentenced him to 15 years.

That’s right. Nip a marshal’s finger, get 15 years in federal prison. Draco would have been proud.

draco171010You couldn’t make this stuff up.

Corey’s sentencing range was so high because 23 years ago, juvenile Corey was convicted of 1st degree robbery in New York, and 20 years ago, he shot a guy in the leg, which netted him an assault conviction. Those two convictions – both of which occurred half a life ago for slow-witted Corey, made him a “career offender” under the Guidelines. (Without the “career offender” label, Corey was looking at 3-4 years.)

On appeal, Corey argued that New York 1st degree robbery was not a “crime of violence” under the Guidelines and that his sentence was unreasonable. Last week, the 2nd Circuit affirmed that Corey will remain in prison until he’s at least 50 years old. All for a bitten finger.

Corey argued that under New York law, 1st degree robbery could be committed using minimal force, not enough to meet the “crime of violence” standard of “physical force.” In a previous opinion, the 2nd Circuit had agreed with Corey, and further concluded that after Johnson v. United States invalidated the “residual clause,” 1st degree robbery could not be counted as a predicate for a “career offender” sentence.

The residual clause in USSG 4B1.2(a)(2) provides that a crime of violence includes any offense that ” involves conduct that presents a serious potential risk of physical injury to another.” The same language used to appear in the Armed Career Criminal Act, but Johnson held it was so vague in its meaning that application of it violated due process.

But after Corey’s sentenced was vacated, the 2nd Circuit vacated the vacation, withdrawing the opinion until the Supreme Court settled whether Johnson’s holding applied equally to the Sentencing Guidelines. After the high court decided in Beckles v. United States that it did not, the 2nd Circuit took up Corey’s case again.

Robber160229“Robbery” is one of the crimes specifically listed in the “career offender” Guideline as categorically being a crime of violence. But, Corey argued that New York’s robbery statute was broader than the generic definition. He contended the generic definition of robbery requires the use or threat of force in the process of taking the property, while the New York statute would be violated by a robber who uses or threatens force after assuming dominion of the property.

The appellate court rejected the argument. It said the generic definition of robbery, however, is broader than that. Although the common law definition confines robbery to the use or threat of force before, or simultaneous to, the assertion of dominion over property, “a majority of states have departed from the common law definition of robbery, broadening it, either statutorily or by judicial fiat, to also prohibit the peaceful assertion of dominion followed by the use or threat of force.” This broader definition, the court said, “has supplanted the common law meaning as the generic definition of robbery.”

What’s more, the appellate court said, “We have little difficulty concluding that the ‘least of the acts’ of first-degree robbery satisfies the definition of the Guidelines’ residual clause. The least of the acts, both sides agree, is “forcibly stealing property” while “armed with a deadly weapon.” Plainly, a robber who forcibly steals property from a person or from his immediate vicinity, while armed with a deadly weapon, engages in “conduct that presents a serious potential risk of physical injury to another.”

draconian170725Because the sentence fell below the advisory Guideline range, the 2nd held that it was substantively reasonable. The concurring judges agreed that because the court was bound to consider Corey a “career offender” – even though the current version of the Guidelines has dropped the “residual clause” – the sentence was not substantively unreasonable. However, they termed the “result to be close to absurd.” If Corey’s appeal had been a little bit earlier, the reversal would not have been withdrawn. “This means that, as a result of timing quirks (his appeal to us was slightly too late, leading to our decision to pull our earlier opinion), Jones receives a very, very high sentence in contrast with almost every similarly situated defendant.”

United States v. Jones, Case No. 15-1518-cr (2nd Cir., October 5, 2017)

– Thomas L. Root

LISAStatHeader2small

4th Circuit Hands Down a ‘Catch-22’ in Brown Case – Update for August 23, 2017

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

LISAStatHeader2small
CATCH-22

catch22cvr170823Those of us approaching social security age lament that the younger among us (and that’s getting to be just about everyone) no longer recalls Joseph Heller’s classic satirical novel about allied bomber pilots in World War II named Catch-22.

The expression “Catch-22” has since entered the lexicon, referring to a type of unsolvable logic puzzle sometimes called a double bind. According to the novel, people who were crazy were not obligated to fly missions, but anyone who applied to stop flying was showing a rational concern for his safety and was, therefore, sane and had to fly.

