Tuesday, October 03, 2017

Interesting comments from the new Justice during reargument of vagueness issues in Sessions v. Dimaya

The first week of oral argument in front of the Supreme Court in the 2017 Term includes reargument in two immigration cases, Sessions v. Dimaya and Jennings v. Rodriguez, that raise constitutional question that could have a range of implications for a range of criminal justice issue.  Dimaya is a follow-up on the (new?) doctrines the Supreme Court started developing in Johnson v. US finding a portion of the Armed Career Criminal Act void for vagueness, and Rodriguez involves broad issues of detention length and due process.

Dimaya was argued yesterday, and I have not yet had a chance to read this full argument transcript closely.  But a quick scan of the transcript with a focus on what the new Justice, Neil Gorsuch, had to say revealed that he is already showing a commitment to textualism and seems quite engaged with interesting issues at the intersection of civil and criminal sanctions.  For example, consider this passage at the start of a question a series of questions for the government's lawyer:

First, getting back to the standard of review and the distinction between criminal and civil, this Court seems to have drawn that line based on the severity of the consequences that follow to the individual, but that seems to me a tough line here to draw because I can easily imagine a misdemeanant who may be convicted of a crime for which the sentence is six months in jail or a $100 fine, and he wouldn't trade places in the world for someone who is deported -- deported from this country pursuant to a civil order or perhaps the subject of a civil forfeiture requirement and loses his home.

So how sound is that line that we've drawn in the past, especially when the civil/criminal divide itself is now a seven-part balancing test, not exclusive, so there may be more than seven factors as I understand it.  And I look at the text of the Constitution, always a good place to start, and the Due Process Clause speaks of the loss of life, liberty, or property.  It doesn't draw a civil/criminal line, and yet, elsewhere, even in the Fifth Amendment, I do see that line drawn, the right to self-incrimination, for example. So help me out with that.

Time will tell how this line of inquiry might find expression in opinions of Justice Gorsuch or other justices in the months ahead. Notably, elsewhere in the transcript, it appears the advocates and other Justices follow-up on points made by Justice Gorsuch in ways that provide further proof that the addition of a single new Justice does serve in some ways to change the entire Court.

UPDATE:  Not very long after this post went up, Kevin Johnson posted at SCOTUSblog this analysis of the Dimaya oral argument under the title "Faithful to Scalia, Gorsuch may be deciding vote for immigrant." Here is his final paragraph:

In sum, the oral argument suggests that Dimaya has a fair chance of prevailing in the Supreme Court.  Gorsuch, the possible deciding vote in the case, seemed willing to apply Scalia’s opinion in Johnson to Dimaya’s case -- maybe even more faithfully than Scalia himself would have done.  And Gorsuch had ready responses to line-drawing and other problems that might arise if the vagueness doctrine were held to invalidate the immigration statute’s residual clause.

October 3, 2017 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Vagueness in Johnson and thereafter, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

Monday, September 11, 2017

Can a federal sentence really "be close to absurd" and yet also be affirmed as reasonable?

The peculiar and perhaps metaphysical question in the title of this post is prompted by a Second Circuit panel decision today in US v. Jones, No. 15‐1518 (2d Cir. Sept. 11, 2017) (available here). The Jones case get intricate thanks to the timing and uncertainties of criminal history litigation. The start of the panel opinion provides a flavor of the mess:

Defendant Corey Jones appeals from a sentence entered in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York (Garaufis, J.) following a jury trial conviction for assaulting a federal officer in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 111. He was sentenced as a career offender principally to 180 months in prison to be followed by three years of supervised release.  The primary basis for Jones’ appeal is that, in light of the Supreme Court’s holding in Johnson v. United States, 559 U.S. 133 (2010) (Johnson I), New York first‐degree robbery is no longer categorically a crime of violence under the force clause of the Career Offender Guideline, U.S.S.G. §§ 4B1.1 and 4B1.2, and that the district court therefore erred in concluding that his prior conviction for first‐degree robbery would automatically serve as one of the predicate offenses for a career offender designation.

After oral argument in this matter, the Supreme Court decided Beckles v. United States, 137 S. Ct. 886 (2017), which held that the residual clause of the Career Offender Guideline — a second basis for finding a crime of violence — was not unconstitutional.  The Court reached this conclusion notwithstanding the government’s concession to the contrary in cases around the country that the residual clause, like the identically worded provision of the Armed Career Criminal Act (“ACCA”), was void for vagueness. In light of Beckles, we find that New York first‐degree robbery categorically qualifies as a crime of violence under the residual clause and therefore need not address Jones’ argument based on the force clause. We also find that his sentence is substantively reasonable and therefore AFFIRM the sentence imposed by the district court.

Judge Calabresi (my former boss) authors a separate concurring opinion in which he explains the various factors and fortuities which he thinks requires an affirmance of a sentence that seems technically sound by infused with problems of timing and equity. I cannot briefly recount he are the curious particulars, but this sentence captures Judge Calabresi's obvious frustration:

What is more — and this may be the true source of my sense of absurdity — there appears to be no way in which we can ask the district court to reconsider the sentence it ordered in view of the happenstances that have worked against Jones, and in view of its assessment of Jones’ crimes and of its downward departure.

For what it is worth, I think reasonableness review can and should be a very flexible and robust means for circuit courts to require resentencing whenever it has a basis for being concerned, procedurally or substantively, with any aspects of the proceedings below in light of the sentencing commands of 3553(a). Consequently, I think the Second Circuit could have said simply that "happenstances that have worked against Jones" since the time of his initial sentencing cast new light on the 3553(a) factors and thus his sentence is procedurally unreasonable and he should be resentenced.

September 11, 2017 in Booker in the Circuits, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Vagueness in Johnson and thereafter | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, March 06, 2017

Formalism (and floodgate/functionality fears?) prevail over functional analysis in Beckles

I was involved in preparing an amicus brief in the Beckles case decided by the Supreme Court this morning (basics here, full opinion here), and that brief argued (unsuccessfully) that the advisory federal sentencing guidelines should be subject to vagueness challenges.  The argument was, in its essence, a functional one highlighting the significant impact that guideline calculations still have on sentencing outcomes even though they are advisory.  Justice Sotomayor's separate opinion in Beckles, though concurring on narrow grounds, wholly embraced this functional argument to make the case that the guidelines should be subject to vagueness challenges.  Here are some passages from her extended decision that capture her functional perspective (with cites omitted, but key emphasis from original):

In most cases, it is the range set by the Guidelines, not the minimum or maximum term of imprisonment set by statute, that specifies the number of years a defendant will spend in prison. District courts impose a sentence within the Guidelines (or below the Guidelines based on a Government motion) over 80% of the time.  And when Guidelines ranges change — because the Guidelines themselves change, or because the court is informed of an error it made in applying them — sentences change, too. It is therefore no exaggeration to say that the Guidelines are, in a real sense, the basis for the sentence imposed by the district court....

As set out above, although the Guidelines do not bind a district court as a formal matter, as a functional matter they anchor both the district court’s discretion and the appellate review process....

Absent that Guideline, Beckles would have been sentenced to between 33 and 98 fewer months in prison. The District Court admitted as much, explaining that had the Guideline not applied, she “would not have imprisoned Beckles to 360 months” in prison. Years of Beckles’ life thus turned solely on whether the career-offender Guideline applied. There is no meaningful way in which the Guideline exerted less effect on Beckles’ sentence than did the statute setting his minimum and maximum terms of imprisonment; indeed, it was the Guidelines, not just the statute, that fixed Beckles’ sentence in every meaningful way. Nothing of substance, in other words, distinguishes the Guidelines from the kind of laws we held susceptible to vagueness challenges in Johnson; both law and Guideline alike operate to extend the time a person spends in prison. The Due Process Clause should apply equally to each.

Notably, as Justice Sotomayor highlights in various ways in her opinion, this kind of functional concern with the continued importance of advisory guideline calculations drove the majority opinions in prior recent cases like Peugh dealing with application of the Ex Post Facto clause and Molina-Martinez dealing with plain error review. But this time around, a more formalistic approach carried the day.

As my post title here suggests, I think the formalistic approach to application of the vagueness doctrine at sentencing prevail because a number of key Justices, particularly perhaps the Chief and Justice Kennedy, may have been especially concerned about what a "vagueness at sentencing" doctrine could end up looking like and how often it might arise. Notably, Justice Kennedy authored an intriguing little concurrence in Beckles that suggests he is concerned about arbitrary sentencing, but was here even more concerned about application of traditional vagueness doctrine to sentencing. Here is what Justice Kennedy had to say:

As sentencing laws and standards continue to evolve, cases may arise in which the formulation of a sentencing provision leads to a sentence, or a pattern of sentencing, challenged as so arbitrary that it implicates constitutional concerns. 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. That something is vague as a general matter, however, does not necessarily mean that it is vague within the well-established legal meaning of that term. And it seems most unlikely that the definitional structure used to explain vagueness in the context of fair warning to a transgressor, or of preventing arbitrary enforcement, is, by automatic transference, applicable to the subject of sentencing where judicial discretion is involved as distinct from a statutory command. See Johnson v. United States, 576 U. S. ___ (2015).

The existing principles for defining vagueness cannot be transported uncritically to the realm of judicial discretion in sentencing. Some other explication of the constitutional limitations likely would be required.

Though I find intriguing the suggestion by Justice Kennedy that there could and sould be "some other explication of the constitutional limitations" on the realm of judicial discretion in sentencing, the ruling in Beckles may itself ensure that such an explication never gets developed in the context of the Due Process Clause.  (Whether Justice Kennedy and others might explicate such limits in non-capital sentencing as they have in capital sentencing through the Eighth Amendment might still be ripe with possibilities.)

March 6, 2017 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Vagueness in Johnson and thereafter, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

SCOTUS rules in Beckles that federal advisory guidelines are not subject to Due Process vagueness challenges

The Supreme Court this morning issued a big opinion concerning the operation of and challenges to the federal sentencing guidelines in Beckles v. United States, No. No. 15–8544 (S. Ct. March 6, 2017) (available here). Here is how the opinion authored by Justice Thomas gets started: 

At the time of petitioner’s sentencing, the advisory Sentencing Guidelines included a residual clause defining a “crime of violence” as an offense that “involves conduct that presents a serious potential risk of physical injury to another.” United States Sentencing Commission, Guidelines Manual §4B1.2(a)(2) (Nov. 2006) (USSG).   This Court held in Johnson v. United States, 576 U. S. ___ (2015), that the identically worded residual clause in the Armed Career Criminal Act of 1984 (ACCA), 18 U.S.C. §924(e)(2)(B), was unconstitutionally vague. Petitioner contends that the Guidelines’ residual clause is also void for vagueness.  Because we hold that the advisory Guidelines are not subject to vagueness challenges under the Due Process Clause, we reject petitioner’s argument.

After the oral argument tone in this case, I am not surprised to see this result. But I expect I may have more to say about the particulars of this Beckles ruling in the coming hours and days.  To begin, I think the sentiments in the closing section of the opinion of the Court best accounts for the Beckles outcome:

In addition to directing sentencing courts to consider the Guidelines, see §3553(a)(4)(A), Congress has directed them to consider a number of other factors in exercising their sentencing discretion, see §§3553(a)(1)–(3), (5)–(7). The Government concedes that “American judges have long made th[e] sorts of judgments” called for by the §3553(a) factors “in indeterminate-sentencing schemes, and this Court has never understood such discretionary determinations to raise vagueness concerns.” Brief for United States 42. Because the §3553 factors — like the Guidelines — do not mandate any specific sentences, but rather guide the exercise of a district court’s discretion within the applicable statutory range, our holding today casts no doubt on their validity.

Holding that the Guidelines are subject to vagueness challenges under the Due Process Clause, however, would cast serious doubt on their validity. Many of these other factors appear at least as unclear as §4B1.2(a)’s residual clause. For example, courts must assess “the need for the sentence imposed” to achieve certain goals — such as to “reflect the seriousness of the offense,” “promote respect for the law,” “provide just punishment for the offense,” “afford adequate deterrence to criminal conduct,” and “provide the defendant with needed educational or vocational training . . . in the most effective manner.” §3553(a)(2). If petitioner were correct that §4B1.2(a)’s residual clause were subject to a vagueness challenge, we would be hard pressed to find these factors sufficiently definite to provide adequate notice and prevent arbitrary enforcement.

The Government tries to have it both ways, arguing that the individualized sentencing required by the other §3553(a) factors is different in kind from that required by the Guidelines. “An inscrutably vague advisory guideline,” it contends, “injects arbitrariness into the sentencing process that is not found in the exercise of unguided discretion in a traditional sentencing system.” Reply Brief for United States 10–11. But it is far from obvious that the residual clause implicates the twin concerns of vagueness any more than the statutory command that sentencing courts impose a sentence tailored, for example, “to promote respect for the law.” §3553(a)(2)(A). And neither the Guidelines nor the other §3553 factors implicate those concerns more than the absence of any guidance at all, which the Government concedes is constitutional.

The Government also suggests that the Guidelines are not like the other §3553(a) factors “because they require a court to decide whether the facts of the case satisfy a legal standard in order to derive a specific numerical range.” Id., at 22. But that does not distinguish the other sentencing factors, which require courts to do the same thing. Section 3553(a) states that district courts “shall impose a sentence sufficient, but not greater than necessary, to comply with the purposes set forth in [§3553(a)(2)].” In fact, the Guidelines generally offer more concrete advice in imposing a particular sentence and make it easier to review whether a court has abused its substantial discretion. There is no sound reason to conclude that the Guidelines — but not §3553(a)’s other sentencing factors — are amenable to vagueness review.

March 6, 2017 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Sentences Reconsidered, Vagueness in Johnson and thereafter, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

"Judge Gorsuch & Johnson Resentencing"

The title of this post is the title of this timely new commentary now on SSRN authored by Leah Litman about the latest "hot name" to replace Justice Scalia on the Supreme Court.  Here is the first paragraph:

Jan Crawford has reported that President Donald Trump is strongly considering appointing Judge Neil Gorsuch of the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit to the U.S. Supreme Court. I do not know Judge Gorsuch, but I do know his opinion in Prost v. Anderson, which is a rather wonky case on a somewhat technical area of federal habeas law. Prost provides an interesting insight into Judge Gorsuch’s jurisprudence.  The case concerns an issue on which the court of appeals disagree, and so it provides a nice glimpse into how Judge Gorsuch might address matters that are reasonably susceptible to different resolution, as many of the Supreme Court’s cases are.  Prost illustrates how Judge Gorsuch will balance competing considerations of fairness and administrability in criminal law.  While there is much to like about Prost — it is well written, clearly reasoned, and adopts an administrable rule — the opinion also raises some concerns. The opinion overvalues proceduralism relative to substantive rights in a way that will have the effect of eroding litigants’ access to courts.

