Tag Archives: mathis

Violence Is Not Always Violent and Drug Cases Are Not Always about Drugs – Update for January 25, 2018

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


Buttercup:        Things are seldom what they seem,
                                Skim milk masquerades as cream;
                           Highlows pass as patent leathers;
                                Jackdaws strut in peacock’s feathers.

Captain:           Very true,
                                So they do.

Things are Seldom What They Seem
(duet with Buttercup and Capt. Corcoran)
Gilbert & Sullivan, H.M.S. Pinafore

pinafore180126Gilbert and Sullivan had nothing on federal criminal law since the Supreme Court’s decisions in Mathis v. United States and Descamps v. United States. There was a time that you would have thought it was easy to tell a crime of violence, or to identified a controlled substance offense. As Justice Potter Stewart famously said in Jacobellis v. Ohio (about obscenity, not violence), “I know it when I see it.”

But no more. Now, courts must go through countless gyrations, looking at whether statutes are divisible, subject to categorical analysis, or are broader than a never-existed federal common law. Thus, even if a defendant beat his grandmother with a ball bat, the crime might not be violent if the state would have applied the same statute to a defendant who nudged his grandma with a down pillow.

Things are seldom what they seem …

Buttercup:    Black sheep dwell in every fold;
                        All that glitters is not gold;
                     Storks turn out to be but logs;
                        Bulls are but inflated frogs.

Captain:     So they be,

So some crimes are violent, some are not. And some drug offenses are “controlled substance offenses,” and some are not.

rare180126Last week, the 3rd Circuit ruled that Hobbs Act bank robbery by intimidation was met the “elements” test of the career offender Guidelines, and was a crime of violence, regardless of whether it met the enumerated offenses test of the Guidelines (the court suggested it probably did). The Circuit said, “Unarmed bank robbery by intimidation clearly does involve the ‘threatened use of physical force against the person of another’. U.S.S.G. § 4B1.2(a)(1). If a common sense understanding of the word “intimidation” were not enough to prove that, our precedent establishes that § 2113(a)’s prohibition on taking the “property or money or any other thing of value” either “by force and violence, or by intimidation” has as an element the threat of force.”

Meanwhile, the 1st Circuit refused to apply the Armed Career Criminal Act to a defendant who had a prior conviction for two drug offenses and attempted 2nd-degree armed robbery under New York law. The Circuit held that when the defendant had gotten the New York conviction, New York law applied it to conduct – such as purse-snatching where the victim and perp had a tug-of-war – that fell far short of the violent physical force needed to meet the elements test of the ACCA.

The 4th Circuit concluded that the West Virginia offense of unlawful wounding under § 61-2-9(a) “categorically qualifies as a crime of violence under the force clause, because it applies “only to a defendant who “shoots, stabs, cuts or wounds any person, or by any means causes him or her bodily injury with intent to maim, disfigure, disable or kill.” The Circuit held that the minimum conduct required for conviction of unlawful wounding must at least involve “physical force capable of causing physical injury to another person.” Thus, the offense “squarely matches ACCA’s force clause, which requires force that is capable of causing physical pain or injury.”

buttercup180126The 9th Circuit ruled that a drug conspiracy under the laws of the State of Washington was not a “controlled substance offense” for purposes of Guidelines § 2K2.1(a)(4)(A), because under Washington state law, a defendant could be convicted even if the only other conspirator was an undercover cop. The Circuit held that, as a result, “the Washington drug conspiracy statute covers conduct that would not be covered under federal law, and the Washington drug conspiracy statute is therefore not a categorical match to conspiracy under federal law.”

Finally, the 1st Circuit ruled yesterday that a conviction under Massachusett’s assault and battery with a dangerous weapon law (“ABDW”) was not a crime of violence when done recklessly, and concluded that the defendant’s state records, which reported he had attacked someone “with a shod foot,” were not clear enough to show that he was convicted of intentional ABDW instead of the merely reckless kind. Thus, the defendant did not have three prior crimes of violence, and could not be sentenced under the ACCA.