It’s not a perfect analogy, but the 4th Circuit came pretty close to defining a “Catch-22” on Monday. Thilo Brown had been sentenced as a career offender back in the bad old days, when the Guidelines were mandatory. He had been enhanced as a “career offender” for prior crimes of violence, among those being a prior state conviction for resisting arrest. After the Supreme Court held in Johnson v. United States that the residual clause of the Armed Career Criminal Act’s definition of a “crime of violence” was unconstitutionally vague, people who had been sentenced under the ACCA because of priors like Thilo’s won substantial sentence relief.

Thilo’s problem was that he wasn’t sentenced under the ACCA, despite the fact that the “career offender” Guidelines used the identical, word-for-word language defining a “crime of violence” that the Johnson court threw out of the ACCA. But he dutifully filed a post-conviction motion under 28 USC 2255 asking that his “career offender” status be vacated because of Johnson.

The government argued vociferously against Thilo, maintaining that the Guidelines are different that the ACCA, and that the same language that is unconstitutional in one is hunky dory in the other. The Supreme Court took up the question last spring in Beckles v. United States, and agreed that because the Guidelines merely recommended to the judge how to sentence offenders, if they were a little too vague, there’s no harm done.

But the Beckles Court was careful to explain that it was only deciding the case in front of it, in which the prisoner had been sentenced after the Guidelines became advisory in 2005. The Supreme Court said it was not considering whether the vague “crime of violence” language might violate a prisoner’s due process rights if used to sentence someone under the mandatory Guidelines.

catch22vis170823So Thilo pursued his 2255 motion, arguing that Johnson is a new right recognized by the Supreme Court which does extend to mandatory Guidelines people like himself. This is an important argument, because Thilo’s 2255 motion fell within the time deadline set out in 28 USC 2255(f)(3) only if it was filed within a year of the right he was asserting being recognized by the Supreme Court, and being made retroactively applicable to cases on collateral review.

Everyone had high hopes for Brown. Countless other lower court cases were stayed awaiting the decision. In fact, a 6th Circuit decision last week cited the pending Brown decision as being the one to resolve the question that went unanswered in Beckles: is the “career offender” residual clause unconstitutional when applied to mandatory Guidelines offenders?

The 4th Circuit has now ruled, and it has dodged the issue slickly. The Circuit, in a 2-1 decision, held that Brown’s 2255 petition was untimely.

The panel said the right under which an inmate proceeds has to be a right recognized by the Supreme Court. This means, the Circuit said, that only the Supreme Court can recognize the right. There is no derivative authority. That is, a lower court cannot recognize a right it may believe is implicit in analogous holdings by the Supreme Court.

vaguenes160516The Supreme Court recognized in Johnson that the residual clause of the Armed Career Criminal Act was unconstitutionally vague (a due process violation, because everyone has a 5th Amendment right to understand what conduct is or is not unlawful). However, this recognition does not mean that the right was recognized for “career offenders” sentenced under Guidelines using the same language.

The 4th noted that the Supreme Court said in Beckles that it was not deciding Johnson’s applicability to mandatory Guidelines career offender cases. This merely proved, according to the Brown court, that the Supremes had definitely not yet recognized the right being asserted by Thilo.

Here’s the Catch-22 with the 4th Circuit’s approach. First, accept that no one who has a career offender sentence under the mandatory Guidelines could have possibly been sentenced after 2004, because it would not have been final when United States v. Booker was issued in January 2005, and would have gotten the benefit of a resentencing.

If a “career offender” Guidelines sentence was final on December 31, 2004, a timely 28 USC 2255 motion had to be filed by December 31, 2005. But as of that time, the right to not be sentenced for vague residual-clause offenses was still more than nine years in the future. No 2255 raising the unconstitutionality of the residual clause had any realistic chance of success until the end of June 2015, when Johnson was handed down.

But if the Brown decision is right, in order for such a 2255 to be successful, it had to be timely under 2255(f)(3), because no other subsection would have made such a filing timely.

Except that it could not possibly be timely under (f)(3). The identical “residual clause” language found to be unconstitutional in Johnson could be tested under the advisory Guidelines, because at the time Johnson was decided, people were still being sentenced as career offenders under the Guidelines. Someone could test the language in a 2255 motion filed within a year of finality. But no one could test whether the language remained constitutional if applied to a mandatory Guidelines sentence, because no timely 2255 could be filed challenging its application to a sentence that necessarily had to have been imposed more than nine years before.