January 24, 2017 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Vagueness in Johnson and thereafter, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, January 09, 2017

"In the Mold of Scalia or Alito: Recent Criminal and Habeas Decisions of Judges Pryor and Sykes"

The title of this post is the title of this new and timely short piece authored by Scott Meisler now available via SSRN that ought to be of special interest to sentencing fans.  Here is the abstract:

Recent press reports indicate that federal appellate judges William Pryor and Diane Sykes are among the finalists for the Supreme Court vacancy created by Justice Scalia’s death. But just as Justice Scalia and fellow conservative Justice Alito often differed on questions of criminal and habeas corpus procedure, so too have Judges Pryor and Sykes.  This short essay analyzes four legal issues on which the two judges have recently reached contrary results or demonstrated different approaches — including two legal issues arising from Justice Scalia’s last major criminal procedure opinion, Johnson v. United States.  The essay concludes that, though the decisions analyzed here represent only a small sample, they suggest that Judge Sykes’s approach to criminal procedure questions would more closely resemble Justice Scalia’s, while Judge Pryor’s would be more similar to that of Justice Alito.

January 9, 2017 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Vagueness in Johnson and thereafter, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Thursday, December 01, 2016

Fourth Circuit panel rejects North Carolina's efforts to defend constitutionally hinky provisions of state sex offender rules

The Fourth Circuit handed down a notable opinion yesterday in Doe #1 v. Cooper, No. 16-6026 (4th Cir. Nov. 30, 2016) (available here).  In this ruling, the panel rejects arguments made on appeal by the state of North Carolina to try to overturn a district court's ruling about the unconstitutionality of key provisions of the state's sex offender laws.  Here is how the unanimous opinion gets started:

The State of North Carolina requires persons convicted of certain reportable sex offenses to register as “sex offenders.”  See N.C. Gen. Stat. § 14-208.6(4); id. § 14-208.7(a). For persons convicted of a subset of those reportable sex offenses, North Carolina restricts their movement relative to certain locations where minors may be present. See id. § 14-208.18(a) (2015).

John Does #1 through #5 (collectively, the “Does”) challenged these statutory restrictions as either overbroad, under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, or unconstitutionally vague, under the Fourteenth Amendment.  The district court agreed with the Does as to two subsections of the statute and permanently enjoined enforcement of section 14- 208.18(a)(2) and section 14-208.18(a)(3).  For the reasons set out below, we affirm the judgment of the district court.

Among many notable passages in this opinion, I found especially telling some of the discussion of the state's failure to provide any serious data or other evidence to support the broad restrictions on sex offender movements enacted into NC laws:

The State tries to overcome its lack of data, social science or scientific research, legislative findings, or other empirical evidence with a renewed appeal to anecdotal case law, as well as to “logic and common sense.” Appellants’ Suppl. Opening Br. 11.  But neither anecdote, common sense, nor logic, in a vacuum, is sufficient to carry the State’s burden of proof....

In fact, the State’s own evidence belies its appeal to “common sense” as an appropriate substitute for evidence.  In its brief, the State cites three North Carolina cases... [but] the State fails to explain how three cases, representing three individuals -- out of more than 20,000 registered North Carolina sex offenders -- provide a sufficient basis to justify subsection (a)(2)’s sweeping restrictions.

December 1, 2016 in Collateral consequences, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Sex Offender Sentencing, Vagueness in Johnson and thereafter | Permalink | Comments (6)

Monday, November 28, 2016

Guest posting from Prof Carissa Hessick on SCOTUS argument: "Beckles and the Continued Complexity of Post-Booker Federal Sentencing"

Image (1)I am pleased to be able to reprint this original commentary concerning today's SCOTUS oral argument from LawProf Carissa Hessick:

Earlier today the Supreme Court heard argument in Beckles v. United States.  Beckles raises two questions: (1) whether the now-advisory Federal Sentencing Guidelines are subject to vagueness challenges under the Due Process Clause, and (2) whether, assuming the Guidelines are subject to vagueness challenge, a ruling that a Guideline is unconstitutionally vague is retroactive under the Teague framework.  The Beckles case and today’s argument illustrate how complicated federal sentencing has become since the Supreme Court decided to treat the Federal Sentencing Guidelines as advisory in Booker v. United States.

In the decade since Booker was decided, the Supreme Court has clarified that, although the Federal Sentencing Guidelines are no longer mandatory, they are also not entirely voluntary.  Deputy Solicitor General Michael Dreeben did a fantastic job in his argument explaining the middle path that the Court has carved for the Guidelines since Booker.  He not only described the anchoring effect of the Guidelines, but he also noted that the Court has adopted procedural mechanisms “designed to reinforce the primacy of the Guidelines.”  The current advisory system, according to Dreeben, “injects law into the sentencing process.”

As the Beckles argument illustrates, the middle path that the Court has carved is complicated.  The Court continues to struggle with how to regulate an advisory system in light of the fact that the purely discretionary system that the Federal Sentencing Guidelines replaced was essentially unregulated.  Indeed, counsel for Beckles spent much of her argument fending off questions by various Justices about how a Guideline could be unconstitutionally vague if a purely discretionary system is permissible under the Constitution. Justices Alito, Breyer, Kennedy, and Chief Justice Roberts all asked questions to this effect.  Notably, later questions by Justice Breyer and the Chief Justice appeared to accept that a purely discretionary system might be subject to different rules than an advisory system.

The complexity of the middle path was on full display in today’s argument in part because the United States relied on the complexity of that path to take what Justice Kennedy and a court-appointed amicus characterized as inconsistent positions.  The United States argued that the advisory Guidelines are subject to vagueness challenges because of the important role that they continue to play in the post-Booker world.  But the government argued that the advisory status of the Guidelines should prevent the Court from making any vagueness ruling retroactive.  The government distinguished this case from a recent juvenile life-without-parole case, saying that juvenile LWOP cases require a particular finding in order for a defendant to be eligible for a life-without-parole sentence.  In contrast, according to the government, the Guidelines affect only the likelihood that a defendant will receive a particular sentence.  The government relied on the distinction between likelihood of a sentence and eligibility for a sentence as the reason it took different positions on the vagueness question and the retroactivity question. And while Justice Sotomayor pressed the government on this distinction, none of the attorneys or the Justices mentioned an important fact about this case: When Beckles was sentenced in a Florida district court, the prevailing law in the Eleventh Circuit actually required such a finding. (Because of the amount of time taken up by questions about vagueness, petitioner’s counsel addressed the likelihood/eligibility argument only in the single minute she had remaining for rebuttal. The argument was made in an amicus that Doug and I co-authored with Leah Litman, which is available here.)

Other odd aspects of the Court’s post-Booker jurisprudence were also on display during the Beckles argument.  Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Alito both raised the question whether the Court’s recent decisions about the quasi-legal status of the advisory Guidelines should endure in the face of changing sentencing patterns in the district courts.  And Justice Breyer, who has often served as a champion for the U.S. Sentencing Commission, raised the possibility that the courts should be more indulgent of vague sentencing guidelines than vague statutes because the Commission is in a better position than Congress to refine the law.

Perhaps because this area of the law is so complex, both Justice Ginsburg and Justice Kennedy appeared to cast about for an easy way to dispose of this case.  At one point Justice Ginsburg said as much: “I thought . . . that if we decide the first issue, . . . the case is over.  But -- so I was thinking, well, we could decide that issue and not reach either vagueness or retroactivity.”  Much to his credit, Deputy Solicitor General Dreeben discouraged the Court from taking that path, even though it would have meant a victory for the Government.  Dreeben noted that there are many cases that raise the vagueness and the retroactivity questions that are currently pending in the lower courts.  And he made an institutional appeal to the Justices to resolve the retroactivity issue even if they could decide this case based on some commentary in the Guidelines.  I admire Dreeben for making this appeal to the Justices.  But I don’t think that his appeal went far enough. There are a number of defendants in the Eleventh Circuit who have viable vagueness claims that are not claiming retroactivity.  Because the Eleventh Circuit refused to recognize any vagueness challenges to the Guidelines, the Court should also rule on the vagueness issue even if it determines that its ruling will not be retroactive.

Although I was not at the argument this morning, it is hard to read the transcript of the Beckles argument and think that the defendant is likely to prevail. Only Justice Sotomayor seemed to be asking friendly questions of petitioner’s counsel, and only she seemed to resist the Government’s likelihood/eligibility argument.

But even if Beckles does not prevail, we may see another vagueness challenge to the Guidelines in the not-so-distant future.  For one thing, Dreeben made clear in today’s argument that the Government has not taken a position on retroactivity for pre-Booker mandatory sentences.  So if Beckles loses on the retroactivity question, then the courts of appeals will have to decide retroactivity in those pre-Booker cases, and if the courts split on that question, the Supreme Court may need to take another case.  For another, the Court has granted cert in another statutory vagueness case, Lynch v. Dimaya.  The statute at issue in Dimaya, 18 U.S.C. § 16(b), has been incorporated into a Guideline, U.S.S.G. § 2L1.2(b)(1)(C).  So if the Court decides that § 16(b) is unconstitutionally vague in Dimaya, and if the Court does not answer the vagueness question in Beckles, then the Court may need to take another Guidelines vagueness case.

November 28, 2016 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Vagueness in Johnson and thereafter, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)

Many SCOTUS Justices seems disinclined to find vagueness problems with sentencing guidelines given backdrop of unguided sentencing discretion

I have only just gotten started reading the transcript of the oral argument in Beckles v. United States (which is available here), and the first set of big questions suggests some Justices are not drawn to a basic sentencing vagueness claim.  Consider these passages from early in the transcript, which I have tweaked stylistically for improved exposition:

JUSTICE ALITO: Let me ask you a more fundamental question. And I don't want to unduly shock the attorneys who are here from the Sentencing Commission, but imagine there were no sentencing guidelines.  So you have a criminal provision that says that a person who's convicted of this offense may be imprisoned for not more than 20 years.  That's all it says.  Now, is that unconstitutionally vague?

MS. BERGMANN: No, Your Honor.

JUSTICE ALITO: Well, that seems to be a lot vaguer than what we have here. So how do you -- how do you reconcile those two propositions?

MS. BERGMANN: Well, Your Honor, we submit that arbitrary determinant sentencing such as with a vague guideline is not the same as an indeterminate sentencing scheme such as the Court described.  Our position is that the use of a vague guideline, in fact, is worse than indeterminate sentencing because it systematically injects arbitrariness into the entire sentencing process.

JUSTICE BREYER: And there is more arbitrariness because of this guideline than there was before the Guidelines were passed? Is there any evidence of that? I have a lot of evidence it wasn't.

MS. BERGMANN: Well, I think, Your Honor, it's especially so here because --

JUSTICE BREYER:  Especially so.  Is it so at all? There was a system before the Guidelines exactly as Justice Alito said.  Moreover, that system is existing today side by side with the Guidelines in any case in which the judge decides not to use the Guidelines.  So I don't get it. I really don't. And you can be brief here, because it's really the government that has to answer this question for me.  I don't understand where they're coming from on this, and you don't have to answer more than briefly, but I do have exactly the same question that Justice Alito had....

CHIEF JUSTICE ROBERTS: Well, if the indeterminate sentencing is all right, it would seem to me that even the vaguest guideline would be an improvement and so difficult to argue that it's too vague to be applied....

JUSTICE KENNEDY: Well, but your argument applies to State systems as well, and you're telling us that the more specific a legislature or an agency tries to make guidance for the judge, the more chance there is for vagueness....  Your argument is sweeping.  And you're saying the more specific guidance you give, the more dangers there is of unconstitutionality.  That's very difficult to accept.

These statements notwithstanding, the extraordinary presentation by Deputy Solicitor General Michael Dreeben (who has long been my all-time favorite SCOTUS advocate) may have helped move at least some of the Justices to better appreciate how the career offender guidelines could be deemed unconstitutionally vague in the wake of the Johnson ACCA ruling back in summer 2015.

November 28, 2016 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Vagueness in Johnson and thereafter, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (15)

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

"Assessing the Impact of Johnson v. United States on the Void-for-Vagueness Doctrine"

The title of this post is the title of this effective and extensive new Casetext essay authored by Carissa Hessick. It starts and ends this way:

Johnson v. United States, 135 S. Ct. 2551 (2015), held that the so-called “residual clause” of the Armed Career Criminal Act (“ACCA”) was unconstitutionally vague.  Johnson generated a large amount of litigation in the federal courts.  Less than a year after it was decided, the Supreme Court decided another Johnson case, Welch v. United States, 136 S. Ct. 1257 (2016), which held that the rule in Johnson should be applied retroactively to those defendants whose convictions and sentences have already become final.  The Supreme Court has also agreed to hear two new Johnson cases in the 2016 Term.

Johnson raised important constitutional doubts about federal statutes that employ the so-called “categorical approach” to classifying criminal conduct, as well as doubts about certain Federal Sentencing Guidelines.  This short essay describes Johnson and explores the Johnson-related issues that the Court will hear this Term....

Johnson v. United States is of the most cited U.S. Supreme Court cases from recent Terms.  Johnson obviously affected the large number of defendants who were sentenced under the residual clause of the Armed Career Criminal Act.  It may, however, have a lasting impact on the vagueness doctrine itself.  By questioning the viability of the categorical approach and by clarifying that the doctrine applies also to laws that fix sentences, Johnson has called into doubt the constitutionality of other federal criminal laws and various Federal Sentencing Guidelines.  We will have to await the decisions in Lynch v. Dimaya and Beckles v. United States in order to fully assess the legacy of Johnson.  If the government loses those cases, then we are likely to see a further challenges to laws that fall within the long shadow of Johnson.

October 25, 2016 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Vagueness in Johnson and thereafter | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, October 17, 2016

"How the Sentencing Commission Does and Does Not Matter in Beckles v. United States"

The title of this post is the title of this timely new paper available via SSRN authored by Leah Litman and Luke Beasley. Here is the abstract:

This Essay considers how significant the differences between the Armed Career Criminal Act and the Sentencing Guidelines are to one question the Supreme Court is poised to address in Beckles v. United States -- namely, whether a rule invalidating the so-called "residual clause" in the Sentencing Guidelines applies retroactively to cases on collateral review.  This Essay collects evidence from resentencings that have occurred after courts have found the Guidelines' residual clause invalid.  These resentencings have resulted in defendants receiving significantly less prison time. 