Buttercup:    Drops the wind and stops the mill;
                        Turbot is ambitious brill;
                    Gild the farthing if you will,
                        Yet it is a farthing still.

Captain:     Yes, I know.
                        That is so.

United States v. Wilson, Case No. 16-3845 (3rd Cir. Jan. 17, 2018)

United States v. Steed, Case No. 17-1011 (1st Cir. Jan. 12, 2018)

United States v. Covington, Case No. 17-4120 (4th Cir. Jan. 18, 2018)

United States v. Brown, Case No. 16-30218 (9th Cir. Jan. 16, 2018)

United States v. Kennedy, Case No. 15-2298 (1st Cir. Jan. 24, 2018)

– Thomas L. Root


Cleaning Up After the Long Weekend – Update for September 5, 2017

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

We had a lot of short notes included in yesterday’s newsletter to federal inmates. We’re publishing those posts below.


The supervised release statute, 18 USC § 3583, provide that if a person on supervision violates, the court may send him or her back to prison for a specified term, and then impose more supervised release. The maximum terms of reimprisonment authorized by the statute for an supervised release violation of are limited based on the severity of the original crime of conviction, not the conduct that resulted in the revocation.

Some types of offenses are just too offensive. Today, it's kiddie porn... tomorrow, it may be jaywalking. That's why we have laws, to save us from the Flavor of the Day.

However, 18 USC § 3583(k) provides an exception. If the person subject to supervised release is a sex offender, and the conduct resulting in the revocation is a specified sex offense, the court is required to “revoke the term of supervised release and require the defendant to serve a term of imprisonment… [for] not less than 5 years.”

Last Thursday, the 10th Circuit ruled that 3583(k) violated Apprendi v. New Jersey and Alleyne v. United States, in that a mandatory prison sentence was increased based on a judge’s finding of fact instead of a jury finding beyond a reasonable doubt. The Court said § 3583(k) “strips the sentencing judge of discretion to impose punishment within the statutorily prescribed range, and… imposes heightened punishment on sex offenders expressly based, not on their original crimes of conviction, but on new conduct for which they have not been convicted by a jury beyond a reasonable doubt and for which they may be separately charged, convicted, and punished.

United States v. Haymond, Case No. 16-5156 (10th Cir., Aug. 31, 2017)



Inmates are notorious for filing badly-written Freedom of Information Act requests. It’s surprising however, to see a lawyer file a request as convoluted as the one attorney Steve Yagman sent to the CIA.

Steve asked for “records/information” on “the names and company/organization affiliations of any CIA employees, agents, operatives, contractors, mercenaries, and/or companies who are alleged to have engaged in torture of persons.” Specifically, he wanted the names and affiliations of those “as to whom President Obama stated that ‘we tortured some folks’ on August 1, 2014: that is, who are the individuals whom the word ‘we’ refers to?”

spy170905The CIA wrote Steve back, explaining correctly that FOIA does not require agencies to answer questions. The agency invited Steve to rewrite his request. Steve did not, but instead sued. The district court ruled Steve’s letter did not constitute a request for records, and thus that he had not exhausted administrative remedies. For that reason, the district court said, it lacked subject-matter jurisdiction to hear the case.

Last week, the 9th Circuit reversed. The Court ruled that because the goal of the FOIA was to provide government information to ordinary citizens, FOIA requests from citizens had to be construed liberally. Sure, Steve’s request was a hot mess, but the Court said Steve’s failure to reasonably describe the records he wanted went to the merits of his claim, and was not a jurisdictional issue.

The Circuit rejected the argument that the request had to reasonably describe the records sought to satisfy “exhaustion and exhaustion itself is jurisdictional,” the Circuit said, “we reject that argument as well. Significantly, FOIA does not expressly require exhaustion, much less label it jurisdictional, nor does FOIA include exhaustion in its jurisdiction-granting provision… Therefore, exhaustion cannot be considered a jurisdictional requirement.”