Thus, if the 4th Circuit is right in Brown, to assert a constitutional right just recently defined by the Supreme Court, a mandatory Guidelines prisoner would have to have filed the petition challenging it a decade ago, when the right did not exist and he or she would be laughed out of court.

It’s not quite a Catch-22, but it certainly carries the same level of arbitrariness and frustration.

The dissenting judge argued persuasively that the right recognized by the Supreme Court does not have to be the precise application being sought by the petitioner. Instead, alleging a rational and supportable extension of the newly-recognized to a similar fact situation is enough. Certainly, it is more efficient, and is reasonably calculated to do justice.

And should that not count for something?

United States v. Brown, Case No. 16-7056 (4th Cir., August 21, 2017)

– Thomas L. Root

LISAStatHeader2small

6th Circuit Holds Mandatory Guidelines Johnson Issue Not Timely – Update for August 17, 2017

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

LISAStatHeader2small
SPLITTING HAIRS

split170818Back in medieval times (before 2005), when Guidelines sentencing ranges were mandatory, Jerome Raybon was convicted in federal court of drug distribution. His prior state convictions qualified him under the Guidelines as a “career offender,” thus mandating a much more severe sentence.

One of those prior convictions was the Michigan offense of assault with intent to do great bodily harm. On its face, such an offense sounds like a crime of violence, which is what it had to be to help qualify Jerome as a career offender. But after the Supreme Court handed down Johnson v. United States in 2015, Jerome filed a petition under 28 USC 2255, arguing that the assault conviction was no longer a crime of violence, and his “career offender” status was incorrect.

Johnson151213Of course, Johnson – which held that the part of the “crime of violence” definition that included any offense that carried a significance of injury was unconstitutionally vague – applied to the Armed Career Criminal Act. Two other means by which a prior conviction could be considered a crime of violence were not affected by the decision. Also, the definition of “crime of violence” in Chapter 4B of the Sentencing Guidelines, although identical, was never considered by the Johnson court.

Unsurprisingly, a subsequent case – United States v. Beckles – found its way to the Supreme Court in short order, asking whether Johnson should apply to Guidelines career offender sentences. Last spring, the Supreme Court said it did not, at least not to “career offenders” sentenced under the advisory Guidelines. The Court pointedly said that its decision did not extend to any old sentences under the mandatory Guidelines that might be knocking around.

For their first 16 years of operation, as everyone knows, the Sentencing Guidelines were mandatory, and a judge had to sentence within the specified range except in the rarest of circumstances, when the court could justify a “departure” up or down from the range. Even then, the departure was strictly regulated by the Guidelines.

However, in 2005, the Supreme Court held in United States v. Booker that mandatory sentencing guidelines were unconstitutional. The Court struck the requirement that the Guidelines be followed from the statute, and the Guidelines have been advisory ever since.

So we have split a hair in Johnson, and split that split hair in Beckles. It was inevitable that a case like Jerome’s would arise.

splitB170818The district court said that Jerome’s 2255 motion was untimely, because his argument against the Michigan assault conviction was not that Johnson made it inapplicable, but rather that another case addressing one of the other means of defining a crime as violent – which had been handed down in 2010 – was what disqualified the assault.

Jerome appealed. Earlier this week, the 6th Circuit agreed with the district court, but for a very different reason.

Jerome’s problem, the Court said, was that for his 2255 motion to be timely, it had to be filed within one year of “the date on which the right asserted was initially recognized by the Supreme Court, if that right has been newly recognized by the Supreme Court and made retroactively applicable to cases on collateral review.” 28 USC 2255(f)(3). But due to the Supreme Court’s repeated hair-splitting, the precise issue – whether Johnson applied to an old mandatory Guidelines sentence – has not been decided. In fact, the Supreme Court explicitly said in Beckles that it was not deciding the question of whether Johnson applied to Jerome’s situation.

violent160620Because of that, Jerome’s petition was untimely, and it had to be dismissed. While you would think that settled the matter, the 6th Circuit decided to address his argument anyway, and quickly concluded that, of course, Michigan’s “assault with intent to do great bodily harm” statute remained a crime of violence under the definition even if Johnson did apply. No surprise there.

Whether Johnson will offer relief to any of the 7% or so of federal inmates serving the old mandatory Guidelines sentences is being litigated in several Circuits. The closest case to decision is probably the 4th Circuit case, United States v. Brown, Case No. 16-7056, argued May 11, 2017.