The extent to which a rule invalidating the Guidelines' residual clause affects defendants' sentences -- often significantly -- justifies revisiting defendants' sentences because whatever finality interests exist in the defendants' sentences are outweighed by the effects that a rule invalidating the Guidelines' residual clause has on the amount of prison time defendants serve.  The Supreme Court should also not hesitate to make a rule invalidating the Guideline retroactive because the Sentencing Commission decided not to make retroactive an amendment deleting the Guideline's residual clause.  The Commission never investigated how difficult it would be to make that amendment retroactive.

A few of many related prior posts and related materials:

October 17, 2016 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Vagueness in Johnson and thereafter, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Saturday, October 15, 2016

"Cost-Benefit Analysis and Retroactivity: The brief for respondent in Beckles v. U.S."

The title of this is the title of this timely and astute New Jersey Law Journal commentary authored by (former federal prosecutor) Steven Sanders. I recommend the piece in full, and here are excerpts from its beginning and ending:

In late June, the Supreme Court granted certiorari in Beckles v. United States, 136 S. Ct. 2510 (2016).  Beckles actually raises three questions, but only two of them are pertinent here: (1) is the "residual clause" of the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines' career offender provision void for vagueness under Johnson v. United States, 135 S.Ct. 2551 (2014); and (2) can a defendant whose Guidelines sentence became final before Johnson issued nonetheless invoke Johnson's new rule in a motion filed under 28 U.S.C. §2255.  In its recently filed merits brief, the government argues that the answer to question (1) is "yes," but that Beckles and thousands like him have no legal remedy because the answer to question (2) is "no."

The government's non-retroactivity argument in Beckles represents a total reversal of the position it took before the en banc Eleventh Circuit only one month before Johnson issued. And that reversal seems to stem from the government's concern about the costs the justice system would incur from conducting resentencings for prisoners who very likely would receive lower sentences were they afforded a remedy.  The government's belief that the costs of dispensing justice outweigh the benefits (i.e., less prison time for thousands of people the government acknowledges have been over-sentenced) is eye-opening, to say the least.  That it has broadcast that belief in a Supreme Court brief is downright disturbing....

In sum, the government's retroactivity position in Beckles seems more like a belated attempt at damage control than a principled effort to apply the law consistently across a set of similarly situated defendants.  The government would do well to heed Solicitor General Frederick Lehmann's powerful observation — now inscribed on the walls of the Department of Justice — that "[t]he United States wins its point whenever justice is done its citizens in the courts." See Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83, 87 & n.2 (1963).

A few of many related prior posts and related materials:

October 15, 2016 in Advisory Sentencing Guidelines, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Recommended reading, Sentences Reconsidered, Vagueness in Johnson and thereafter, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, September 26, 2016

Looking at the impact of SCOTUS Johnson ruling in the heart of the state in the heart of it all

I live in the center of a state that sometimes uses the tourism slogan "Ohio, The Heart of It All."  Though some might dicker with the formal accuracy of this sloganeering, there is little basis to resist the claim that Ohio is a bellwether state, and that reality makes extra interesting this new Columbus Dispatch article about the impact of the most consequential of Supreme Court sentencing rulings in recent years.  The piece is headlined "U.S. Supreme Court ruling on sentencing law could free hundreds in Ohio," and here are excerpts:

Celia Ward has the menu planned for her son’s welcome-home dinner: fried chicken, cabbage, cornbread and mac and cheese. It’s been a while since Hozae Rodriguez Ward, 39, sat down at his mother’s table.

From 1995 to 2007, he was in the county jail and state prison. Since 2009, he has been in federal prison.  But according to the U.S. Supreme Court, he should have been home five years ago.  Ward is eligible for immediate release after the high court ruled on June 25, 2015, that the Armed Career Criminal Act, under which Ward was sentenced, was too vague.

The ruling probably affects many more than just Ward.  The federal public defender’s office in Cincinnati is conducting an “initial” review of 400 federal inmates sentenced under the act to see if they, too, have been in prison too long.  The office covers only the Southern District of Ohio.  The total number of inmates affected nationwide is unknown, but there are 89 district courts in the 50 states, including two in Ohio.

On Wednesday in Columbus, U.S. District Judge Michael H. Watson ordered Ward’s release, which should occur within 30 days.  Watson sentenced Ward on June 30, 2009, to the minimum mandatory term of 15 years after he pleaded guilty to being a felon in possession of ammunition. “No one is terribly comfortable with that, given your previous record,” Watson said.  “Nonetheless, you’ve served more than twice the guideline range, as recalculated.”  The defense and prosecution agreed that, based on the high court’s ruling, Ward’s maximum sentence should have been 27 months.

The Armed Career Criminal Act imposed a mandatory minimum 15-year prison sentence on felons convicted of a firearm offense who had three previous convictions for violent felonies or serious drug offenses.  The act defined those violent felonies as burglary, arson, extortion and those involving the use of explosives.  The problem, the justices wrote in Johnson v. United States, is that the act continued to add a broad “residual clause” that included crimes that “otherwise involve conduct that presents a serious potential risk of physical injury to another.”  The court ruled that the residual clause violated the Fifth Amendment’s due-process provision because it was too vague and “invites arbitrary enforcement” by judges....

“We’ve had numerous folks who have walked out the Bureau of Prison door,” said Kevin Schad, appellate director for the federal public defender’s office for the Southern District of Ohio.  In addition to his office’s 400 cases, others are being reviewed by attorneys appointed by the court to help, said Schad, who filed the motion in Ward’s sentencing....

Schad said the number of inmates affected by the ruling might grow.  The Supreme Court has agreed to hear an outgrowth of Johnson v. United States.  The petitioners in Beckles v. United States argue that a similarly vague clause exists in other enhanced-sentencing guidelines.  “That opened up a whole number of other cases,” Schad said. 

September 26, 2016 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Vagueness in Johnson and thereafter | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, September 16, 2016

"Clarity in Criminal Law"

The title of this post is the title of this timely new article authored by Shon Hopwood now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

Over the past thirty years, thousands of new federal criminal laws have been enacted, many of which are unclear and leave prosecutors and courts to now define the boundaries of the criminal code.  Tolerating unclear laws in the criminal arena has always been problematic, but it is especially so in this era of overcriminalization and excessive punishment, where a lack of clarity can result in arbitrary application of criminal statutes and the sentencing consequences of a conviction are so severe.  Although several justices have noted the lack of clarity in the criminal law, the Court as a whole has not fully reacted.

This Article suggests what that reaction should be.  It argues for a more robust review of unclear federal criminal laws, using amplified versions of two tools already at the Court’s disposal: the rule of lenity and void for vagueness doctrine.  Employing those doctrines vigorously would, in effect, create a clear statement rule in criminal law.

September 16, 2016 in Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Vagueness in Johnson and thereafter, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Eleventh Circuit judges discuss guidelines and vagueness at great length after denying en banc review in Matchett

As regular readers should recall (and as I like to remind everyone), in this post right after the US Supreme Court ruled that a key clause of the Armed Career Criminal Act violated "the Constitution’s prohibition of vague criminal laws" in Johnson v. United States, 133 S. Ct. 2551 (2015) (available here), I flagged the question of how Johnson would impact application of the (now older, pre-reform version) career-offender guideline of the US Sentencing Guidelines.  As I have noted before, the Justice Department has consistently conceded Johnson-based constitutional problems with that guideline, even though there was some prior rulings in some circuits that the federal guidelines could not be attacked based on traditional void-for-vagueness doctrines. 

In the last year, most of the circuit courts, perhaps moved a lot by DOJ 's view, have come to rule that vagueness challenges to the guidelines are proper and have concluded that there are Johnson-based constitutional problems with sentences based on the old career-offender guideline.  But, as noted in this post last September, an Eleventh Circuit panel in US v. Matchett, 802 F.3d 1185 (11th Cir. 2015) (available here), ruled that Johnson and its vagueness problem just do not apply to advisory sentencing guidelines.  

As I have previously noted, I consider the ruling Matchett suspect; but an amicus brief I helped put together urging en banc review in Matchett was not sufficiently convincing to that court.  Today, as revealed here, the Eleventh Circuit announced that a majority of its members voters against considering this issue en banc.  (For practical reasons, even though I disagree on the merits, this decision now makes sense: as blogged here this past June, we now have the ultimate judicial authority on this issue poised to weigh in:the final Supreme Court order list of last Term included a grant of certiorari in Beckles v. United States, No. 15-8544, which will explore whetherJohnson's constitutional holding applies to the residual clause in the older, pre-reform version of the career offender guideline.)

The actual order denying en banc review is only one-sentence long.  But following the order comes 80+ pages of fascinating concurring and dissenting opinions that will surely intrigue any and everyone closely following the legal and practical issues that Beckles implicates.  Highly recommended reading for all sentencing fans and law nerds.

September 13, 2016 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Vagueness in Johnson and thereafter, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, September 06, 2016

"What Lurks Below Beckles"

The title of this post is the title of this timely new paper available via SSRN authored by Leah Litman and Shakeer Rahman. Here is the abstract:

The Supreme Court will soon decide if Travis Beckles’s prison sentence is illegal. Mr. Beckles was sentenced years ago, and his appeal to the Supreme Court is on post-conviction review.  Normally when the Supreme Court invalidates a prison sentence in a post-conviction case, the Court’s holding applies to all other post-conviction cases as well.  But the way Mr. Beckles’s lawyers are arguing his case, relief for Mr. Beckles will mean nothing for prisoners in certain circuits whose sentences would be illegal for the same reason as Mr. Beckles’s.  This is due to a number of a circuit splits that the Supreme Court may not get an opportunity to address after the Beckles case.

The Court should both be aware of these lurking issues and use Beckles as the vehicle to weigh in on them.  Doing so may be the only way to ensure that prisoners — particularly those in the Eleventh Circuit — will have a remedy for their unlawful sentences and to ensure that any right announced in Beckles applies uniformly across the country.  

While the Court typically limits itself to analyzing questions that are directly raised in the petition for certiorari, AEDPA is a reason the Court should depart from that practice here. Two decades ago, when the Supreme Court upheld AEDPA’s restrictions post-conviction review, several Justices warned that circuit splits related to successive motions might re-open the question of whether AEDPA’s restrictions are constitutional.  As we show below, the aftermath of Johnson and Welch in the lower courts is what those Justices warned about.  These constitutional concerns are a reason for the Court to depart from its usual reluctance to analyze questions that are not directly raised in a petition for certiorari and frame the analysis in Beckles in a way that avoids a repeat of the mess that ensued after Johnson and Welch.

September 6, 2016 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Vagueness in Johnson and thereafter, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Split en banc Seventh Circuit ruling, previewing coming Beckles debate before SCOTUS, applies Johnson to career-offender guidelines

As regular readers may recall (and as I like to remind everyone), in this post right after the US Supreme Court ruled that a key clause of the Armed Career Criminal Act violated "the Constitution’s prohibition of vague criminal laws" in Johnson v. United States, 133 S. Ct. 2551 (2015) (available here), I flagged the question of how Johnson would impact application of the (now older, pre-reform version) career-offender guideline of the US Sentencing Guidelines.  As I have noted before, the Justice Department has consistently conceded Johnson-based constitutional problems with that guideline, even though there was some prior rulings in some circuits that the federal guidelines could not be attacked based on traditional void-for-vagueness doctrines. 

In the last year, most of the circuit courts, perhaps moved a lot by DOJ 's view, have come to rule that vagueness challenges to the guidelines are proper and have concluded that there are Johnson-based constitutional problems with sentences based on the old career-offender guideline.  But, as noted in this post last September, an Eleventh Circuit panel in US v. Matchett, 802 F.3d 1185 (11th Cir. 2015) (available here), ruled that Johnson and its vagueness problem just do not apply to advisory sentencing guidelines.  

As I have previously noted, I consider the ruling Matchett suspect; but an amicus brief I helped put together urging en banc review in Matchett has not led to its reconsideration.  As blogged here this past June, we now have the ultimate judicial authority on this issue poised to weigh in: the final Supreme Court order list of last Term included a grant of certiorari in Beckles v. United States, No. 15-8544, which will explore whether Johnson's constitutional holding applies to the residual clause in the older, pre-reform version of the career offender guideline.  Continuing my friendly ways in this setting, I had the honor and pleasure to work with Carissa Hessick and Leah Litman on this new SCOTUS Beckles amicus brief explaining why we think the US Sentencing Guidelines are subject to vagueness challenges and why any ruling that a guideline is unconstitutionally vague should be made retroactive.

Though folks interested in a full understanding of the Beckles case might read all the extant SCOTUS briefing, folks interested in understanding the substantive highlights and the basic arguments on both sides of this intricate and important story can now just turn to the split en banc ruling of the Seventh Circuit yesterday in US v. Hurlburt, No. 14-3611 (7th Cir. Aug. 29, 2016) (available here).  Here are two key paragraphs from the start of the majority opinion (per Judge Sykes) in Hurlburt:

The residual clause in § 4B1.2(a)(2) mirrors the residual clause in the Armed Career Criminal Act (“ACCA”), which steeply increases the minimum and maximum penalties for § 922(g) violations. 18 U.S.C. § 924(e)(2)(B).  One year ago the Supreme Court invalidated the ACCA’s residual clause as unconstitutionally vague.  Johnson v. United States, 135 S. Ct. 2551, 2563 (2015).  The question here is whether Johnson’s holding applies to the parallel residual clause in the career offender guideline.  An emerging consensus of the circuits holds that it does. See infra pp. 16–17.

In this circuit, however, vagueness challenges to the Sentencing Guidelines are categorically foreclosed. Circuit precedent — namely, United States v. Tichenor, 683 F.3d 358, 364–65 (7th Cir. 2012) — holds that the Guidelines are not susceptible to challenge on vagueness grounds.  But Tichenor was decided before Johnson and Peugh v. United States, 133 S. Ct. 2072 (2013), which have fatally undermined its reasoning.  Accordingly, we now overrule Tichenor.  Applying Johnson, we join the increasing majority of our sister circuits in holding that the residual clause in § 4B1.2(a)(2) is unconstitutionally vague.