Yagman v. CIA, Case No. 15-55442 (9th Cir., Aug, 28, 2017)


The enhancements on the catch-all federal drug offense, 21 USC § 841(b), are tough: any prior state “felony drug offense” can double the mandatory minimum, or even pop it up to life. The term “felony drug offense” is defined in 21 USC § 802(44) as “an offense that is punishable by imprisonment for more than one year… that prohibits or restricts conduct relating to narcotic drugs, marihuana, anabolic steroids, or depressant or stimulant substances.”

Luis Ocampo-Estrada had a prior conviction under Cal. Health & Safety Code 11378, a drug trafficking offense. California law makes the particular illegal drug an element of the offense, and federal courts used the modified categorical approach to determine whether the crime fits within the “felony drug offense” definition.

yellowpill170905The documents filed by the government showed that Luis had pled to an 11378 offense, but did not specify exactly what kind of drug was the basis for the conviction. The government has the burden to prove a prior conviction qualifies as a felony drug offense, but here offered only the abstract of judgment and the state-court minutes from the pronouncement of judgment, neither of which answered “the central question before us: whether Ocampo pleaded guilty to a controlled-substance element of § 11378, which is encompassed by the federal “felony drug offense” definition…”

United States v. Ocampo-Estrada, Case No. 15-50471 (9th Cir., Aug. 29, 2017)


The 8th Circuit last week ruled that the Wisconsin felony of battery of a law enforcement officer is categorically a crime of violence.

violent170315The defendant, Patrick Jones – who had been convicted of being a felon-in-possession of a firearm under 18 USC § 921(g) and the Armed Career Criminal Act18 USC 924(e) – argued that the Wisconsin statute’s definition of bodily harm includes “illness,” a person could be convicted under Wisconsin Statute 940.20(2) merely for attempting to give an officer a cold. But the Circuit found that Wisconsin cases provided “no realistic basis to conclude that courts would find such low-level conduct sufficient to support a conviction under the statute.” A theoretical possibility that a state may apply its statute to conduct falling short of violent force is not enough to disqualify a conviction; only a realistic probability will do.

The 8th said “The simple fact that the word “illness” is included in the definition of bodily harm is insufficient to render the statute overbroad.”

Meanwhile, 2,500 miles northwest of Minneapolis, the 9th Circuit sitting in Anchorage, Alaska, heard a case in which Dave Geozos – also sentenced under the ACCA – argued that his conviction for armed robbery in Florida was not a crime of violence. The Circuit agreed, holding first that the fact that a robbery is committed while carrying a gun does not make the offense any more violent, because the gun can remain concealed and unused. As for robbery, while it requires more force “than the force necessary to remove the property from the person. Rather, there must be resistance by the victim that is overcome by the physical force of the offender.” However, the amount of resistance can be minimal.

The 9th held that “neither robbery, armed robbery, nor use of a firearm in the commission of a felony under Florida law is categorically a ‘violent felony’. We recognize that this holding puts us at odds with the Eleventh Circuit, which has held, post-Johnson I, that both Florida robbery and (necessarily) armed robbery are ‘violent felonies’ under the force clause.”

The split could set up a Supreme Court review, if the government decides to push the issue. Meanwhile, prisoners with Florida robbery predicates may start figuring out how to get transferred to a joint in the 9th Circuit.

Jones v. United States, Case No. 16-3458 (8th Cir., Aug. 29, 2017)

United States v. Geozos, Case No. 17-35018 (9th Cir., Aug. 15, 2017)

Thomas L. Root


8th Circuit Says Minnesota Riots Aren’t Necessarily Violent – Update for July 27, 2017

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


Ryan McMillan was a felon with a gun, conduct that violates 18 USC 922(g)(1). The district court sentenced him based in part on Ryan’s prior Minnesota conviction for third degree riot. Under Sec. 2K2.1(a)(2) of the federal sentencing guidelines, that crime of violence jacked up his sentencing range to 92-115 months.

riot170727Rioting sounds to just about anyone to be a crime of violence. The district court thought so, determining that the riot conviction qualified because it had “as an element the use, attempted use, or threatened use of physical force against the person of another.” But Ryan did not think so, and earlier this week, the 8th Circuit agreed with Ryan.

kick170727Minn. Stat. Sec. 609.71, subd. 3 stated that “when three or more persons assembled disturb the public peace by an intentional act or threat of unlawful force or violence to person or property, each participant therein is guilty of riot third degree… “ A prior conviction like this one only qualifies as a crime of violence under the force clause if it “has as an element the use, attempted use, or threatened use of physical force against the person of another.”

