Practice Tip: Challenging “Crimes of Violence” and “Controlled Substance Offenses” under § 4B1.2 — Ideas about Inchoate Offenses

Figuring out how your client’s criminal history impacts their sentencing exposure is often no easy task. This is particularly so when you’re dealing with prior convictions that could be counted as “crimes of violence” or “controlled substance offenses” under the career offender guideline, § 4B1.2. Take a felon-in-possession sentencing, for example, where a single prior “crime of violence” will increase a client’s base offense level from 14 to 20—and potentially add years to his sentence.

That’s why it’s worth looking closely at every supposed “crime of violence” or “controlled substance offense,” and objecting to the characterization of that prior conviction if possible. Challenging priors might help your client now, or it might help later (read on for ideas about how to preserve arguments for appeal). Remember, a district court commits procedural error when it fails to properly calculate the correct Guidelines range. See, e.g., United States v. Lente, 647 F.3d 1021, 1030 (10th Cir. 2011).

Here are some arguments to consider if the prior conviction is for an inchoate offense such as conspiracy, aiding and abetting, or attempt.

THE BASICS

Is the prior conviction a categorical match for the generic offense?

When determining whether a particular conviction constitutes a “crime of violence” or “controlled substance offense” under § 4B1.2, courts apply the categorical approach and “look to the statute under which the defendant was convicted.” United States v Martinez-Cruz, 836 F.3d 1305, 1309 (10th Cir. 2016). That includes determining whether the elements of the generic, contemporary version of the relevant inchoate offense match up with the elements of the prior conviction. In Martinez-Cruz, for example, the Tenth Circuit found that the defendant’s prior conviction for federal conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute was not a “controlled substance offense” because—unlike generic conspiracy—that offense does not require proof of an “overt act.” See 836 F.3d at 1310-11.

To conduct this type of analysis, begin by taking a look at the underlying inchoate offense and figuring out what it requires the government to prove, and then compare it to similar offenses in other jurisdictions. In Colorado, for example, conspiracy is “unilateral,” which means it is “committed when the defendant agrees with another person to act in a prohibited manner; the second party can feign agreement.” People v Vecellio, 292 P.3d 1004, 1010 (Colo. Ct. App. 2012). But in other jurisdictions, conspiracy is “bilateral” and requires two co-conspirators to actually agree to commit a crime—you can’t “conspire” with an undercover law enforcement agent who is only pretending to agree. See, e.g., United States v Barboa, 777 F.2d 1420, 1422 (10th Cir. 1985); People v Foster, 457 N.E.2d 405, 415 (Ill. 1983).

If there seems to be a real split in authority, it’s worth digging deeper to suss out the majority approach to the question—i.e., what counts as the generic form of the crime. If your client’s prior is broader than that generic crime, then it is not a categorical match for the offense, and cannot be counted as a “crime of violence” or “controlled substance offense” under § 4B1.2.

FORECLOSED BUT MIGHT BE WORTH PRESERVING

There are a couple of arguments in this vein that are foreclosed by Tenth Circuit precedent, but may be worth raising for preservation.

  • Does Application Note 1 unlawfully expand the definition of “crime of violence” to include inchoate offenses?

The practice of counting inchoate offenses as “crimes of violence” or “controlled substance offenses” is not actually rooted in the text of § 4B1.2. Rather, it is based entirely on Application Note 1 to that guideline, which states that the definitions of “crime of violence” and “controlled substance offense” “include the offenses of aiding and abetting, conspiring, and attempting to commit such offenses.”

That raises the question: Since when can the Sentencing Commission expand the scope of a guideline through its commentary? Unlike the guidelines themselves, the commentary are not subject to the Administrative Procedures Act. And while the Sentencing Commission is free to interpret the guidelines through commentary, the expansion of the guideline to include inchoate offenses arguably exceeds that interpretive authority. At least, that’s what the D.C. Circuit held in United States v Winstead, 890 F.3d 1082 (2018), and what a panel of the Sixth Circuit seemed to believe in United States v Havis, 907 F.3d 439 (2018). The Havis panel was bound to affirm the sentence by prior circuit precedent—but were apparently able to persuade the entire court to take the issue en banc. See United States v. Havis, 921 F.3d 628 (2019) (granting petition for rehearing en banc).

The Tenth Circuit previously rejected a version of this argument in United States v Martinez, 602 F.3d 1166 (2010). However, the issue may nevertheless be worth raising, in light of the new (and growing?) circuit split on the issue.

  • Is Colorado attempt broader than generic attempt, insofar as it defines “substantial step” to mean any conduct that is strongly corroborative of the actor’s criminal purpose?

The Tenth Circuit has held that generic attempt liability requires “the commission of an act which constitutes a substantial step toward commission of that crime,” United States v Venzor-Granillo, 668 F.3d 1224, 1232 (10th Cir. 2012), a formulation that derives from the Model Penal Code. The Model Penal Code, in turn, states that “[c]onduct shall not be held to constitute a substantial step . . . unless it is strongly corroborative of the actor’s criminal purpose.” Model Penal Code § 5.01(2). In other words, it suggests that strongly corroborative conduct may constitute a substantial step—but not that it necessarily does.

By contrast, Colorado law provides that “[a] substantial step is any conduct . . . which is strongly corroborative of the firmness of the actor’s purpose to complete the offense.” Colo. Rev. Stat. § 18-2-101(1) (emphasis added). Under Colorado law, strong corroboration of criminal purpose is not merely necessary but rather sufficient to establish a substantial step, unlike the “unadulterated Model Penal Code approach.” People v Lehnert, 163 P.3d 1111, 1114 (Colo. 2007). In this way, Colorado attempt arguably sweeps more broadly than generic attempt.

The Tenth Circuit recently rejected this argument in United States v. Mendez, No. 18-1259 (10th Cir. 2019). This is another argument that may be worth raising for preservation purposes, in case the law changes in the future.

Takeaways

  • Look closely at any conviction that is classified as a “crime of violence” or “controlled substance offense.” It could make a big difference to your client’s sentence!
  • Be creative. The elements of the inchoate offenses—conspiracy, aiding and abetting, and attempt—vary across jurisdictions. Compare the elements of your client’s prior offense against those in other jurisdictions, and consider whether there’s a viable challenge under the categorical approach.
  • Focus on the text of the guideline. As the D.C. Circuit and several judges on the Sixth Circuit have noted, § 4B1.2 says nothing about inchoate offenses—and the Sentencing Commission lacks the authority to expand the reach of its guidelines through its commentary. While this argument is arguably foreclosed in the Tenth Circuit, it may be worth preserving in your client’s case.
  • Brush up on the categorical approach. This sentencing doctrine is hyper-technical and obscure—and it can produce real results for our clients. For a good overview of the categorical approach in general, take a look at United States v Titties, 852 F.3d 1257 (10th Cir. 2017). For an example of its use in the guidelines context, take a look at United States v Martinez-Cruz, 836 F.3d 1305 (10th Cir. 2016).

Author: COFPD

Federal Public Defender's Office for the Districts of Colorado and Wyoming