And here are a few key paragraphs from the dissenting opinion (per Judge Hamilton) in Hurlburt:

The doctrinal foundation of the majority opinion is inconsistent with the overall sweep of Supreme Court decisions following United States v. Booker, 543 U.S. 220 (2005), which held the Guidelines advisory as the remedy for the Sixth Amendment problems with mandatory sentencing rules that require judicial fact‐finding. Since Booker, the Supreme Court has been trying to maintain a delicate balance, recognizing that the difference between “binding law” and “advice” depends on the different standards of appellate review. See Gall, 552 U.S. at 50–51....

If the Supreme Court extends the rationale of Peugh, as the majority does here, and embraces wholeheartedly the concept that the Guidelines are like laws, that result would be difficult to reconcile with the Booker remedy, which spared the Guidelines from Sixth Amendment challenges by making them advisory. The delicate doctrinal balance the Court has tried to maintain since Booker would be threatened by extending vagueness jurisprudence to the advisory Guidelines.

August 30, 2016 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Vagueness in Johnson and thereafter, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Empirical SCOTUS highlights how sentencing cases of OT 15 already "have the greatest downstream effects" in lower courts

I just saw this fascinating new Empirical SCOTUS post by Adam Feldman titled "Five SCOTUS Decisions Making Waves in the Lower Courts." I was not at all surprised that three of the five cases making the list are sentencing cases (and the other two deal with criminal procedure matters), and here are snippets from the post providing the highlights:

[Supreme Court] rulings in many cases each Term go under the radar [because] they deal with less politically salient issues. Some of these cases, however, have the greatest downstream effects.

This post looks at five “sleeper cases” from this past Term that have made their major impact through the lower courts. The immediate significance of these decisions is in how they change or clarify rules and laws and consequently the trajectory of many lower court decisions. They are especially impactful in criminal cases as they tend to arise when dealing with rights of those accused or convicted of crimes.

The post ranks the cases based on the relative number of times they have been cited by a combination of federal and state lower courts (even though these decisions were made across several months of the Term, the number of times they were cited makes it unlikely that the variation in decision timing has a substantial effect on this list of cases).

5) Mathis v. United States, decided June 23, 2016 (75 lower court citations)...

4) Ross v. Blake, decided June 6, 2016 (107 lower court citations)...

3) Mullenix v. Luna (per curiam), decided November 9, 2015 (213 lower court citations)...

2) Montgomery v. Louisiana, decided January 25, 2016 (373 lower court citations) ....

1) Welch v. United States, decided April 18, 2016 (765 lower court citations) ...

My colleagues and students are certainly tired of hearing me claim that sentencing issues are often the most important public policy issues of this generation and that SCOTUS sentencing rulings are often the most consequential of all cases. Needless to say, these notable empirics is not going to reduce my tendency to aggrandize the issues and cases that are my own professional obsession.

August 18, 2016 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Vagueness in Johnson and thereafter, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Monday, August 08, 2016

Split en banc Fifth Circuit limits reach of Johnson vagueness ruling while debating what makes for a "constitutional sockdolager"

Especially while traveling and being engaged with lots of other projects, I have not been able to keep up fully this summer with many lower federal court cases exploring the application of the Supreme Court's Johnson ACCA vagueness ruling to other comparable provisions of other federal sentencing statutes and guidelines.  Helpfully, though, an en banc ruling by the Fifth Circuit late last week in US v. Gonzalez-Longoria, No. 15-40041 (5th Cir. Aug. 5, 2016) (available here), provides something of a primer on developments in one notable context. Here is how the en banc majority opinion (per Judge Higginson) gets started and a key part of its analysis:

This case presents the question whether the “crime of violence” definition provided by 18 U.S.C. § 16(b), when incorporated by reference into United States Sentencing Guidelines § 2L1.2(b)(1)(C), is unconstitutionally vague on its face in light of Johnson v. United States, 135 S. Ct. 2551 (2015), in which the Court struck as unconstitutionally vague the residual clause of the Armed Career Criminal Act, 18 U.S.C. § 924(e)(2)(B)(ii). We hold that 18 U.S.C. § 16(b) is not unconstitutionally vague....

The [textual] distinctions [in how “crime of violence” is defined in § 16(b)] mean that the concerns raised by the Court in Johnson with respect to Armed Career Criminal Act’s residual clause do not cause the same problems in the context of 18 U.S.C. § 16(b). While there might be specific situations in which 18 U.S.C. § 16(b) would be vague — although Gonzalez-Longoria does not suggest any in particular — it is certainly not a statute that “simply has no core.”

And here is how the dissenting opinion (per Judge Jolly) gets started and key parts of its analysis (with emphasis from the original):

I am in agreement with the majority’s framework for deciding this case. Specifically, I agree that Johnson “highlighted two features of the [Armed Career Criminal] Act’s residual clause that together make the clause unconstitutionally vague [and that] 18 U.S.C. § 16(b) shares these two features.” I also agree that “neither feature causes the same level of indeterminacy in the context of 18 U.S.C. § 16(b).”  The majority, however, drifts from reason — and into the miasma of the minutiae — when it determines that these vagaries suffice to distinguish § 16(b) from the residual clause.  Accordingly, I respectfully dissent....

I can agree that [a textual distinction] provides a shadow of difference, but hardly a constitutional sockdolager. This difference between the two statutes is particularly slight because, through judicial interpretation, § 16(b) not only contains an example, it contains the very example that most troubled the Johnson Court....

These statutes read extremely similarly. The majority of circuits to have considered the question have held that these two similar texts must suffer the same constitutional fate. The majority, engrossed by thinly sliced and meaningless distinctions, adopts the minority view and errs by losing track of the entirety: these statutes, in constitutional essence, say the same thing.

August 8, 2016 in Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Vagueness in Johnson and thereafter | Permalink | Comments (4)

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Spotlighting the travesty of how the Eleventh Circuit is handling Johnson claims

I highlighted in this post here last week the potent opinions by a number of Eleventh Circuit judges explaining why they think the Circuit's precendents for dealing with prisoner petitions based on the Supreme Court's landmark ruling in Johnson v. United States, 133 S. Ct. 2551 (2015), are so very wrong and unjust.  A helpful reader made sure that I did not miss this recent Bloomberg commentary on this topic authored by Noah Feldman headlined "This Is What 'Travesty of Justice' Looks Like."  Here are excerpts:

Call it Scalia’s revenge. In one of the last cases that he authored before he died in February, Justice Antonin Scalia convinced his colleagues to strike down a key clause of the Armed Career Criminal Act because it was unconstitutionally vague.  As a result, thousands of convicted felons are now asking courts to have their sentences reduced.

The legal rules for considering such post-conviction requests are tricky and technical.  But in most of the country, prisoners are getting another day in court to have their ACCA convictions reviewed in the light of the new legal principle.  In the Eleventh Circuit, which includes Alabama, Georgia and Florida, the process has gone badly awry [and] a judge on the circuit's court of appeals cried foul, calling for a fundamental change in how its handling these cases....

Before a prisoner can go back to the district court for what’s called a “second, successive” post-conviction petition, he or she needs special permission from a federal court of appeals.  The stakes are high for the prisoners.  In some cases, the difference might be between the 15-year minimum imposed on felons with three prior convictions, and a sentence of 10 years or less for fewer convictions.

Consequently, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit has been immersed in the time-consuming process of figuring out who should be allowed a second chance to file a petition in District Court seeking review of their sentence.  It's studying presentence reports to ascertain whether any of the prior convictions should still count, and, if so, how that might change the petitioner's sentence.  Yet no other court of appeals appears to be engaging in this kind of case-by-case analysis. They’ve been approving the requests automatically and allowing a federal district court to sort out the details.

Judge Beverly Martin of the Eleventh Circuit issued an unusual and stirring opinion ... declaring that the process in her court wasn’t working.  Martin asserted that among the thousands of applications and hundreds of denials, her court has been making mistakes -- mistakes that, by their legal nature, can't be appealed. “A court of appeals is simply not equipped to construct a new basis for a prisoner’s old sentence in this way,” she wrote.

To make matters worse, the Eleventh Circuit gives itself 30 days to rule on each request.  The presentence report can be inadequate or misleading, and there are no attorneys involved to explain what it means.  And most prior convictions are under state law, which varies from place to place and have technical details that are hard for the court to determine without a lawyer’s help.

What's more, the Eleventh Circuit had rejected petitions for reconsideration before the Supreme Court said its Johnson ruling applied retroactively.

The upshot is that something very like a travesty of justice is happening in the Eleventh Circuit.  And as you know if you’re still reading this, the issue is sufficiently technical that it’s hard to draw attention to the problem.  But real people are spending potentially many extra years in prison on the basis of an unconstitutional law.  That’s wrong.  In the spirit of Justice Scalia, the Eleventh Circuit should change course and start allowing district courts to review post-Johnson ACCA petitions the way the other circuits do.

July 27, 2016 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Vagueness in Johnson and thereafter, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Perhaps previewing coming SCOTUS work in Beckles, four Eleventh Circuit judges make case against circuit's refusal to apply Johnson to guidelines

In this post after the US Supreme Court ruled that a key clause of the Armed Career Criminal Act violated "the Constitution’s prohibition of vague criminal laws" in Johnson v. United States, 133 S. Ct. 2551 (2015) (available here), I flagged the question of how Johnson would impact application of the (now older, pre-reform version) career offender guideline of the US Sentencing Guidelines.  Notably, the Justice Department has consistently conceded Johnson-based constitutional problems with that career offender guideline, which in turn has led to most circuit courts finding Johnson-based constitutional problems with sentences based on that guideline. 

But, as noted in this post last September, an Eleventh Circuit panel in US v. Matchett, 802 F.3d 1185 (11th Cir. 2015) (available here), squarely addressed this issue and ruled that Johnson and its vagueness problem just do not apply to advisory sentencing guidelines.  I considered this ruling suspect, but an amicus brief I helped put together urging en banc review in Matchett did not led to its reconsideration.  As blogged here last month, though, we know have the ultimate judicial authority on this issue poised to weigh in: the final Supreme Court order list of last Term included a grant of certiorari in Beckles v. United States, No. 15-8544, which will explore whether Johnson's constitutional holding applies to the residual clause in the older, pre-reform version of the career offender guideline.

For a variety of reasons, I am expecting that SCOTUS will ultimately agree with the majority of circuits that Johnson's holding applies to the career offender guidelines and thereby reject the Eleventh Circuit's Matchett precedent.  What I did not expect was that a number of Eleventh Circuit judges would set forth, in essence, some amicus briefing to SCOTUS in order to explain in detail why they think their own circuit's work in Matchett was wrong.  But that is what I see via a series of recent concurring opinions in In Re: William Hunt and In re: Charles Therion Clayton, cases in which a panel felt duty-bound to reject habeas applications due to the Matchett precedent but then followed up with separate opinions by Circuit Judges Wilson and (Jill) Pryor and Rosenbaum and Martin all explaining why they think Matchett is so wrong and so troublesome as we await a SCOTUS ruling in Beckles.

If you have read this far into this post, you probably have some interest in the application of Johnson and its impact on the career offender guidelines, which in turns means you ought to find the time to read all the judicial thoughts shared in Hunt and Therion.  I know that is my plan for this evening, and to whet everyone's appetite I will close this post by quoting the closing paragraph authored by Judge Pryor in these cases:

If the Supreme Court decides in Beckles that the residual clause in the career offender guideline is void for vagueness, there may be new hope for the scores of inmates who have tried to obtain relief since Johnson, only to be turned away by this Court based upon Matchett.  I hope next time around we will avoid the mistakes I have identified. And I hope that, rather than being behind the march of justice, we, as our nation’s designated guardians, will be at the front.

July 19, 2016 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Vagueness in Johnson and thereafter, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, June 27, 2016

SCOTUS grants cert on Johnson application to career offender guidelines

As noted in this prior post, SCOTUS has been relisting throughout June two notable petitions on Johnson's applicability to the career offender guidelines.  Excitingly for sentencing fans, today's final Supreme Court order list includes a grant or certiorari in Beckles v. United States, No. 15-8544, which SCOTUSblog has described this way:

Issue: (1) Whether Johnson v. United States applies retroactively to collateral cases challenging federal sentences enhanced under the residual clause in United States Sentencing Guidelines (U.S.S.G.) § 4B1.2(a)(2) (defining “crime of violence”); (2) whetherJohnson's constitutional holding applies to the residual clause in U.S.S.G. § 4B1.2(a)(2), thereby rendering challenges to sentences enhanced under it cognizable on collateral review; and (3) whether mere possession of a sawed-off shotgun, an offense listed as a “crime of violence” only in commentary to U.S.S.G. § 4B1.2, remains a “crime of violence” after Johnson.

IN other words, Beckle buckle-up your seat-belts, sentencing fans, as the post-Johnson criminal history bumpy ride is now sure to continue in the Supreme Court for at least the next Term and likely beyond.

Notably and significantly, the SCOTUS order list reports that "Justice Kagan took no part in the consideration or decision of ... this petition." In other words, it seems that Justice Kagan's prior history as Solicitor General has caused her to be conflicted out of this case. Ergo, it will likely be only be a seven (or perhaps and eight-member) Court that will be resolving the application of vagueness doctrines in this case.  

A few (of many) prior related posts:

June 27, 2016 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Sentences Reconsidered, Vagueness in Johnson and thereafter, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Friday, 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 in Offender Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered, Vagueness in Johnson and thereafter | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Ninth Circuit discusses timing and tolling for successor 2255 petitions making Johnson claims

Hard-core habeas fans know that all sorts of procedural issues can potentially trip up federal defendants serving Armed Career Criminal Act sentences from being able to bring claims collaterally attacking their sentences based on Johnson v. US.  Some of the procedural trip-wires, and potential work-arounds, are discussed today by a Ninth Circuit panel in Orona v. US, No. 16-70568 (9th Cir. June 22, 2016) (available here).

I am not sure any of the particulars discussed in Orona are that noteworthy, but I thought the case merited a blog mention because this week is, arguably, the last week in which defendants with long-final sentences can bring timely collateral attacks based on Johnson.