Ever since Mathis v. United States, the courts have started their analysis of potential crimes of violence by determining whether the “categorical” or “modified categorical approach” can be used to parse the statute. If a statute provides that only one set of elements must be present to prove a violation, the courts use a “categorical” approach, asking whether the statute can theoretically be violated without employing force or the threat of force against a person. If, however, the statute has alternative elements – sort of like a Chinese restaurant menu – then it is “divisible,” and the court may look at what the defendant actually did to violate the state law, and ask itself whether the way the defendant violated the statute made it a crime of violence.

menu170727Mathis provided a whole new set of rules for a court to use in figuring out whether a statute is divisible. First, it figures out which terms in the statute set out the elements, as opposed to the means of committing the crime. Say, for example, a statute prohibits one from “purposely insulting, taunting or kicking a person or his dog, and if anyone insults, he is guilty of a third-degree felony, if he taunts, a second-degree felony, and if his kicks, a first-degree felony.” Our hypothetical jury instructions require that the jury unanimously find whether the offensive conduct was insulting, or taunting, or kicking. But because the degree of felony (and thus punishment) is the same whether the victim is a person or a dog, the jury does not have unanimously find that the injured party was Waldo as opposed to Fido.

Had Ryan’s prior offense been a violation of our hypothetical, the federal district court could use the modified categorical approach to find out from state court records whether he had been convicted of insulting or taunting (neither one violent conduct), as opposed to kicking (definitely violent conduct). However, because whether the victim is a human or canine is a single element (just alternative means of fulfilling that element, as opposed to kicking a cat or a trash can), the district court could not look at whether Ryan had used his size 12 on a dog versus on its owner. Any way you slice it, because the hypothetical offense could be committed without using force against a person, it would not be a crime of violence (as unfair to Rover as that may seem).

splithair170727In Ryan’s case, the Circuit noted that “the text of Minnesota’s third-degree riot statute does not provide helpful guidance as to whether the phrase ‘person or property’ lists alternative means or alternative elements, because there is a uniform punishment for commission of third degree riot. Two Minnesota appellate courts have held that to convict a defendant of a riot offense, the state only must show that the defendant was one of ‘three or more persons assembled’ and the assembly ‘disturb[ed] the public peace by an intentional act or threat of unlawful force or violence to person or property.'” The appellate panel said, “That statement of the second element of a riot offense suggests that a jury is not required to agree unanimously on whether a person or property was affected by the crime and therefore indicates that they are alternative means, not elements.”

The 8th also reviewed Minnesota’s model jury instructions, which direct that the phrase “person or property” is a list of alternative means, not elements. The model instructions list the same two elements of third degree riot, not separating “person” and “property.”

The government argued that because the disjunctive “or” separates “person” from “property,” those two terms are necessarily elements and not means. The Circuit disagreed, noting that “Mathis held that ‘or’ is not determinative one way or another. Indeed, we have concluded elsewhere that a list of alternatives was a list of means even though the statute used the word ‘or’ between the alternatives.”

Ryan will get resentenced with a substantially lower sentencing range.

United States v. McMillan, Case No. 16-2436 (8th Cir., July 24, 2017)

– Thomas L. Root


2nd Circuit Says Mathis Is Nothing Special – Update for July 14, 2017

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


silver170714All right, we’ll lead with what everyone is talking about: Yesterday, a three-judge panel of the 2nd Circuit – while holding its collective nose – threw out former New York State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver’s 2015 fraud and corruption conviction. As soon as the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York could put down his coffee cup, he announced that his office would retry the case.

And why not? The Court of Appeals almost begged the prosecution to retry the case, this time with a correct set of jury instructions. “We recognize that many would view the facts adduced at Silver’s trial with distaste,” Judge José Cabranes wrote. “The question presented to us, however, is not how a jury would likely view the evidence presented by the government. Rather, it is whether it is clear, beyond a reasonable doubt, that a rational jury, properly instructed, would have found Silver guilty. Given the teachings of the Supreme Court in McDonnell, and the particular circumstances of this case, we simply cannot reach that conclusion.”

