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June 24, 2016

Helpful review of Johnson's impact a year latter, just before ACCA prisoners need to file Johnson collateral appeals

A year ago, as first reported in this post and immediate follow-ups here and here, the Supreme Court  in Johnson v. United States, No. 13-7120 (S. Ct. June 26, 2015) (available here), ruled that a key clause of the Armed Career Criminal Act violated "the Constitution’s prohibition of vague criminal laws."  This morning's Washington Post has this effective (and well-timed) extended article, headlined "Local Small words, big consequences for possibly thousands of federal prisoners,"looking at the impact of that ruling now a year later.  I recomment the piece in full, and here are excerpts: 

Hundreds if not thousands of federal prisoners are likely to have their sentences shortened — and in some cases get immediate release — due to one of the final opinions written by Justice Antonin Scalia. Scalia’s little-noticed opinion focused on one phrase in federal law but has created uncertainty and upheaval for judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys facing a pile of prisoner requests to have their cases reviewed.

Federal inmates have until Sunday to try to challenge their prison terms after the Supreme Court labeled 12 words in the criminal code “unconstitutionally vague” in an opinion announced by Scalia last June, eight months before his death.  The ruling eliminated a section of law that prosecutors relied on to seek stiffer penaltiesfor defendants they said were especially dangerous.  Defense attorneys had decried the wording because it was used to brand too many defendants as violent....

For defense attorneys, the court’s decision provides a new avenue to challenge lengthy sentences for prisoners who received severe penalties for nonviolent offenses, such as resisting arrest.  “It was a dumping ground,” said Amy Baron-Evans of the Sentencing Resource Counsel Project of federal public defenders.  “It ended up sweeping in crimes that no one would think of as being violent.”

Filings from inmates are piling up in judicial chambers throughout the country.  In Atlanta, one judge took the unusual step this spring of flagging the names of 110 prisoners from her district eligible to refile for shorter sentences to alert them to the deadline this month — one year from the date the Supreme Court decision was handed down.  In Richmond last month, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, which covers Virginia, Maryland, West Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina, received more than 500 filings for sentence reviews, according to the clerk’s office. In the same period last year, there were 18.  More than 350 petitions have been filed in the 8th Circuit in St. Louis since May, contributing to a record number of filings in a single month....

The language overturned by the Supreme Court in the criminal code echoes in other parts of the justice system.  Nearly identical words about career offenders appear in federal sentencing guidelines, which use a formula to give judges a recommended range of possible prison time for the defendants who come before them.

Federal public defenders and the U.S. Justice Department agree that the Supreme Court ruling negates those words in the guidelines for defendants sentenced since Scalia’s 2015 opinion.  The Supreme Court separately is being asked to settle a dispute about whether inmates punished before the 2015 opinion should have another chance at sentencing.

The Justice Department says they should not, according to the government’s court filings.  The judges who handed down those prison terms were not bound to a particular mandatory sentence and imposed what they thought were appropriate punishments that should stand, the government says.  To the public defenders, that position is at odds with the Obama administration’s advocacy for clemency. If the court rules that the decision does apply retroactively to the guidelines, another 6,000 federal inmates sentenced between 1992 and 2015 could ask to have their prison time cut, according to an estimate from the public defenders’ sentencing project.

Prosecutors say “the sky is going to fall and all of these violent people are going to be let out,” said federal public defender Paresh Patel, who is handling appeals for the Maryland office.  “People are not getting a windfall. They were wrongly sentenced as career offenders.”

Justice Department spokesman Patrick Rodenbush said the administration’s position is “fully consistent” with its clemency efforts.  The guidelines apply “only to individuals convicted of specific crimes of violence and are wholly distinct from grants of clemency to drug offenders who have been vetted for public safety concerns.”

Prosecutors worry about the ripple effects of Scalia’s opinion. Inmates and their lawyers argue that the court’s decision to eliminate words in one law should stick to other areas of law with parallel language. These filings raise new questions about what types of crimes meet the technical definition of a “crime of violence” and how judges assess a person’s criminal past.

In response to the Supreme Court’s decision, attorneys for Dustin John Higgs in May asked the 4th Circuit for permission to challenge his death sentence.  Higgs was sentenced in 2001 for ordering the murders of three young women in Beltsville. The women were shot to death on a desolate stretch of federal land near the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center. Higgs was convicted of using a firearm during a “crime of violence” — in this case kidnapping and murder....

Even if Higgs does not personally benefit, prosecutors say, a new interpretation in his case could upend plea agreements with others facing similar firearms counts.  The uncertainty is already changing the way prosecutors draw up and negotiate charges.

The article states that "federal inmates have until Sunday to try to challenge their prison terms," based on the one-year statute of limitations in AEDPA for bringing 2255 collateral appeals following certain critical legal development. As the title of my post indicates, it seems clear that inmates serving ACCA sentences need to get Johnson claims filed now due to this statutory deadline. Less clear, though, is whether inmates eager to extend the reach of Johnson to the career offender guidelines or other statutes are subject to the smae deadline (and, as noted in this prior post, SCOTUS has been relisting throughout June two notable petitions on Johnson's applicability to the career offender guidelines). Also, I suppose, based on the right facts, equitable tolling arguments could be made (though probably would face an uphill battle) for any inmates who missed the AEDPA deadline for bringing Johnson claims in various settings.

Long story short, as I forecasted in some of the posts below right after the Johnson ruling last year, it seems all but certain that many thousands of inmates (and thousands of lawyers) are going to be having Johnson dreams or nightmares for many years to come.

A few (of many) prior related posts:

June 24, 2016 at 12:50 PM | Permalink

Comments

Are you aware of what is happening with Johnson claims in the Eleventh Circuit? Look at the concurring opinions in these cases:
http://media.ca11.uscourts.gov/opinions/pub/files/201612972.ord.pdf
http://media.ca11.uscourts.gov/opinions/pub/files/201612299.ord.pdf

Posted by: TJ | Jun 25, 2016 10:50:55 AM

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