June 22, 2016 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Vagueness in Johnson and thereafter | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, June 10, 2016

Two SCOTUS reslists concerning Johnson's application to the career-offender guideline worth keeping an eye on

This week's entry in the always amusing and informative Relist Watch SCOTUSblog posting by John Elwood has flagged two cases of note for sentencing fans, especially for those especially interested in the continued fall-out from the Supreme Court's big Johnson vagueness ruling last year.  I will reprint, with all the humor and links, Elwood's coverage of these cases:

Our next new relist is Jones v. United States, 15-8629. No, not that one.  Not that one either.  Or that.  Now you’re trying my patience.  Can we just agree it’s a pretty common case caption?  And indeed, this case has been up to the Court once before.  The petitioner in Jones was sentenced to about twenty-one years’ imprisonment under the residual clause of the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines’ career-offender provision.  During its last trip to One First Street, the Court granted cert., vacated the judgment, and remanded (“GVR”) in light of Johnson v. United States, which declared an identically worded residual clause in the Armed Career Criminal Act (“ACCA”) unconstitutionally vague and therefore void.  On remand, the Third Circuit determined that Johnson was inapplicable because Jones’s career-offender designation relied not on the residual clause, but on its “Application Note,” which specifically lists robbery as a predicate offense.  During Jones’s stay in the Third Circuit, the Court held in Welch v. United States that Johnson announced a new substantive constitutional rule that applies retroactively to ACCA cases on collateral review.  Jones poses three questions: (1) whether Johnson applies retroactively to collateral cases challenging the residual clause of the Guidelines’ career-offender provision; (2) whether Johnson applies to and invalidates the Guidelines’ residual clause; and (3) whether Jones’s robbery conviction qualifies as a “crime of violence” under the residual clause based on the clause’s Application Note, “even though [the Note] does not interpret and conflicts with the text of the guideline.”

Jones, unsurprisingly, is not one of a kind: It has a doppelganger, Beckles v. United States, 15-8544, which is nearly identical right down to the GVR and raises the same three questions (except that Beckles’s third question presented involves possession of a sawed-off shotgun). Both the Jones and Beckles petitions assert urgency because of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act’s one-year bar: “Prompt resolution of these issues is required because the one-year statute of limitations governing collateral Johnson claims will expire on June 26, 2016,” the petitioners say, adding that “a per curiam opinion on these issues without full briefing or oral argument may be appropriate.” The government opposes cert. because, among other things, the Sentencing Commission has adopted a Guidelines amendment, likely taking effect on August 1, 2016, that deletes the residual clause from the guideline in light of the Court’s concerns in Johnson: “The question of Johnson’s application to the current career offender guideline is therefore likely to be of no continuing importance.”   Both cases got something of a late boost when the Fourth Circuit deepened the split on Wednesday....

 

15-8629

Issue: (1) Whether Johnson v. United States announced a new substantive rule of constitutional law that applies retroactively on collateral review to challenges of sentences imposed under the residual clause in United States Sentencing Guidelines career offender provision, U.S.S.G. § 4B1.2(a)(2); (2) whether Johnson's constitutional holding applies to U.S.S.G. § 4B1.2(a)(2)'s identical residual clause thus rendering that provision void; and (3) whether Petitioner's Pennsylvania conviction for robbery by force however slight is a “crime of violence” because it is listed in the commentary to U.S.S.G. § 4B1.2, even though it does not interpret and conflicts with the text of the guideline, after Johnson.

(relisted after the June 2 Conference)

 

15-8544

Issue: (1) Whether Johnson v. United States applies retroactively to collateral cases challenging federal sentences enhanced under the residual clause in United States Sentencing Guidelines (U.S.S.G.) § 4B1.2(a)(2) (defining “crime of violence”); (2) whether Johnson's constitutional holding applies to the residual clause in U.S.S.G. § 4B1.2(a)(2), thereby rendering challenges to sentences enhanced under it cognizable on collateral review; and (3) whether mere possession of a sawed-off shotgun, an offense listed as a “crime of violence” only in commentary to U.S.S.G. § 4B1.2, remains a “crime of violence” after Johnson.

(relisted after the June 2 Conference)

June 10, 2016 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered, Vagueness in Johnson and thereafter, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, April 30, 2016

"Why Vague Sentencing Guidelines Violate the Due Process Clause"

The title of this post is the title of this new article by Kelsey Heilman now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

The United States Sentencing Guidelines are the mandatory starting point and the lodestone for the sentences of 75,000 federal defendants each year.  Though advisory after the 2005 Supreme Court decision in United States v. Booker, the Guidelines continue to exert tremendous influence over federal sentencing practice.  Last term, in Johnson v. United States, the Supreme Court struck down as unconstitutionally vague a sentencing provision of the Armed Career Criminals Act.  In the ensuing year, a circuit split developed regarding whether that decision dooms a textually identical provision of the Guidelines, with some courts holding advisory sentencing guidelines are completely immune from due process challenges.  In this Article, I argue the Guidelines violate the Due Process Clause of the United States Constitution if they are so vague they deny fair notice to defendants and invite arbitrary enforcement by judges.

April 30, 2016 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered, Vagueness in Johnson and thereafter | Permalink | Comments (3)

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Eleventh Circuit concurrence lists 100+ cases now made viable now that Welch clarified Johnson's retroactivity

A helpful reader altered me to a remarkable concurrence authored by Eleventh Circuit Judge Beverly Martin in In re Robinson, No. 16-11304 (11th Cir. April 19, 2016) (available here). Here is the full text of the concurrence, which serves as an explanatory preamble to a list of 110 Welch impacted cases within the circuit:

I agree that Troy Robinson cannot benefit from Johnson v. United States, 576 U.S. ___, 135 S. Ct. 2551 (2015), because his sentence is valid even without the residual clause.  I write separately to note that Mr. Robinson is one of dozens of prisoners who has tried to file similar applications based on Johnson.  Prior to yesterday’s decision in Welch v. United States, No. 15-6418, 2016 WL 1551144 (Apr. 18, 2016), all these applicants were turned away from our Court not because Johnson wouldn’t benefit them but because our Court held that Johnson could never apply in these cases. Some of those who filed applications in other courts have already been freed because they were serving an unconstitutional prison sentence.  As best I can tell, all the prisoners we turned away may only have until June 26, 2016, to refile applications based on Johnson.  See Dodd v. United States, 545 U.S. 353, 359, 125 S. Ct. 2478, 2482–83 (2005).

Although I have not taken the time to investigate the merits of these cases, below is a list of every case I know of in which this court denied an application from a prisoner seeking to file a second or successive 28 U.S.C. § 2255 petition based on Johnson.  I share this list in the hope that these prisoners, who filed their applications without a lawyer’s help, may now know to refile their applications.  I have separated out the cases that arise under the residual clause in the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA) and the cases that arise under the identical language in United States Sentencing Guidelines § 4B1.2 (which includes cases for which the guidelines were mandatory together with those for which the guidelines were advisory).  I have also listed the district court in which each sentence was imposed, to the extent Federal Public Defender offices are monitoring these cases.

Because these cases all involve prisoners seeking collateral review of their prison terms, the Sixth Amendment does not provide them with a constitutional right to the assistance of counsel. I believe district judges may have discretion to appoint lawyers for these prisoners under the Criminal Justice Act, and federal defenders and private lawyers can take up their cases upon their own initiative. I hope many will.  Indeed, I cannot help but wonder if some lawyers still working through thousands of federal clemency petitions (all of which wouls seem to have limited chance of success) might reallocate some of their energies to helping Johnson/Welch claimants on this list and elsewhere throughout the country.

April 20, 2016 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Vagueness in Johnson and thereafter, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (9)

Monday, April 18, 2016

Two thoughtful reactions to the quick SCOTUS retroactivity work in Welch

As first noted here, this morning the US Supreme Court ruled in Welch v. United States that its recent significant ruling in Johnson that the "residual clause" of the federal Armed Career Criminal Act was unconstitutionally vague is to be applied retroactively.  I provided my first reaction to the consequential Welch decision in this post, and now I can link to two other thoughtful takes on Welch:

From Steve Sady at the Ninth Circuit Blog here, "Welch: Building Blocks For Retroactively Challenging Unconstitutional Career Offender Designations"

From Steve Vladeck at PrawfBlawg here, "The Subtle But Serious Flaw in the Supreme Court's Welch Ruling"

April 18, 2016 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Vagueness in Johnson and thereafter | Permalink | Comments (1)

Seeing Montgomery and Welch as SCOTUS Teague make-up calls

2000px-Seal_of_the_United_States_Supreme_Court.svgA few years ago I wrote this extended article, titled "Re-Balancing Fitness, Fairness, and Finality for Sentences," which made the case for modern doctrines to be far less concerned about sentence finality, and far more concerned about punishment fitness and fairness, when new legal developments raise doubts or concerns about lengthy prison sentences.  Though I did not in that article call for the Supreme Court's Teague doctrines to be ignored, passages from it suggesting Teague's limit on retroactivity ought to be narrowly construed appeared in amicus briefs I signed in Montgomery and Welch

I have been pleased that Montgomery and now Welch both resulted in a significant block of Justices declaring prior Eighth And Fifth Amendment rulings fully retroactive.  But how the Court majority has gotten there has been more than a bit puzzling because, as I see, the Court keeps massaging Teague while it suggests that it is faithfully applying the doctrine.  In Montgomery, as I explain in this new commentary, six Justices signed on to an opinion (including Chief Justice Roberts) that seems, at least indirectly, to rewrite significantly the very foundational legal basis for Teague.  And, in the final line of his solo dissent in Welch today, Justice Thomas complains that the majoity opinion in Welch (which has the votes of both Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Alito) shows that "the Court keeps moving the [retroactivity] goalposts" through its "unprincipled expansion of Teague [so that] every end is instead a new beginning."

I bring all this up because, upon reading Welch, this one passage from the majority opinion stood out for a couple of reasons: 

[W]here the conviction or sentence in fact is not authorized by substantive law, then finality interests are at their weakest.  As Justice Harlan wrote, “[t]here is little societal interest in permitting the criminal process to rest at a point where it ought properly never to repose.” Mackey, 401 U. S., at 693 (opinion of Harlan, J.).

First and foremost, I am pleased and I think it potentially quite important (and in harmony with my own writings) to see the Supreme Court state expressly that "finality interests are at their weakest" when substantive law has changed and a defendant is still dealing with the consequences of the conviction or sentence based on the now-changed substantive law.  

Second, as explained in the title of this post, the quote from Justice Harlan seems especially notable here in describing the limited societal interest in "permitting the criminal process to rest at a point where it ought properly never to repose."  I suspect that Chief Justice Roberts was somewhat more comfortable with the Teague rewriting in Montgomery and that both the Chief and Justice Alito were content with the Court's work in Welch because they may have come to the conclusion the Court ultimately took unfairly long before finally finding constitutional problems with mandatory juve LWOP and the residual clause of ACCA.  In both settings, lots and lots of defendants subject to really long prison terms have been persistently complaining for decades that these extreme sentencing laws were constitutionally problematic.  I would guess that, as judicial umpires calling balls and strikes, the Chief and Justice Alito could live with a "Teague" make-up call to help the defendants who before kept getting strikes called against them.

April 18, 2016 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Sentences Reconsidered, Vagueness in Johnson and thereafter, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Supreme Court swiftly rules in Welch declaring Johnson ACCA vagueness decision retroactive

As reported here, just a few weeks ago the Supreme Court heard oral argument in Welch v. United States to address the retroactive application of last Term's significant ruling in Johnson (authored by Justice Scalia) that the "residual clause" of the federal Armed Career Criminal Act was unconstitutionally vague.   Justice Kennedy authored this opinion for the Court in its 7-1 ruling, and here is the heart of the opinion's analytical conclusion:

Under this [Teague] framework, the rule announced in Johnson is substantive.  By striking down the residual clause as void for vagueness, Johnson changed the substantive reach of the Armed Career Criminal Act, altering “the range of conduct or the class of persons that the [Act] punishes.” Schriro, supra, at 353.  Before Johnson, the Act applied to any person who possessed a firearm after three violent felony convictions, even if one or more of those convictions fell under only the residual clause.  An offender in that situation faced 15 years to life in prison.  After Johnson, the same person engaging in the same conduct is no longer subject to the Act and faces at most 10 years in prison.  The residual clause is invalid under Johnson, so it can no longer mandate or authorize any sentence.  Johnson establishes, in other words, that “even the use of impeccable factfinding procedures could not legitimate” a sentence based on that clause.  United States v. United States Coin & Currency, 401 U. S. 715, 724 (1971).  It follows that Johnson is a substantive decision.

In the wake of the oral argument, I find this substantive ruling not at all surprising. What is a bit surprising, though, is that Justice Thomas not Justice Alito is the sole dissenter. Here is how his dissent gets started:

Last Term the Court held in Johnson v. United States, 576 U. S. ___ (2015), that because the residual clause of the Armed Career Criminal Act of 1984 (ACCA), 18 U.S.C. §924(e)(2)(B)(ii), “combin[es] indeterminacy about how to measure the risk posed by a crime with indeterminacy about how much risk it takes for the crime to qualify as a violent felony,” it is unconstitutionally vague.  576 U. S., at ___ (slip op., at 6).  Federal prisoners then sought to invoke Johnson as a basis for vacating their sentences in federal collateral review proceedings.  See 28 U. S. C. §2255(a).

Today the Court holds that Johnson applies retroactively to already final sentences of federal prisoners.  That holding comes at a steep price.  The majority ignores an insuperable procedural obstacle: when, as here, a court fails to rule on a claim not presented in a prisoner’s §2255 motion, there is no error for us to reverse.  The majority also misconstrues the retroactivity framework developed in Teague v. Lane, 489 U. S. 288 (1989), and its progeny, thereby undermining any principled limitation on the finality of federal convictions.  I respectfully dissent.

April 18, 2016 in Sentences Reconsidered, Vagueness in Johnson and thereafter, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)

Wednesday, April 06, 2016

"Normative Retroactivity"

The title of this post is the title of this timely new piece by William Berry now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

When the Court interprets the Constitution to accord a new right to criminal offenders, the question quickly becomes which prisoners might benefit from the new rule.  The current retroactivity doctrine relies on a confusing substance-procedure dichotomy.  Drawn from Teague v. Lane, this test often results in lower court splits on the retroactivity question.  Just this term, the Supreme Court has already decided the question of retroactivity in one case — Montgomery v. Louisiana, and has granted certiorari in another — Welch v. United States.

This Article rejects the substance-procedure dichotomy and offers a competing theoretical frame for considering the question of retroactivity.  Specifically, the Article develops the concept of “normative retroactivity,” arguing that retroactivity should relate directly to the normative impact of the new rule on previous guilt and sentencing determinations.  Further, the article advances a doctrinal test for assessing normative retroactivity of new rules of criminal constitutional law that combines the normative impact of the rule with a balancing test that weighs the applicable values of fundamental fairness and equality under the law against the competing values of finality, comity, and government financial burden.