The Court ruled that the evidence in Silver’s high-profile trial was certainly enough to convict him of money laundering, Hobbs Act extortion and honest services fraud. But after the Supreme’s decision last summer in McDonnell v. United States, which narrowed the definition of “official acts,” a necessary element of bribery, the panel said the trial court erred by not properly instructing the jury on the charges of honest services fraud and extortion.

But we march to the tune of a different drummer, so our focus is on yesterday’s 2nd Circuit decision in Washington v. United States, one much more consequential to federal inmates.

burglary160502The Supreme Court’s decision last year in Mathis v. United States dramatically tightened the rules used in determining whether defendants’ prior state convictions fit the generic definitions of crimes used in “crime-of-violence” definitions sprinkled throughout the U.S. criminal code. The stakes are high: two defendants may have both committed three of the same types burglaries before being caught with a gun. But because the state statute under which one was convicted defined burglary to include breaking into cars as well as houses, those burglaries are not “burglaries” as defined in the Armed Career Criminal Act. That defendant gets 60 months in prison.

The other guy was convicted in a neighboring state’s statute, which defines burglaries as being committed only on structures. That is not too broad, so his burglaries qualify him for sentencing as under the Armed Career Criminal Act. He will get at least 180 months (15 years) under the ACCA, no matter how the judge might feel about it.

The ACCA is where the battle has mostly been fought, but similar “crimes-of-violence” definitions are used in the Sentencing Guidelines, in the statute on carrying a gun during a crime of violence (18 USC 924(c)) and in the general crime-of-violence definition in 18 USC 16(b), which has great consequence for immigrants subject to deportation for serious crimes.

diagram170714So Mathis, which limited when courts could look at the actual burglary conduct of the defendant and tightened how statutory terms could be defined (remember sentence diagrams in 7th grade English?), is as important to defendants as it is arcane. Of course, equally important to the defendants who have already been convicted and sentenced based on prior crimes of violence is whether the redefinition of the interpretative rules in Mathis is retroactive to their cases. Is Mathis a get-out-of-jail card?

The law substantially limits second bites of the post-conviction apple. Inmates who have filed habeas corpus motions under the statute (28 USC 2255) may not file second 2255 motions without getting prior permission from a court of appeals under 28 USC 2244. That permission is granted only where the new decision that will free them – in this case Mathis – is retroactive. If it’s retroactive, inmates have one year from the new decision’s issuance to file their second 2255.

There were some less-than-scrupulous “paralegal” firms busy earlier this year convincing inmates that they had to file for relief under Mathis by June 22, the one-year anniversary of Mathis. We complained a few months ago that there was no way Mathis could be held to be retroactive, and that filing a 2244 motion with the court of appeals was a waste of time and money.

Some guys didn’t get the message. One was Ronnie Washington, who was sentenced to 240 months’ imprisonment as a career offender under § 4B1.1 of the advisory Sentencing Guidelines. His 2244 motion to the 2nd Circuit asked permission to file a new 2255 motion on the grounds that his prior state law convictions for drug trafficking was unconstitutional in light of Mathis. Yesterday, the Court of Appeals turned him down.

A second or successive 2255 motion on a ground not previously presented is allowed only if the court of appeals certifies that the motion is based on either newly discovered evidence or “a new rule of constitutional law, made retroactive to cases on collateral review by the Supreme Court, that was previously unavailable.”

mathis170714Ronnie argued that Mathis “established a new rule that makes” his unconstitutional. The Court disagreed, finding that Ronnie’s “view of Mathis is without merit, as its holding was not based on the Constitution and was based on a rule applied for decades,” at least since the Supreme Court’s 1990 decision in Taylor v. United States. The Court said, “In sum, the Mathis Court was interpreting ACCA, not the Constitution… And although the Mathis Court noted that its ACCA interpretation had been based in part on constitutional concerns, those concerns did not reflect a new rule, for “Taylor set out the essential rule governing ACCA cases more than a quarter century ago.”

