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).

News You Can Use: Tenth Circuit Holds Colorado Attempted Robbery Is a Crime of Violence for Purposes of USSG 4B1.2(a)

When it comes to calculating your client’s advisory guidelines range, prior convictions that are counted as “crimes of violence” under USSG § 4B1.2 are bad news.

Section 4B1.2 doesn’t define what constitutes attempt.  Last week, the Tenth Circuit issued a published decision in United States v. Mendez, holding attempted robbery as defined in Colorado law qualifies as a crime of violence under the guidelines.

Be on the lookout for another post soon with more analysis about this ever-changing area of law and preservation arguments that might be worth making in your cases.

 

News You Can Use: SCOTUS decides more ACCA predicate cases (Part 1)

The Supreme Court recently decided the consolidated cases of United States v. Stitt (and United States v. Sims), No. 17-765, 2018 WL 6439818  (U.S. Dec. 10, 2018). The opinion holds that burglary of a vehicle adapted for overnight accommodation of persons is a generic burglary for purposes of the Armed Career Criminal Act.

The Stitt opinion is another in a line of cases that have asked whether certain burglary convictions qualify as predicate offenses under the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA). The defendants in these cases, Victor J. Stitt and Jason Daniel Sims, were each convicted in federal court of unlawfully possessing a firearm, in violation of 18 U. S. C. §922(g)(1). The sentencing judge in each case imposed the mandatory minimum 15-year prison term that the ACCA requires for §922(g)(1) offenders who have at least three previous convictions for certain “violent” or drug-related felonies, §924(e)(1), based in part on burglary convictions.

The Supreme Court has previously stated that burglary of a vehicle is not a valid ACCA predicate. But the narrower question in this case was whether statutes that cover burglaries of vehicles that have been adapted or customarily used for overnight accommodation should qualify as ACCA predicates because they fall within the “generic” definition of burglary.

The categorical approach

Recall that the categorical approach first adopted Taylor v. United States, 495 U.S. 575 (1990), requires courts to evaluate a prior state conviction by reference to the elements of the state offense, rather than to the defendant’s conduct. In other words, you can’t look at the underlying facts of the prior conviction to figure out whether the predicate counts. A prior state burglary conviction does not qualify under the ACCA where “the elements of [the relevant state statute] are broader than those of generic burglary.” Mathis v. United States, 136 S.Ct. 2243 (2016). Burglary statutes that cover vehicles as one possible means of committing the crime are therefore excluded from being predicate ACCA offenses because the statutes are overbroad. See, e.g., Mathis, 136 S. Ct. at 2250. (holding that Iowa statute covering burglary of “any building, structure, [or] land, water, or air vehicle” was overbroad and indivisible and thus did not qualify as an ACCA predicate).

The nitty gritty

Stitt’s prior convictions were for violations of a Tennessee statute that defines “[a]ggravated burglary” as “burglary of a habitation.” Tenn. Code Ann. § 39–14–403(a) (1997). It further defines “[h]abitation” to include: (1) “any structure, including … mobile homes, trailers, and tents, which is designed or adapted for the overnight accommodation of persons,” and (2) any “self-propelled vehicle that is designed or adapted for the overnight accommodation of persons and is actually occupied at the time of initial entry by the defendant.” §§ 39–14–401(1)(A), (B) (emphasis added).

Similarly, Sims’ prior convictions were for violations of an Arkansas statute that prohibits burglary of a “residential occupiable structure.” Ark. Code Ann. § 5–39–201(a)(1) (Michie 1997). The statute defines “[r]esidential occupiable structure” to include:  “a vehicle, building, or other structure: (A) [w]here any person lives; or (B) [w]hich is customarily used for overnight accommodation of persons whether or not a person is actually present.” § 5–39–101(1) (emphasis added).

In both cases, the District Courts found the state statutory crimes fell within the scope of the word “burglary” in the Armed Career Criminal Act and consequently imposed that statute’s mandatory sentence enhancement. In both cases, the relevant Court of Appeals held that the statutory crimes did not fall within the scope of the word “burglary,” vacated the sentence, and remanded for resentencing. The Government sought certiorari in both cases in part because of a circuit split that included an old Tenth Circuit case, United States v. Spring, 80 F.3d 1450, 1462 (10th Cir. 1996), which held that such burglary convictions would qualify as ACCA predicates.