April 6, 2016 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Vagueness in Johnson and thereafter, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, March 31, 2016

A telling, but still unsatisfying, SCOTUS discussion of retroactivity during oral argument in Welch

As previewed in this post, yesterday the Supreme Court heard oral argument in Welch v. United States, which is principally concerned with the retroactive application of last Term's significant ruling in Johnson (authored by Justice Scalia) that the "residual clause" of the federal Armed Career Criminal Act was unconstitutionally vague.  I am deeply interested in this Welch case, not only because I helped with this law professor amicus brief in Welch, but also because I have authored this law review article to explain my view that traditional SCOTUS retroactivity doctrines — so called Teague doctrines — developed with unique concern for the importance of preserving the finality of convictions are not necessarily the best was to examine whether and when a new sentencing rule ought to apply retroactivity.

Helpfully, Rory Little has followed up his terrific Welch oral argument preview post at SCOTUSblog with this spot-on oral argument review post titled "Argument analysis: A likely decision in favor of retroactivity?."  Having read the full argument transcript in Welch (which is available here), I fell well positioned to assert that Rory's analysis is a much better and more enjoyable read, and it includes these essential insights at its start and end:

While it is not possible to describe the intricacies of retroactivity doctrine here — let alone wise if we want to keep our readers awake — it looks like last Term’s decision in Johnson v. United States will be declared to apply retroactively for all purposes, including on first and even successive (assuming they are timely filed) habeas corpus petitions. And as I explained in my preview, that result is likely, although not certain, to result in substantial sentencing reductions for a significant number of convicted federal defendants....

The law of retroactivity presents intellectual conundra that may never be fully settled.  The decision in this case is likely to be simply one more precedent in the wavering doctrinal line.  We will never know what Justice Harlan, or Justice Scalia, thinks of it.  But convicted federal felons whose sentences are reduced by five or more years will not care about the intricacies, while young law professors aspiring to tenure will have new grist for their mills.

Though I am no longer a young law professor, the intricacies of retroactivity doctrines as articulated in Teague and its progeny are a source of frustration and concern for me.  And the Welch oral argument leaves me concerned that the current Justices are going to be content to apply existing Teague doctrines in a quirky manner to a quirky case (as they have recently show they are wont to do in Montgomery v. Louisiana decided a few months ago).  As I suggest in this law review article, applying traditional Teague doctrines in retroactivity cases that involving only sentencing issues necessarily involves banging a square equitable peg into and round Teague doctrinal hole.  And yet, after reading the Welch transcript, it seems the Justices are for now content to just keep banging away.

March 31, 2016 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Vagueness in Johnson and thereafter, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Based on Johnson, split Fifth Circuit panel finds another simlar provision of federal law is unconstitutionally vague

A helpful reader alerted me to a notable new split ruling handed down by the Fifth Circuit yesterday in US v. Gonzalez-Longoria, No. 15-40041 (5th Cir. Feb. 10, 2016) (available here). Here is how the majority opinion gets started:

In this appeal, we address for the first time whether 18 U.S.C. § 16’s statutory definition of “crime of violence” is unconstitutionally vague.  We consider this question in the light of the Supreme Court’s recent holding that a similar provision of the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA) is unconstitutionally vague.  Johnson v. United States, 135 S.Ct. 2551 (2015).  In Johnson, the Court held that the ACCA violated the constitutional prohibition against vague criminal statutes by defining “violent felony” as any crime that “is burglary, arson, or extortion, involves the use of explosives, or otherwise involves conduct that presents a serious potential risk of physical injury to another.” 18 U.S.C. § 924(e)(2)(B).  Section 16 contains a similar definition: a “crime of violence” is “any other offense that is a felony and that, by its nature, involves a substantial risk that physical force against the person or property of another may be used in the course of committing the offense.”  The Seventh and Ninth Circuits have both held that this language is sufficiently similar to the ACCA’s language to suffer the same unconstitutional fate.  United States v. Vivas-Ceja, 808 F.3d 719, 720 (7th Cir. 2015); Dimaya v. Lynch, 803 F.3d 1110 (9th Cir. 2015). We agree, and accordingly hold § 16 unconstitutional.

And here is how the dissent gets started and sums up its differing analysis of Johnson's impact here:

It is the uncertainty that charms one. A mist makes things wonderful.” Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray. Perhaps true for Oscar Wilde, but not in the criminal law, where too much uncertainty denies defendants fair notice and permits arbitrary enforcement of the laws. See Kolender v. Lawson, 461 U.S. 352, 357-58 (1983)....

In summary, we should not strike Congressional law, 18 U.S.C. § 16(b), because, first, the concerns raised by the Court in Johnson with respect to ACCA’s residual clause are less implicated by Section 16(b); second, because Leocal is precedent only the Supreme Court should adjust; and, third, because Section 16(b) does not involve the interplay of interpretative method and statutory text causing the double indeterminacy that was the due process muddle rejected in Johnson.  Gonzalez-Longoria was on sufficient notice that his prior crime of Assault Causing Bodily Injury with Prior Conviction of Family Violence is one society condemns as violent because it involves a substantial risk that, in the course of its commission, force will be used against another.  I dissent.

February 11, 2016 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Vagueness in Johnson and thereafter | Permalink | Comments (2)

Friday, January 08, 2016

SCOTUS grants cert on Johnson/ACCA vagueness retroactivity!

The new year is off to quite a start for federal sentencing fans: in addition to lots of notable action by the US Sentencing Commission this afternoon (basics here), the Supreme Court this afternoon granted cert via this order in Welch v. US to address the retroactive impact of its big Johnson Armed Career Criminal Act ruling declaring the residual clause of ACCA void for vagueness.  Lyle Denniston has this new post at SCOTUSblog discussing the grant, and here is how it gets started:

Taking on a case that potentially may lead to the release of hundreds — and maybe more — prison inmates, the Supreme Court on Friday afternoon agreed to consider extending to earlier, closed cases its ruling last June in Johnson v. United States.  A key factor in the Court’s review could be that the Justice Department now takes the position that Johnson should apply retroactively.

Defense lawyers have said that at least hundreds of inmates have already served the maximum sentence that would now be allowed under the Johnson case, but remain in prison under longer sentences, so a decision applying that precedent to them would lead to their prompt release.   The question of the retroactivity of that ruling on enhanced sentencing has resulted in a nine-way split among federal appeals courts.

The new case is Welch v. United States; it will be argued in March.

January 8, 2016 in Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Vagueness in Johnson and thereafter, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (8)

US Sentencing Commission promulgates "Johnson fix" guideline amendment and proposes many other notable amendments

As noted in this recent post, today the US Sentencing Commission conducted a public meeting at which it was scheduled to "Vote to Promulgate Proposed Crime of Violence Amendment" and to "Vote to Publish Proposed Guideline Amendments and Issues for Comment." I suggested that these two agenda items could be a very big deal for federal sentencing fans; after watcing the meeting online, I now think the slate of new proposed guideline amendments that the USSC just unanimously voted to publish may be an even bigger deal than the "crime of violence" amendment that was also just officially promulgated by the USSC.

I say this because,

(1) on the crime of violence guideline amendment front, the USSC's new promulgated amendment (a) seemingly seeks to codify the best prior jurisprudence concerning what offenses should be enumerated as violent priors in the career offender guideline while eliminating the vague residual clause essentially blown up by the SCOTUS Johnson decision, and (b) seemingly will not be given retroactive effect because doing so could prove almost administratively impossible. Meanwhile....

(2) on the other proposed guideline amendment front, the USSC appears to be proposing potential amendments to a number of the most controversial and consequential amendments that it had not addressed in prior recent amendment efforts.  Specifically, it seems that the USSC, after having adjusted the drug and fraud guidelines in the last two amendment cycles, now is ready and eager to consider at least some significant tweaks to the immigration and child pornography guidelines.

Because it is not easy to fully assess the potential import and impact of all the USSC action today simply by watching the public meeting live, I am hopeful that some follow-up documents will soon be available on the Commission's website so that all federal sentencing fans can fully understand and assess all of today's action.  But, even before we see any official accounting of today's USSC efforts, I am eager to compliment all the members and staff of the Commission for reminding me that at least some inside-the-Beltway folks can conduct (and complete) critically important and consequential government work in an efficient and bipartisan manner (and on a Friday afternoon, no less).  Kudos to the USSC!

UPDATE: I just got an official email from the US Sentencing Commission that included this text and links:

At today’s public meeting, the U.S. Sentencing Commission unanimously voted to adopt an amendment relating to the definition of “crime of violence” in the Career Offender and other federal sentencing guidelines (press release). This amendment was the result of a multi-year study prompted by concerns and problems relating to the definition of “crime of violence.” The amendment, which eliminates the so-called “residual clause,” was informed by the recent Supreme Court case, Johnson v. United States, issued in June 2015. Read the adopted amendment.

In addition, the Commission proposed an amendment on immigration offenses which would recalibrate the guidelines to ensure more proportional sentences that reflect the totality of the circumstances in a particular case. The Commission also proposed amendments that would allow for higher penalties for animal fighting offenses. An update to the Commission’s policy statement pertaining to compassionate release was also proposed. Read all of the proposed amendments and issues for comment.

January 8, 2016 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Vagueness in Johnson and thereafter, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (11)

Might SCOTUS take up Johnson retroactivity ASAP via Texas case appealed from district court?

Hard-core federal sentencing fans (and/or obsessive readers of this blog) know that lower federal courts have been splitting since the summer over the reroactive application of Supreme Court's big Johnson Armed Career Criminal Act ruling declaring the residual clause of ACCA void for vagueness.  As noted in this prior post, some prisoners have been urging SCOTUS to take up this issue ASAP via an original habeas petition, but now the US Solicitor General (which has been supportive of Johnson retroactivity) has this new SCOTUS filing suggesting that the Supreme Court might consider taking up the issue ASAP via a case from Texas being appealed directly from the district court's denial of relied.

This new SCOTUSblog posting by Lyle Denniston provide some broader context on all the substantive and procedural issues raised by post-Johnson litigation; it notes that the Justices are slated to consider this case from Texas, Harrimon v US, during their conference today.  Here is the basic backstory of this particular case:

When Harrimon’s case was in lower courts, his sentence for illegal possession of a gun by a convicted felon was originally set at ninety-six months — eight years — but then was raised to fifteen years and eight months (188 months) by applying the enhancement provision of the residual clause.  After the Johnson decision emerged, Harrimon began a federal habeas challenge to the longer sentence, seeking to rely upon that decision on the premise that it applied retroactively.

While his case was still pending in a trial court, the Fifth Circuit in a separate case ruled that theJohnson decision would not apply retroactively to cases pending on post-conviction review, such as federal habeas challenges.  The district court judge rejected Harrimon’s plea, and his lawyers then moved on to the Fifth Circuit.  However, instead of waiting for that court to decide his appeal, his lawyers filed a petition asking the Supreme Court to review his challenge prior to a decision by the appeals court.

I would love to see SCOTUS take up the Johnson retroactivity issue ASAP for a variety of substantive and procedural reasons. And I sincerely hope that the Justices feel some significant obligation to help lower federal courts properly clean up the uncertain mess that SCOTUS itself made through its remarkable Johnson vagueness ruling.

A few prior related posts:

January 8, 2016 in Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Vagueness in Johnson and thereafter, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Based on SCOTUS Johnson ruling, Seventh Circuit declares statutory sentence enhancement for illegal reentry offenses

A helpful reader made sure I did not miss a notable post-Johnson vagueness ruling by a Seventh Circuit panel in US v. Vivas-Ceja, No. 15-1770 (7th Cir. Dec. 22, 2015) (available here). Here is how the panel opinion gets started:

Raul Vivas-Ceja pleaded guilty to illegally reentering the United States after removal, the maximum sentence for which is raised to 20 years if the defendant has been convicted of an “aggravated felony” prior to removal.  See 8 U.S.C. § 1326(b)(2).  As relevant here, the definition of “aggravated felony” is supplied by the definition of “crime of violence” in 18 U.S.C. § 16(b), which includes “any … offense that is a felony and that, by its nature, involves a substantial risk that physical force against the person or property of another may be used in the course of committing the offense.”

The district court concluded that Vivas-Ceja’s Wisconsin conviction for fleeing an officer was a crime of violence under § 16(b), raising the maximum sentence to 20 years.  The court imposed a sentence of 21 months.  Vivas-Ceja appeals, arguing that § 16(b)’s definition of “crime of violence” is unconstitutionally vague in light of Johnson v. United States, 135 S. Ct. 2551 (2015).

The Fifth Amendment’s Due Process Clause prohibits the government from depriving a person of liberty under a statute “so vague that it fails to give ordinary people fair notice … or so standardless that it invites arbitrary enforcement.”  Id. at 2556.  In Johnson the Supreme Court held that sentencing a defendant under the so-called “residual clause” of the Armed Career Criminal Act (“ACCA”), 18 U.S.C. § 924(e)(2)(B)(ii), violates this prohibition.  Section 16(b) is materially indistinguishable from the ACCA’s residual clause.  We hold that it too is unconstitutionally vague according to the reasoning of Johnson.  We therefore vacate Vivas-Ceja’s sentence and remand for resentencing.

December 23, 2015 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Vagueness in Johnson and thereafter | Permalink | Comments (1)

Friday, December 18, 2015

Updating the bubbling lower-court vagueness mess six months after Johnson

Over at Casetext, Leah Litman has this effective and extensive new commentary (with lots of links) titled "Circuit Splits & Original Writs: What the Supreme Court must address — and now — in the wake of Johnson v. United States."  Here is how it gets started:

Johnson v. United States held that the “residual clause” of the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA) is unconstitutionally vague.  In a previous Casetext post, I described an emerging circuit split regarding whether the Supreme Court had “made” Johnson retroactive.  The Anti-terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) — in particular title 28 section 2255(h)(2) — permits prisoners to file a second or successive petition for post-conviction review if the petition contains “a new rule of constitutional law, made retroactive to cases on collateral review by the Supreme Court.”  By early August, less than two months after Johnson, the U.S. Courts of Appeals for the Seventh and Eleventh Circuits had issued conflicting opinions about whether the Supreme Court has “made” Johnson retroactive.