The 2nd Circuit decision joins those of three other circuits – the 5th, 7th and 11th – in holding that whatever Mathis may be, it’s not retroactive.

Washington v. United States, Case No. 17-780 (2nd Circuit, July 13, 2017)

– Thomas L. Root


A Midsummer Night’s Scheme – Update for May 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.


We take a necessary break from our breathless coverage of current events (Comey fired! Republic in Jeopardy!) to address a substantial question that the readers of our email federal prisoner newsletter have been sending for the past few weeks.

habeas170510First, a little background: Contrary to popular belief, the writ of habeas corpus was not created by the Magna Carta Libertatum, but rather derived from the Assize of Clarendon, a decree of Henry II a hundred years after the Battle of Hastings. Habeas corpus (literally, “you have the body”) is an extraordinary writ through which a person can report an unlawful detention or imprisonment and request that the court order the custodian of the person, usually a prison official, bring the prisoner to court to determine if the detention is lawful. William Blackstone, in his classic Commentaries on the Laws of England (1838) described habeas corpus as “the great and efficacious writ, in all manner of illegal confinement.”

By the time the U.S. Constitution was written in 1789, the notion that everyone enjoyed the right to seek a writ of habeas corpus was so ingrained in society that the Constitution’s framers did not see the need to express it, but rather merely to provide that habeas corpus could be suspended only under limited circumstances.

The fact that the right exists does not mean that Congress cannot control it. For federal prisoners, the law provides two methods of exercise. A prisoner may vindicate his or her right to habeas corpus by filing a motion under 28 USC 2255 challenging the legality of his or her conviction or sentence. A habeas corpus action challenging the conditions of confinement – inedible food, abysmal medical care and the like – is brought through 28 USC 2241. There are many asterisks, exceptions and conditions attached to the election of which statute to use, which we won’t go into here. Suffice it to say, we’re talking about the most popular means of continuing to attack one’s conviction and sentence even after losing on appeal – and that’s 28 USC 2255.

corso170112Likewise, we won’t get into all the reasons that Congress has tried its level best to strangle 28 USC 2255 to within an inch of constitutionality. It has, the latest being the strangely named “Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996.” The AEDPA put strict limitations on when a 2255 motion may be filed, and what gyrations a prisoner must endure if he or she wants to file a second one. Of significance to new prisoners is that they have one year from the date their conviction becomes final to file their 2255 motion.

Sometimes there is a change in the law, a Supreme Court holding that some statute or another is unconstitutional. A good example was the Court’s Johnson v. United States decision in 2015, holding that a portion of the Armed Career Criminal Act was unconstitutionally vague. Suddenly, a lot of guys doing serious time for ACCA violations found that they had been convicted unconstitutionally. So what happens to Ira Inmate, who has never filed a 2255 motion but is way beyond his one-year deadline for filing.

The AEDPA made limited provision for situations like Ira’s. If a prisoner comes upon evidence that could not have been reasonably discovered before trial, or if a Supreme Court case recognizes a new right, and the Court makes the decision retroactive to cases on collateral review (that is, habeas corpus), the one-year period runs anew. Cases announcing substantive rules – changes that modify the range of conduct or class of people punished by the criminal law – generally are retroactive. Likewise, watershed rules of criminal procedure, which are procedural rules implicating the fundamental fairness and accuracy of the criminal proceeding, will also have retroactive effect.

The Supreme Court never announces that a decision changing substantive rules or a watershed change in criminal procedural rules is retroactive at the time the decision is rendered. Instead, it waits for a subsequent case directing addressing the retroactivity issue. In the case of Johnson, it required almost 10 months for the Supreme Court to take up the issue of its retroactivity.

falsehope170510As Elvis succinctly put it, “I said all that to say all this…” There are people out there who make a business selling hope to inmates. Hope is a good thing, provided there’s some reasonable basis for it. But we’ve written about the hopemongers before, people who will tell a prisoner anything to get him or her (or the family) to part with money, and sadly enough, we expect we’ll be writing about again.