United States v. Raybon, Case No. 16-2522 (6th Cir., Aug. 14, 2017)

– Thomas L. Root

LISAStatHeader2small

Legal Shotgun Misses in Missouri ‘Crime of Violence’ Case – Update for March 23, 2017

We post news and comment on federal criminal justice issues, focused primarily on trial and post-conviction matters, legislative initiatives, and sentencing issues.
LISAStatHeader2small

MISSOURI UNLAWFUL USE OF GUN STATUTE STILL A VIOLENT CRIME

The first appellate casualty relying in part on the Supreme Court’s March 6th Beckles decision was reported this week.

gunb160201Steve Hudson pleaded guilty to felon-in-possession of a gun under in 18 U.S.C. 922(g). The district court enhanced Steve’s sentence under USSG 2K2.1(a)(4)(A) based on Steve having a prior conviction for a “crime of violence,” that being a conviction for unlawful use of a firearm under Missouri Rev. Stat. § 571.030.1(4). The district court relied on an 8th Circuit 2009 holding in United States v. Pulliam, that a violation of that Missouri statute is a “violent felony” for purposes of the Armed Career Criminal Act.

In Pulliam, the 8th found the same Missouri statute to be a crime of violence under the ACCA, because the crime fell under the Force Clause, that is, it “has as an element the use, attempted use, or threatened use of physical force against the person of another.” Pulliam held that “[i]t goes without saying that displaying an operational weapon before another in an angry or threatening manner” fits the Force Clause to a “T.”

In arguing that Pulliam should be overruled, Steve took a shotgun approach (appropriate for a gun case, perhaps), arguing Pulliam has been superseded by recent Supreme Court decisions in Johnson v. United States, Curtis Johnson v. United States, Descamps v. United States, and Mathis v. United States.

violence160110The 8th Circuit swept aside his arguments. In Johnson, the Court held that a portion of the definition of “violent felony” in the ACCA known as the Residual Clause. Relying on Beckles, the Circuit held Johnson did not apply: “Although the definition of “crime of violence” under the guidelines until recently included an identically-worded residual clause, the guidelines are not subject to constitutional vagueness challenges.”

More to the point, the Circuit noted, Pulliam was a Force Clause case, so that even without Beckles, Johnson would not have applied.

The Circuit agreed with Steve that the Curtis Johnson case addressed the Force Clause, holding that the Clause “requires the use, attempted use, or threatened use of ‘violent force—that is, force capable of causing physical pain or injury to another person’.” But even so, the Missouri statute fit under the Force Clause: Steve was convicted of “exhibiting a weapon that is readily capable of lethal use in an angry or threatening manner.” “Lethal” the Court said, means “capable of causing death.” Therefore, the Court said, “threatening use of such a weapon necessarily involves a threatened use of violent force, not merely an unwanted physical touching. Pulliam, therefore, is consistent with Curtis Johnson.”

anger170322Steve’s final attack was that because the Missouri statute would support a conviction if the gun had been displayed in either a threatening or an angry manner, the statute set forth alternative elements for committing an offense, and categorically the crime was too broad to fit in the Force Clause. His argument, apparently, was that Mathis prohibited the court from figuring out whether the crime had been committed in an “angry” manner or in a “threatening” manner.

The 8th Circuit rejected the argument. Pulliam, it said, “concluded that both means of committing the offense (an angry display or a threatening display) involve the requisite threatened use of force.” Thus, no matter how Steve was convicted – “angry” or “threatening” – the Missouri crime counted as a crime of violence to enhance his federal sentence.

United States v. Hudson, Case No, 15-3744 (Mar. 21, 2017)

– Thomas L. Root

LISAStatHeader2small

Does the Beckles Cloud Have a Silver Lining? – Update for March 7, 2017

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

LISAStatHeader2small
SUPREME COURT FURTHER MUDDLES GUIDELINES

In a decision long awaited by federal inmates, the Supreme Court yesterday held that unlike criminal statutes, the federal sentencing guidelines can never be void for vagueness. But in so ruling, the Court may have weakened the guidelines rather than strengthened them.

silverlining170307The history: In 2015, the Supreme Court ruled in Johnson v. United States that a part of the definition of “crime of violence” found in the Armed Career Criminal Act – the “residual clause” that swept up offenses with a significant chance that someone might get hurt as being violent – was unconstitutionally vague. That ruling made sense: crimes such as drunk driving and not stopping for the police were being called “violent,” and on the strength of such dubious definitions, the law was making 51-month sentences into 15-year bits.