In the last four months, that circuit split has deepened.  And, as my prior post explained, the statutory restrictions on post-conviction review mean that the Supreme Court cannot review by way of a petition for certiorari the court of appeals’ determination to allow a second or successive petition for post-conviction relief to proceed. Under title 28 section 2244(b)(3)(E), “the grant or denial of an authorization by a court of appeals to file a second or successive application shall not … be the subject of a petition … for a writ of certiorari.”  So while the circuits disagree about whether the Supreme Court has “made” Johnson retroactive, the Supreme Court cannot resolve whether it has “made” Johnson retroactive in the traditional way, by granting certiorari to review one of the court of appeals’ decisions.

More troubling, it is has become prohibitively difficult for the Supreme Court to weigh in on the split by granting review in a case involving a first petition for post-conviction review because the United States is conceding that Johnson is retroactive.  The courts of appeals and district courts have uniformly (and rightly, in my view) agreed with the United States, granting prisoners’ “first” — that is, initial — petitions for post-conviction review in cases where prisoners were sentenced under ACCA’s residual clause.  And because no one is appealing these decisions — the government agrees Johnson is retroactive, and the decisions are favorable to prisoners — the Supreme Court will not be able to clarify whether Johnson is retroactive, or “make” Johnson retroactive, by granting certiorari in a case involving a “first” petition for post-conviction review.

In this post, I’ll highlight several circuit splits that have emerged in light of Johnson — about whether the decision is applicable to various provisions of the federal Sentencing Guidelines, and about whether the rule that Johnson announced has been made retroactive.  I’ll also argue that the Supreme Court should exercise its discretion to weigh in on whether it has made Johnson retroactive by way of one of the extraordinary writs it has the power to issue. The Court has on its docket at least two petitions seeking such non-traditional habeas relief, and it will consider the petitions some time in January.

In the six months since Johnson was decided, at least two circuit splits have emerged. One concerns whether other provisions, including the career offender Guideline of the Federal Sentencing Guidelines, are also unconstitutionally vague.  There is also some uncertainty about whether various procedural hurdles — specifically retroactivity and procedural default — bar defendants from being resentenced.  The second circuit split concerns whether the Supreme Court has “made” the rule invalidating ACCA’s residual clause retroactive.

December 18, 2015 in Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Vagueness in Johnson and thereafter | Permalink | Comments (5)

Thursday, December 17, 2015

"Is the Solicitor General Playing a Shell Game With the Supreme Court Over Johnson Retroactivity?"

The title of this post is the title of this notable, lengthy commentary by Steve Vladeck over at PrawfsBlawg, which gets started this way:

I've already written a pair of posts about the very significant current conflict among the circuits over the retroactive effect of the Supreme Court's June 2015 in Johnson v. United States, and the extent to which the Court may need to use an application for extraordinary relief (perhaps including an "original" writ of habeas corpus) to resolve that split — given (1) the unavailability of certiorari to review denials of second-or-successive habeas petitions; (2) government's agreement that Johnson may be retroactively enforced; and (3) the one-year statute of limitations, which likely requires all Johnson-based claims to be filed by June 26, 2016.  And in my most recent post, I noted that the Solicitor General had already recommended denial of review in one case by reference to three pending "original" applications — perhaps hinting that it would support the Court's using one or all of those cases as a vehicle for settling the circuit split (and clarifying that Johnson is indeed retroactive).

Or not.

In the past week, the government has effectively mooted one of the three original cases (by completely reversing a position it had taken earlier in different litigation involving the same prisoner), and has filed briefs opposing extraordinary relief in the other two.  As I explain in the post that follows, these actions (and the arguments in the briefs) give rise at least to the appearance that, even though the Solicitor General agrees that Johnson is retroactive on the merits and should therefore be enforceable by federal prisoners through both original and second-or-successive applications for post-conviction relief, the government is perfectly content to run out the clock — and to not support efforts to have the Supreme Court so hold before next June's deadline. 

A few prior related posts:

December 17, 2015 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Vagueness in Johnson and thereafter | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, November 16, 2015

Should SCOTUS deal with Johnson retroactivity through an original habeas petition?

The question in the title of this post should get habeas and/or sentencing geeks like me really excited, and I apologize in advance to everyone else.  But the question is on my mind and has me excited after reading this terrific (and lengthy) new PrawfBlawg post by Steve Vladeck titled "How an Obscure SCOTUS Procedure Can Solve AEDPA's Retroactivity Catch-22 (and a Growing Circuit Split)." The full post is today's must read for habeas and/or sentencing geeks, but the start and end of the effort should whet geeky appetites:

Thanks to Montgomery v. Louisiana, the retroactivity of new Supreme Court decisions is already an important part of the Court's current Term.  But as I explain in the post that follows, a new application pending before the Justices, In re Butler, raises a far more important retroactivity question, one that is already the subject of a 5-3 (and growing) circuit split, one that has an ever-shortening clock, and, most significantly, one that may only be definitively answerable if the Court does something it hasn't done in 90 years — issue an "original" writ of habeas corpus.

To unpack this dense but significant topic, Part I flags the origins of the problem — the restrictions on second-or-successive applications for post-conviction relief in the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA), and the Supreme Court's fractured 2001 interpretation of those provisions in Tyler v. Cain.  Part II turns to the current circuit split, which involves whether the Court's June decision in Johnson v. United States, which invalidated a provision of the Armed Career Criminals Act (ACCA), can be retroactively enforced in second-or-successive petitions.  Part III explains why that circuit split can't be resolved by the Supreme Court via certiorari — and why, instead, the best way for the Court to take up the Johnson question is through an "original" writ of habeas corpus in a case like Butler.  Finally, Part IV argues that the Court should use Butler not just to answer the Johnson question, but also to resolve the debate over Tyler, lest this exact same scenario repeat itself after the next Johnson-like ruling....

In a paper I wrote in 2011, I argued that there's actually a value in preserving the obscurity of the Supreme Court's original habeas jurisdiction — and that, if original writs became common, they'd lose their utility as a safety valve, since Congress would presumably also think to take away that authority as part of future jurisdiction-stripping initiatives.  But there's a difference between elusive remedies and illusory ones.  For two decades, we have labored under the fiction that AEDPA's gatekeeper provisions don't raise serious constitutional problems entirely because of this safety valve.  If, as a result of disuse, it turns out that the safety valve is sealed shut, then we can no longer dodge those constitutional questions.  Thus, although we may be in the midst of a perfect storm for retroactivity, a case like Butler may actually be the perfect vehicle for the Justices to remind themselves about their original habeas authority — and, in the process, to issue an opinion that dramatically reduces the need for such relief in future retroactivity cases.

November 16, 2015 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Vagueness in Johnson and thereafter, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, November 05, 2015

US Sentencing Commission hearing about how to fix Johnson problems in sentencing guidelines

As this webpage reports, this morning the US Sentencing Commission is holding a public hearing in Washington, DC "to receive testimony from invited witnesses on proposed amendments to the federal sentencing guidelines."  This hearing is being live-streamed here, and this hearing agenda now has links to all the scheduled witnesses' written testimony.

Helpfully, the start of this written testimony from the first witness, Judge Irene Keeley, Chair, Committee on Criminal Law of the Judicial Conference of the United States, provide a useful overview of what the USSC is working on:

On behalf of the Criminal Law Committee of the Judicial Conference of the United States, I thank the Sentencing Commission for providing us the opportunity to comment on proposed changes to the sentencing guidelines definitions of “crime of violence” and related issues.  The topic of today’s hearing is important to the Judicial Conference and judges throughout the nation.  We applaud the Commission for undertaking its multi-year study of statutory and guideline definitions relating to the nature of a defendant’s prior conviction and the impact of such definitions on the relevant statutory and guideline provisions. We also thank the Commission for considering whether to promulgate these guideline amendments to address questions that have been or may be raised by the Supreme Court’s recent opinion in Johnson v. United States, 135 S. Ct. 2551 (2015).

The Judicial Conference has authorized the Criminal Law Committee to act with regard to submission from time to time to the Sentencing Commission of proposed amendments to the sentencing guidelines, including proposals that would increase the flexibility of the guidelines.  The Judicial Conference has also resolved “that the federal judiciary is committed to a sentencing guideline system that is fair, workable, transparent, predictable, and flexible.”

As I discuss below, the Criminal Law Committee is generally in favor of the Commission’s proposed amendments, particularly those intended to address or anticipate questions raised by Johnson.  As you know, the definition of the term “crime of violence” for purposes of the career offender guideline has been the subject of substantial litigation in the federal courts.  We support any efforts to resolve ambiguity and simplify the legal approaches required by Supreme Court jurisprudence.  Additionally, our Committee has repeatedly urged the Commission to resolve circuit conflicts in order to avoid unnecessary litigation and to eliminate unwarranted disparity in application of the guidelines.  The Commission’s proposed amendment would reduce uncertainty raised by the opinion while making the guidelines more clear and workable.  

With regard to the proposed guideline amendments concerning issues unrelated to Johnson, the Committee generally supports or defers to the Commission’s recommendations.  The Committee opposes amending, however, the current definition of “felony” in the career offender guideline. Finally, the Committee supports revising other guidelines to conform to the definitions used in the career offender guideline to reduce complexity and make the guidelines system more simple and workable. 

November 5, 2015 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered, Vagueness in Johnson and thereafter, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, November 01, 2015

The simple, sound and shrewd ACCA/Johnson fix in SRCA 2015

I have now had a chance to give extra thought to the proposed statutory changes appearing in Section 105 of the Senate's Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015 (basics of SRCA 2015, S. 2123, here).  When I first looked at this Section, labelled an "Amendment to certain penalties for certain firearm offenses and armed career criminal provision," I was a bit surprised to see it did not seem to directly address or respond to the Supreme Court's recent ruling in Johnson v. United States striking down a portion of the Armed Career Criminal Act as unconstitutionally vague.  But upon reflection, I have come to the conclusion, as reflected in the title of this post, that the proposed statutory changes appearing in Section 105 of SRCA constitute a simple, sound and shrewd way to fix some of the broader ACCA problems that Johnson reflects.  Let me explain my thinking here.

1.  Though the Johnson vagueness ruling addressed the most confounding statutory provision of ACCA (the so-called "residual clause"), the ruling is really just a symptom of the broader ACCA disease.  That broader disease concerns the fact that, under current federal law, the same basic offense of being a felon in possession of a firearm (FIP) has a statutory maximum prison sentence of 10 years UNLESS the offender has three ACCA-qualifying priors, in which case the offender faces a mandatory minimum 15-year prison sentence.  Because the stakes of what qualifies as an ACCA prior is now so consequential, there is (understandably) lots and lots of litigation over what state priors trigger ACCA.

2.  The Johnson ruling, culminating a decade of Supreme Court (and lower court) struggles with one clause defining ACCA predicates, eliminated one source of uncertainty and litigation by declaring that clause unconstitutionally vague.  But lots of other parts of ACCA have also generated uncertainty and litigation, and the Johnson ruling did nothing to resolve or minimize the importance of all that uncertainty and litigation.  Moreover, if Congress were to try to just "fix" the language of the ACCA residual clause that Johnson struck down, litigation would be sure to follow concerning the meaning of any fix language. 

3.  Into this enduring ACCA morass comes Section 105 of SRCA which, through a relative tweak, arguably fixes all these problems by raising the FIP statutory prison maximum to 15 years while lowering the ACCA mandatory minimum to 10 years.  Through this simple change, there will no longer be a critical imperative for prosecutors (or probation officers) or sentencing judges (or appellate courts) to figure out in every close case whether an FIP offender qualifies for ACCA.  If SRCA 2015 becomes law, in the many cases that legally are "close calls," federal judges will reasonably conclude that a prison sentence in the range of 10 to 15 is about right, and there will be no need to have a major legal fight over what exactly qualifies as an ACCA predicate.  (In addition, if Section 105 of SRCA 2015 is enacted, judges will have greater discretion to punish harshly the worst FIP offenders who do not trigger ACCA and will also still be compelled to give at least 10 years to FIP offenders who clearly qualify for ACCA penalties.)

4.  The US Sentencing Commission's recent statement concerning SRCA 2015 discusses why its own extensive research on mandatory minimums support this reform (and why it would, in turn, be just to make this change retroactive):

The Commission observed [in its extensive study of mandatory minimum sentencing provisions] that the ACCA’s mandatory minimum penalty can apply to offenders who served no or minimal terms of imprisonment for their predicate offenses, which increased the potential for inconsistent application insofar as the 15-year penalty may be viewed as excessively severe in those cases.  To mitigate both the over-severity and disparate application of the ACCA, the Commission recommended that Congress consider clarifying the statutory definitions in the ACCA and reduce its severity.

5. By making its ACCA changes retroactive, SRCA 2015 not only could bring more equitable and just outcomes to many offenders previously subject to severe ACCA terms based on debatable interpretations of ACCA priors, it also could potentially short-circuit lots of complicated (and expensive) post-Johnson habeas litigtion that might well divide lower courts and take years to resolve through layers of complicated federal appeals. (Post-Johnson litigation is already starting to divide lower courts on some issues, and lots of enduring litigation messiness (and costs) seem inevitable without the SRCA fix and its retroactivity provision.)

I could go on and on (especially to praise the particular way SRCA 2015 makes its ACCA fix retroactive), but I fear this post is already more than long enough.  And I am be especially interested in hearing from those laboring in the post-Johnson ACCA litigation trenches concerning whether they share my latest feeling that the SRCA 2015 fix may now represent the best of all possible ACCA worlds. 

November 1, 2015 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Vagueness in Johnson and thereafter, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

"Why California's Second-Degree Felony-Murder Rule Is Now Void for Vagueness"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper authored by Evan Tsen Lee now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

For years, justices on the California Supreme Court (CSC) have engaged in public soul-searching about whether to overrule the state’s second-degree felony-murder doctrine.  Now there is a powerful external reason for the CSC to revisit the question: The United States Supreme Court (USSC) has just struck down the so-called “residual clause” of the federal three-strikes statute as unconstitutionally vague.

Although the immediate intuition of experienced judges and lawyers will be to deny that this decision has any application to the felony-murder rule, this Article will show that, from the standpoint of vagueness, the two provisions are materially indistinguishable.

October 28, 2015 in Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Vagueness in Johnson and thereafter | Permalink | Comments (2)

Monday, October 19, 2015

"13 Words That Could Mean Freedom for Many: The debate over the federal ‘residual clause’"

The title of this post is the headline of this effective Marshall Project piece discussing some of the sentencing guideline fall out of the Supreme Court's Johnson ACCA vagueness ruling.  I recommend the full piece, which starts this way (links from original):

Erskine Smith was 24 when he pleaded guilty to selling cocaine in Pittsburgh. Before the plea, a letter from the government estimated his sentence at 108 months to 135 months, or about nine to 11 years.  But once he pleaded guilty, Smith received a presentence report that floored him: the report set the sentence at a mandatory 292 months to 365 months, or about 24 to 30 years.  A judge sentenced him in 1993 to 30 years in prison.