The upshot

The Supreme Court surveyed state statutes from 1986 and earlier and determined that “a majority of state burglary statutes covered vehicles adapted or customarily used for lodging.” Stitt, 2018 WL 6439818, at *4. As a result, such burglary convictions were included within the definition of “generic burglary.” In so doing, the Supreme Court reversed the decisions below of the Sixth and Eighth Circuits, and also abrogated contrary precedent in the Fourth and Ninth Circuits. See United States v. White, 836 F.3d 437, 446 (4th Cir. 2016); United States v. Grisel, 488 F.3d 844 (9th Cir. 2007) (en banc). Justice Breyer wrote the opinion for a unanimous Court.

Takeaways

  • Burglary convictions/statutes that cover vehicles plain and simple are still out, but statutes that cover vehicles “adapted for overnight accommodation of persons” will now qualify as ACCA predicates—as long as they are not overbroad and indivisible in some other way.
  • For a refresher on the categorical approach, see Mathis v. United States, 136 S.Ct. 2243 (2016), available here.
  • Remember: burglary convictions are NEVER crimes of violence under the career offender provisions of the Guidelines (this case affects only potential ACCA clients).

 

 

News You Can Use: Tenth Circuit Holds Kansas Aggravated Robbery Isn’t a Violent Felony

In United States v. Bong, the Tenth Circuit held that Kansas aggravated robbery isn’t a violent felony for purposes of the Armed Career Criminal Act. Mr. Bong was convicted of being a felon in possession of a firearm and sentenced to more than 24 years in prison. He was sentenced under the ACCA based on at least seven prior convictions that the district court believed qualified as violent felonies: three Kansas simple robberies, three Kansas aggravated robberies, and one Kansas attempted robbery. On appeal, Mr. Bong argued that none of those prior convictions qualified as violent felonies that could trigger the ACCA, and the Tenth Circuit agreed.

By statute, Kansas defines robbery as “the taking of property from the person or presence of another by threat of bodily harm to his person or the person of another or by force.” The statute defining aggravated robbery defines that offense as “a robbery committed by a person who is armed with a dangerous weapon or who inflicts bodily harm upon any person during the course of such robbery.” At first blush, these statutes would seem to qualify as violent felonies. But a closer look revealed that they don’t qualify.

 Although the Kansas statutes seem to require force, the Kansas Supreme Court has interpreted them to require no such thing. In one case, the Kansas Supreme Court held that mere purse snatching constitutes robbery and, in a different case, held that mere possession of a weapon (absent use or brandishing) can elevate a robbery conviction to aggravated robbery.

Based on the Kansas Supreme Court’s interpretation of its robbery statutes, the Tenth Circuit held that Mr. Bong’s prior convictions did not count as violent felonies. First, as to simple robbery, the “mere snatching of a purse” — “without any application of force directly to the victim” and “without any resistance by or injury to the victim” — “falls short of the ‘violent force’ required” to qualify as a violent felony under the ACCA. Bong, Slip op. at 19-20. Second, as to aggravated robbery, “nothing about [a] defendant’s mere possession of a firearm (or another deadly weapon) would . . . necessarily cause[] the crime to involve” the use, attempted use, or threatened use of violent force required to trigger the ACCA. Id. at 23-24.

 

TAKEAWAYS

 1. Robbery offenses that can be committed by mere purse snatching don’t qualify as violent felonies under the ACCA (and likely don’t qualify as crimes of violence under the sentencing guidelines).

 2. Offenses that require simply possessing a weapon, as opposed to using or brandishing a weapon, don’t qualify as violent felonies under the ACCA (and likely don’t qualify as crimes of violence under the sentencing guidelines).

3. Even when an offense sounds like it would be a violent felony or crime of violence (Aggravated Robbery With a Deadly Weapon!), it may not qualify. Even when the statute defining an offense sounds like it defines a violent felony or crime of violence, it may not qualify. You must always look to see how the state courts have construed the statute.