The latest from the people who brought you “Holloway motions” is an urgent cry that “[t]he Mathis deadline is June 22, 2017 for those of you that believe you have Mathis/Holt/Hinkle/Tanksley claims should not hesitate in getting your free lookup.”

Please look past the run-on sentence to the meat of this breathless assertion. June 22 is the 1-year anniversary (minus one day) of Mathis v. United States. The other decisions – Holt v. United States, United States v. Hinkle, and United States v. Tanksley – are all appellate decisions that applied the procedural instructions of Mathis to decide that one prior state conviction or another no longer qualifies as an ACCA enhancement.

crisis170510Obama advisor Raum Emanuel famously said, “You never let a serious crisis go to waste.” The hopemongers might add to that the suggestion that if there is no serious crisis to latch onto, create one.

The plain facts are these: Mathis is not a substantive change in the law, that is, a case which interpreted any statute to make conduct that was once considered illegal to no longer be illegal. Rather, it was a case about criminal procedure, how to parse statutes to determine whether convictions under them counted as crimes of violence or controlled substance offenses. Every district court that has reached the question has concluded that Mathis is not retroactive. Obviously, the Supreme Court has never considered the question.

As for the other cases the hopemongers have mentioned, Holt, Hinkle and Tanksley, each is a decision of a circuit court of appeals, not the Supreme Court, and thus has no application to the 2255 deadline.

All of this means that neither Mathis nor any of the other mentioned cases has triggered the one-year period for filing a 2255 motion. The clock does not run out on June 22nd, because the clock never started.

Puck won't be busy on Midsummer's Night writing 2255 motions...
Puck won’t be busy on Midsummer’s Night writing 2255 motions…

But June 22nd makes a great “serious crisis” for the hopemongers, and there’s little doubt that they’re making regular runs to the bank, depositing money that inmates and their families will never see again. And the hopemongers will no doubt write some post-conviction schlock for their customers, and that schlock will be dutifully filed. It will then dutifully be bounced by the courts, and become part of the 92% of prisoner filings rejected by the federal courts in this fiscal year.

There are ways, according to each prisoner’s situation, that may enable him or her to raise issue based on an application of Mathis. But the method must be tailored to the inmate’s situation, and in an unfortunately high number of cases, nothing at all may work. To be sure, a cookie-cutter approach based on a phony deadline won’t work for anyone.

A lot of things happened on June 22nd in history. This year, we know for sure it will be the first full day of summer, the day after St. John’s Day. But that’s all. It will not be the expiration of a 1-year 28 USC 2255 deadline for Mathis, because a clock that doesn’t start won’t stop, either. 

– Thomas L. Root


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.


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


11th Circuit Holds Florida 2nd Degree Burglary No Crime of Violence – Update for January 13, 2017

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


Idust170113t’s been rough sailing for “crimes of violence” in the last few years, as courts have repeatedly limited the types of prior offenses that may be considered by federal courts as crimes of violence. This week, another one – a Florida burglary offense – fell.

This may seem rather dry to a lot of people. Who cares whether a past conviction was violent or not? A lot of people, it turns out, because whether a defendant’s prior crimes are crimes of violence or not makes a dramatic difference in sentencing. Under the Armed Career Criminal Act, for example, a convicted felon caught during deer season with a shotgun faces a maximum sentence of 10 years for violating 18 USC 922(g). But if his criminal history includes three crimes of violence, the minimum sentence starts at 15 years and maxes out at life. A number of other statutes and Guidelines also mete out additional punishment depending on whether a defendant’s criminal history is violent or not.

But doesn’t that sound like a good idea? Who needs violent criminals stalking our streets? After all, you convicted felons out there, sow the wind, reap the whirlwind. If you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime…

kermit170113Sure, piling on additional punishment for already-punished misdeeds is viscerally appealing, until you get into the fine print of what the law considers a violent crime to be. Right now, it’s defined as any burglary, extortion, arson or crime involving an explosive. Additionally, it’s any other crime that involves force or the threat of force.