The primary reason for the extra years: Two prior “crimes of violence” that the court agreed made Smith a career offender.  Smith had punched a man at age 18 and assaulted another in his hotel room at 20.  Each conviction was for simple assault, a Pennsylvania misdemeanor, for which he served no jail time.  But the federal government classified the crimes as violent felonies, a designation that meant Smith would be sentenced under the career offender guideline of the Federal Sentencing Guidelines, which boosts sentences for people who have previously been convicted of two violent or drug felonies.

Each year, about 2,000 people are sentenced under the career offender guideline. For about three-quarters of them, the most recent crime is drug-related.  Though the sentencing guidelines have been advisory since 2005, experts say judges still tend to rely on them.  Federal non-career drug offenders get an average of nearly 69 months, while career drug offenders get an average of nearly 169 months, according to data from 2005 to 2014 analyzed by the Federal Defenders.

But a June Supreme Court ruling may get some of them, including Smith, a new sentence. In Johnson v. United States, the Court struck down the the less-than-sexily named “residual clause” of the Armed Career Criminal Act, deciding it was unconstitutionally vague.  Because of the decision, many people sentenced under the Armed Career Criminal Act will get at least five years knocked off their sentence.

The same clause appears in the career offender guideline, and defense lawyers are hoping it will meet the same fate.  They are now asking federal appellate courts to apply Johnson to the career offender guideline and resentence long-serving prisoners who have not benefited from recent, more publicized, reforms.

Some prior related posts:

October 19, 2015 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Vagueness in Johnson and thereafter | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, October 15, 2015

New amicus brief to Eleventh Circuit seeking reconsideration of Johnson vagueness challenge to career-offender guideline

In this post just a few days after the US Supreme Court ruled that a key clause of the Armed Career Criminal Act violated "the Constitution’s prohibition of vague criminal laws" in Johnson v. United States, 133 S. Ct. 2551 (2015) (available here), I flagged the question of how Johnson would impact application of the career offender guideline of the US Sentencing Guidelines.  Notably, the Justice Department has consistently conceded Johnson-based constitutional problems with the existing career offender guideline because the key phrase found vague in Johnson is part of the guideline definition of a career offender.  And a few appellate rulings have assumed without deciding that Johnson creates problems for existing career offender guideline sentencing.

But, as noted in this post a few weeks ago, an Eleventh Circuit panel in US v. Matchett, No. 14-10396 (11th Cir. Sept. 21, 2015) (available here), squarely addressed this issue and ruled that Johnson and its vagueness problem just do not apply to advisory sentencing guidelines.  I considered this ruling suspect, and thanks to Carissa Hessick and David Markus, I have now been able to play a role in explaining to the full Eleventh Circuit just why.  Specifically, Carissa primarily drafted and I primarily tweaked an amicus brief that David helped finalize and file today urging en banc review in Matchett.  The full brief can be downloaded via SSRN, and here is how it gets started:

The U.S. Sentencing Guidelines dramatically increase a defendant’s sentencing range if she has at least two prior convictions for a “crime of violence,” which U.S.S.G. § 4B1.2(a)(2) defines to include crimes that “involve[] conduct that presents a serious potential risk of physical injury to another.”  As the panel in this case acknowledged, that definition is identical to the definition in 18 U.S.C. § 924(e)(2)(B), which the Supreme Court in Johnson v. United States, 135 S. Ct. 2551 (2015), found to be unconstitutionally vague in violation of the Due Process Clause.

Nevertheless, the panel in this case held that § 4B1.2(a)(2) is not unconstitutionally vague, reasoning that the vagueness doctrine does not apply to the now-advisory Sentencing Guidelines.  That conclusion is inconsistent with Supreme Court decisions on the vagueness doctrine and the Sentencing Guidelines.  The panel’s decision also upsets the careful balance that the Supreme Court has struck between uniformity and discretion in federal sentencing after United States v. Booker, 543 U.S. 220 (2005).  Finally, the panel decision fails to appreciate that it faced a unique situation in which a Guideline contains language identical to a federal statute declared void for vagueness by the Supreme Court.  Both the narrow basis for that decision, as well as ordinary Commission practice of reviewing and revising the Sentencing Guidelines, ensure that few Guidelines will become susceptible to serious vagueness challenges.  This Court accordingly should grant en banc review.

October 15, 2015 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Vagueness in Johnson and thereafter, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, October 09, 2015

"The Supreme Court’s Johnson v. United States Ruling: A Vagueness Doctrine Revolution?"

The title of this post is the title of this helpful "Legal Backgrounder" coming from the Washington Legal Foundation and authored by David Debold and Rachel Mondl. Here are a couple of paragraphs from the start and end of the reader-friendly piece:

Apart from the direct effect of Johnson on ACCA sentences, the decision marks an important step in the Court’s vagueness jurisprudence.  Also not to be overlooked is Justice Thomas’s concurrence, which likened the vagueness doctrine to the much-maligned concept of substantive due process, thus raising questions about the legitimacy of a vagueness doctrine in the first place.  In the end, though, the debate over the legitimacy of substantive-due-process rights should have no bearing on the Court’s void-for-vagueness precedents, because vague laws offend traditional notions of procedural due process — that is, the process by which the government may deprive a person of life, liberty, or property....

More than an opinion on mandatory-minimum sentences, Johnson provides a welcome clarification of the law on unconstitutional vagueness.  Yet it remains to be seen how far-reaching the decision will be.  The majority opinion widens the opportunities for challenges to laws where previous challenges would not have been possible under a vague-in-all-applications regime.  Time will tell whether more of those challenges will succeed, or, instead, whether Johnson is relegated to “unique” status, its result ordained by the profound and repeated inability of the Supreme Court and courts of appeals to craft a principled, workable standard for applying a peculiar type ofstatute.  One thing is certain: Johnson will not be the last word on the vagueness doctrine.

October 9, 2015 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Vagueness in Johnson and thereafter, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, September 24, 2015

"Johnson v. United States and the Future of the Void-for-Vagueness Doctrine"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper by Carissa Byrne Hessick now available on SSRN. Here is the abstract:

Last Term, in Johnson v. United States, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a portion of the Armed Career Criminal Act as unconstitutionally vague.  The Johnson opinion is certain to have a large impact on federal criminal defendants charged with unlawfully possessing a firearm. But it is also likely to have other important consequences.  The language deemed vague in Johnson is similar or identical to language in the Federal Sentencing Guidelines and other statutes.  What is more, the Johnson opinion elaborates on the void-for-vagueness doctrine in important ways.  Those elaborations ought to make vagueness challenges easier to win in the future.

This Commentary examines the implications of Johnson.  It also briefly discusses Justice Thomas’s concurrence.  Justice Thomas refused to join the majority opinion, instead opting to decide the case in Johnson’s favor on statutory construction grounds. In addition to his statutory construction analysis, Justice Thomas questioned the constitutional basis of the void-for-vagueness doctrine.  Justice Thomas’s approach to the vagueness doctrine, if adopted by other members of the Court, could eviscerate the notice function of the doctrine.

September 24, 2015 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Vagueness in Johnson and thereafter | Permalink | Comments (8)

Monday, September 21, 2015

Eleventh Circuit panel categorically rejects Johnson vagueness attack on career offender guidelines

In this prior post a few days after the US Supreme Court ruled that a key clause of the Armed Career Criminal Act violated "the Constitution’s prohibition of vague criminal laws" in Johnson v. United States, 133 S. Ct. 2551 (2015) (available here), I flagged the possibility that Johnson could impact past, present and future sentencings pursuant to the career offender guideline of the US Sentencing Guidelines. 

Since then, I believe that the Department of Justice has consistently conceded Johnson-based constitutional problems with the existing career offender guideline because the key phrase found vague in Johnson is also used in the guideline definition of a career offender.  In addition, as noted in this post from last month, the US Sentencing Commission has proposed amending the career offender guideline to eliminate the Johnson-problematic definition of a crime of violence.   And I believe at least a few appellate rulings have assumed without deciding that Johnson creates problems for existing career offender guideline sentencing.

But today an Eleventh Circuit panel in US v. Matchett, No. 14-10396 (Sept. 21, 2015) (available here), squarely addresses this issue and rules that Johnson and its vagueness problem just do not apply to advisory sentencing guidelines.  Here is how the Matchett opinion gets started:

This appeal presents an issue of first impression for this Court: whether the vagueness doctrine of the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment applies to the advisory Sentencing Guidelines.  Calvin Matchett pleaded guilty to being a felon in possession of a firearm, 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1), and now challenges both the denial of his motion to suppress the firearm and the calculation of his sentence.  Police Officer Jesse Smith stopped Matchett when he saw Matchett carrying a flat-screen television in a residential neighborhood on a weekday morning.  After speaking with Matchett, Officer Smith frisked him based on his confrontational demeanor and the risk that he had a burglary tool that could be used as a weapon.  When Officer Smith found a loaded handgun in Matchett’s pocket, Matchett fought with Officer Smith for over three minutes in an attempt to flee.  The district court did not err when it denied Matchett’s motion to suppress.  It also correctly determined that Matchett’s previous convictions for burglary of an unoccupied dwelling were crimes of violence and that Matchett’s resistance created a substantial risk of death or bodily injury in the course of fleeing from a law enforcement officer.  We reject Matchett’s argument that the definition of “crime of violence” in the Sentencing Guidelines is unconstitutionally vague in light of Johnson v. United States, __ U.S. __, 135 S. Ct. 2551 (2015).  The vagueness doctrine applies only to laws that prohibit conduct and fix punishments, not advisory guidelines.  We affirm.

Some prior related posts:

September 21, 2015 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Vagueness in Johnson and thereafter | Permalink | Comments (7)

Thursday, September 03, 2015

Third Circuit panel explains Scylla and Charybdis of habeas law to prisoner John (Odysseus) Doe

Anyone who loves to read about and think a lot about federal post-conviction sentencing review rules — and really, who doesn't? — will want to make sure to preserve some time today to try to consume all of the extraordinary work done yesterday by a Third Circuit panel in US v. Doe, No. 13-4274 (3d Cir. Sept 2, 2015) (available here). The Doe decision runs 50 pages (with a table of contents longer than a page), but the starting quotes and introduction highlight the basics:

“The whole thing was a very cleverly planned jigsaw puzzle, so arranged that every fresh piece of knowledge that came to light made the solution of the whole more difficult.” — Agatha Christie, Murder on the Orient Express.

“It’s like kind of complicated to me” — John Doe, on the withdrawal of his § 2255 motion.

John Doe, whose identity we protect because he is a Government informant, appeals from the denial of (1) a 28 U.S.C. § 2255 motion filed in 2012 and (2) a request made in 2013 to reopen a § 2255 motion filed in 2008.  Doe was sentenced pursuant to the then-mandatory Sentencing Guidelines as a “career offender” on the basis of two convictions for simple assault in Pennsylvania.  He argued in his 2008 motion that his convictions were not “crimes of violence” within the meaning of the Guidelines and thus he was not a career offender.  Our precedent foreclosed that argument when he made it, but, in light of the Supreme Court case Begay v. United States, 553 U.S. 137 (2008), we reversed ourselves, and Doe’s argument became plausible.  He therefore filed another § 2255 motion, but it too was denied.

This case presents many procedural complexities of first impression within this Circuit. If Doe can manage the Odyssean twists and turns of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA), including the Scylla of the second-or-successive bar and the Charybdis of the statute of limitations, he may find a meritorious claim at the end of his journey.  However, we do not definitively reach the merits here and instead remand to let Doe’s case continue its uncertain course.

September 3, 2015 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Vagueness in Johnson and thereafter, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Three months after jury's death verdict, Tsarnaev lawyers move for new penalty trial

As reported in this AP article, headlined "Lawyers ask for new trial outside Boston for marathon bomber," the Dzhokhar Tsarnaev's attorneys have now moved in federal district court for a new penalty phase trial based mostly their claim that "due to continuous and unrelenting publicity combined with pervasive connections between jurors and the events surrounding the Boston Marathon Bombing that precluded impartial adjudication in both appearance and fact."  (This last phrase comes from the start of the papers filed yesterday, which can be accessed at this link thanks to The Marshall Project.)  

Here is a partial summary of the filing via the AP piece (including an extra legal twist thanks to the Supreme Court's recent Johnson ruling):

They argued that, because of widespread outrage in Boston after the deadly 2013 attack, jurors in the city couldn't be objective before finding him guilty and recommending a death sentence.  As evidence of "continuous and unrelenting publicity," they provided a long list of public events held in honor of the victims, including a new city holiday and several races.

Widespread media coverage featured stories about survivors, including one "powerfully emotional" moment during the 2015 marathon when amputee Rebekah Gregory ran the last 3.5 miles on a prosthetic leg before falling to her knees at the finish line, crying, the filing said.  Banners posted around the city urged solidarity.  Even on social media, the lawyers wrote, jurors were inundated with posts from relatives and friends.

"Put simply, prejudicial media coverage, events and environment saturated greater Boston, including the social networks of actual trial jurors, and made it an improper venue for the trial of this case," the filing said.

The filing concludes that the atmosphere tainted Tsarnaev's constitutional right to an impartial trial.  It asks that his guilty verdict be overturned and that the court provide a new trial to determine his guilt and his penalty....

The defense tried unsuccessfully during the trial to have it moved elsewhere, warning that too many people had personal ties to the marathon or the attack and that anguish in Boston was too powerful to provide a fair trial.

The filing Monday reiterated that request and added new legal arguments, including that a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling throws many convictions into question.  That ruling centered on the legal definition of a "crime of violence," a distinction that can carry heavier penalties.  The court ruled that part of the federal definition was unconstitutionally vague and struck it down.

In the Tsarnaev case, jurors were told that 15 of his convictions were for crimes of violence, but the trial court didn't explain which part of the definition they met, according to the filing.  Therefore, Tsarnaev should be acquitted for all of those charges, his attorneys wrote.  Tsarnaev was charged with placing and discharging an explosive in public, for example, but his lawyers said "the 'delivery' and 'placement' of an explosive do not involve violent force."

August 18, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Vagueness in Johnson and thereafter | Permalink | Comments (1)