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July 1, 2015

Want does Johnson mean for the past, present and future of the career offender guidelines?

As first reported in this post, the the Supreme Court late last week 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."  In this initial post, I quickly explored Johnson's appliction to those previously sentenced under ACCA, and I will have more to say on that topic in the future.  But in this post, I wanted to flag the possibility that Johnson could impact past, present and future sentencing pursuant to the career offender guideline of the US Sentencing Guidelines.  

The possible impact of Johnson on guideline sentencing arises because the key phrase declared unconstitutionally vague in Johnson — the phrase which defines predicate offenses to include any offense that "otherwise involves conduct that presents a serious potential risk of physical injury to another" — is also used in the definition of a career offender predicate under USSG 4B1.1 and 4B1.2.  And, critically, many more federal defendants get sentenced pursuant to the career offender guidelines than pursuant to ACCA.  Indeed, according to Sentencing Commission data, it appears as many as four times more defendants on average each year (roughly 2,200 as opposed to 550) are subject to the career offender guideline than are subject ot ACCA.  

But, importantly, even though the career offender guideline uses the same phrasing as the ACCA statute as the basis of a big sentencing enhancement, this part of the guideline is not necessarily going to be deemed unconstitutionally vague in all cases because lower courts have suggested traditional vagueness doctrines simply do not apply to guidelines in the same way the apply to statutes.  Morevoer, the arguments against applying vagueness doctrines to the application of the federal sentencing guidelines would seem to be even stronger in a post-Booker world in which the guidelines are only advisory.

Moreover, even if the Johnson ruling and vagueness doctrines apply to the federal sentencing guidelines, defendants sentenced in the past under the career offender guideline may be able to get (or even seek) any sentencing relief comparable to ACCA-sentenced defendants.  As noted in prior posts, ACCA's application is such a big deal because it changes a 10-year statutory max sentencing term into a 15-year statutory minimum.  In contrast, the career offender guideline only changes a calculated guideline range within an otherwise applicable statutory range.  That difference certainly means that the best a career offender defendant can hope to get from Johnson is a chance at resentencing, not an automatically lower sentence.

Beyond the interesting and intricate question about Johnson's impact on past career offender sentences, I also think the present and future of this guideline's application remains uncertain.  Given that vagueness doctrine might not apply to the guideline, perhaps district judges could (and even should) still keep applying as it did in the past the phrasing found problematic in Johnson.  Or perhaps district judges ought to now just adopt the approach to the probelmtic clause that was advocated by Justice Alito in dissent in Johnson (discussed in this post).  Or perhaps the US Sentencing Commission needs to use its emergency amendment authority ASAP to just delete or revise the phrase that Johnson addressed because, if it does not, it is near certain different courts nationwide will take different approaches to how to implement the guideline now in light of Johnson.

In sum: Johnson + career offender guideline = lots and lots of uncertainty and interpretive headaches.

Some prior posts on Johnson and its possible impact:

July 1, 2015 at 07:05 PM | Permalink


Career offender really isnot a calculated guideline.

They move hour history to cat 6 and boost you to level 34.

Essentially that is the same as a statuatory guideline mandatory, because it really is.

That is 188 months if you get the low end if the range, which is 15 yrs 8 months, which is 8 months longer than the low end of acca.

Therefore it is applicable in my view.

Posted by: MidWestGuy | Jul 1, 2015 7:57:16 PM

My view is that this boils down to a freakish axiom: If it's mandatory, you can't do it because it's unconstitutional. But in the case of the advisory guideline, you can do it, because you don't HAVE to do it.

Posted by: USPO | Jul 2, 2015 4:10:59 AM

Why do we have mandatory minimums instead of mandatory maximums?

Posted by: beth | Jul 2, 2015 2:07:24 PM

Thought you'd like to know that I represent a fellow who was sentenced under the career criminal sentencing guidelines, not ACCA, and his case was among those GVR'd as a result of Johnson.

Posted by: Marsha Taubenhaus | Jul 9, 2015 2:28:29 AM

My husband was sentence to 151 months in federal prison saying he is a career offender this is his first time in federal I would like to know how can he be helped with this he is a nonviolent offender

Posted by: Itesha brown | Mar 30, 2016 6:02:11 PM

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