Most of that sounds good, but what about the guy who 20 years ago, used to sneak into the neighbors’ chicken coops and steal some eggs? Or boosted some Twinkies from Walmart? Those are burglaries in most states. Those “crimes of violence” hardly make him a likely chainsaw killer on a rampage.

Part of the problem is that the parameters of the law of burglary vary widely from state to state. What’s called a burglary in one state may be called a simple breaking and entering elsewhere. In other words, the “crime of violence” definition was punishing people depending on whether state legislatures decided to use the “b”-word – burglary – in a statute.

shoplift170113In Taylor v. United States, the U.S. Supreme Court limited the term “burglary” to “generic” burglary – unlawful entry into a building or other fixed structure. Breaking into a car, boat, or airplane wouldn’t count. Taylor further made the fateful determination that the analysis of whether a prior conviction for “burglary” satisfied the generic definition of burglary was to be performed on a “categorical” basis. That is, the sentencing court was not to look at the actual facts of the case to decide whether the defendant’s conduct constituted generic burglary; rather, the court was to analyze the statute under which he was convicted to determine whether it “categorically” qualified as generic burglary.

The Supreme Court followed that decision in 2013 with Descamps v. United States, which expanded the use of the “categorical” approach. Johnson v. United States followed two years later, in which the Supreme Court eviscerated the statutory definition of “crime of violence” by invalidating the catch-all residual clause, which included in the definition any offense that carried the risk of harm to a victim, regardless of a defendant’s intent.

burglary160502Then, last summer, the Supreme Court decided Mathis v. United States, which resoundingly endorsed and further broadened the use of Descamps’ “categorical approach.”

One of the guys who cares about it is Juan Gabriel Garcia-Martinez. In 2009 Juan, a Mexican citizen in the United States illegally, was convicted in Florida of 2nd-degree burglary of a dwelling under Florida Statute § 810.02(3).

Florida defines burglary as “[e]ntering a dwelling, a structure, or a conveyance with the intent to commit an offense therein…” with the intent to commit an offense or a forcible felony. A 2nd degree burglary is one in which while committing the offense, the offender does not make an assault or battery and is not and does not become armed with a dangerous weapon or explosive. A “dwelling” is “a building or conveyance of any kind, including any attached porch, whether such building or conveyance is temporary or permanent, mobile or immobile, which has a roof over it and is designed to be occupied by people lodging therein at night, together with the curtilage thereof.” § 810.011(2)

deport170113After his Florida 2nd degree burglary conviction, Juan got booted from the United States and told never to come back. But he did. However, four years later, Juan was back, and immigration agents caught up with him in a Florida jail after he had been arrested for battery. He later pled guilty to illegal reentry after deportation.

The presentence investigation report assigned a base offense level of 8 under USSG § 2L1.2(a) and a 16-level increase under USSG § 2L1.2(b)(1)(A)(ii) for having committed a crime of violence – the 2nd degree burglary – prior to being deported. As a result, Juan faced a sentence of 41 to 51 months imprisonment.

On Wednesday, the 11th Circuit vacated the sentence. It held that the Florida 2nd-degree burglary statute was broader than the generic definition of burglary. The Florida definition of a “dwelling” included not just the building itself, but the curtilage as well. Curtilage is defined in Florida as an enclosure around a residence, such as a law surrounded by a hedgerow or a fenced-in backyard. The Circuit said, “Florida’s inclusion of curtilage in its definition of dwelling makes its burglary of a dwelling offense non-generic. Curtilage… is not categorically used or intended for use as a human habitation, home or residence because it can include the yard and, as the State acknowledges, potentially even outbuildings as long as they are located within the enclosure.”

Everywhere inside the stockade is curtilage...
                                                  Everywhere inside the stockade is curtilage…

Because Florida law defined curtilage as part of the dwelling for purposes of burglary, the 11th held the statute was indivisible, and thus – no matter what the facts of Juan’s burglary might have been – it was not a crime of violence.

The effect of the holding will be to cut Juan’s Guidelines range to a maximum of 14 months.

United States v. Garcia-Martinez, Case No. 14-15725 (11th Cir.  Jan. 11, 2017)

– Thomas L. Root