Unfortunately, the definition of “crime of violence” (along with the “residual clause”) was not just an ACCA provision. Instead, the same definition had metastasized throughout the criminal code and guidelines. Under the legal principle that quid est ius gander anserem condimentum (“what’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander”), inmates whose sentences had been shot into low-earth orbit by the guidelines’ “career offender” provision immediately began arguing that their sentences were based on an unconstitutionally vague “residual clause” as well.

sauce170307The United States Sentencing Commission lent some support to the argument. After Johnson, the Commission changed the guidelines’ “crime of violence” definition to comport with Johnson. But a few courts of appeal held that guidelines are different from statutes, and could never be void for vagueness.

Yesterday’s Decision: Beckles v. United States was such a case. Travis Beckles had been sentenced to double prison time for possessing a sawed-off shotgun under the “career offender” guideline. If the ACCA “crime of violence” definition was unintelligible, Travis argued, so was the guidelines definition that matched it word for word.

Yesterday, the Supreme Court disagreed. Because guidelines are merely advisory and judges hold the final authority on sentences, the Court held, defendants cannot successfully argue that a sentencing guideline is so vaguely worded as to violate the constitutional right to due process. Laws that “fix” the sentencing range can be challenged in ways that “advisory guidelines” simply cannot.

The Fallout: Beckles hobbles what has up to now been a well-honed defense tool, while exposing contradictions between the guidelines in theory and in practice in a way that almost guarantees further litigation.

Not if it's in the guidelines...
Not if it’s in the guidelines…

One former federal prosecutor notes, “Saying those guidelines can’t be challenged for vagueness takes away a tool for review and puts the onus on the Sentencing Commission to keep going back and looking at how they are being applied.”

Up to 2005, judges had been required by law to apply the Guidelines in sentencing. But in United States v. Booker, the Supreme Court decided mandatory guidelines the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984 created were unconstitutional. Instead of throwing the whole law out, the court decided the guidelines should be considered advisory.

The broad opinion Justice Clarence Thomas wrote in Beckles built on Booker, differentiates between sentencing provisions in laws like the ACCA and the guidelines, which are subject to district courts’ discretion.

A former associate deputy attorney general who is now a law professor said the Beckles decision is a symptom of the hybrid situation that flowed from Booker: “You live in this weird world where the guidelines are both advisory and highly influential.”

Justice Sonia Sotomayor concurred in Beckles with a scathing rejection of the majority’s reasoning. She argued that while the guidelines may be “advisory” in name, in practice judges often consider them a default, meaning they should get the same treatment as a law under the constitution. Ironically, this is the same argument that helped carry the day in a 2011 decision, Peugh v. United States, which held the guidelines could be subject to an ex post facto analysis.

Sotomayor argued that Booker tweaked the guidelines’s status but left them at the heart of the sentencing consideration — or as the court put it last year in Molina-Martinez v. United States, the “basis” for the sentence. “It follows from the central role that the guidelines play at sentencing,” Sotomayor wrote, “that they should be susceptible to vagueness challenges under the due process clause,” she wrote.

sweetbrown170307Another law professor who filed an amicus brief in Beckles argued yesterday that the majority’s ruling ignores the “messy reality” of federal sentencing. “It reads as though the federal sentencing guidelines are just advice for district court judges that they can take or leave as they want, but that’s just not true,” she said.

An optimistic footnote to Beckles: Justice Kennedy’s short concurring opinion may hint at another option for defendants. He wrote that while the legal tests for constitutional vagueness are ill fitted to the sentencing guidelines, a defendant might still run into a sentence that is “so arbitrary that it implicates constitutional concerns.” Kennedy said, “In that instance, a litigant might use the word vague in a general sense — that is to say, imprecise or unclear — in trying to establish that the sentencing decision was flawed.”

Most notably, Beckles underscores to district court judges that the guidelines are not just purely advisory, but occupy a place in the law that is considerably less that statute, and perhaps much less than regulation as well. “It sends a signal to district court judges and reinforces the message that is already out there that these guidelines are purely advisory,” one lawyer said.

That may embolden courts to deviate from guidelines to an even greater extent than they have before. Courts have repeatedly held that a within-guidelines sentence is “presumptively reasonable.” If those guidelines can be so vague as to defy fairness – too vague to survive a constitutional analysis were they statutes – how long can such a reasonableness presumption endure?

Beckles v. United States, Case No. 15–8544 (March 6, 2017)

– Thomas L. Root

LISAStatHeader2small