Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Crime of Violence, Recklessness Enhancements Vacated

US v. Shell: Shell was speeding down a highway when he was spied by a police officer going the other direction. By the time the officer turned around he had lost sight of Shell, but quickly found his car wrecked down an embankment. Shell had fled. He was later apprehended and admitted possessing a firearm found in a bag near the car. After pleading guilty to being a felon in possession of a firearm, his sentence was enhanced for having a prior "crime of violence" - a North Carolina conviction for second degree rape - and for recklessly fleeing from a police officer. He was sentenced to the bottom of the resulting Guideline range, 57 months in prison.

On appeal, a divided Fourth Circuit vacated Shell's sentence, finding the district court erred by applying both enhancements. As to the crime of violence (which increased Shell's base offense level from 14 to 20), the court found that the second degree rape in North Carolina is not categorically a crime of violence. Although it can be committed in a way that requires violent force (and therefore would be a crime of violence), it also includes offenses involving victims who are unable to consent (for various reasons) but without violent force. Because it was unclear under which section Shell was convicted, the court concluded the enhancement did not apply. As to the reckless endangerment, the court concluded that it was necessary that any flight be an attempt to flee from the police, not merely conduct that is otherwise reckless. Because the district court did not examine whether Shell was fleeing the officer or merely being generally reckless, it remanded the issue to the district court.

Judge Wilkinson dissented, arguing that the North Carolina conviction was a crime of violence, even under the incapacitated victim section because it required knowledge of such incapacitation and "protects people considered incapable of volitional acts from such callous conduct." He agreed on the law on the reckless conduct enhancement, thought "the district court's discussion has already incorporated the fact of such knowledge," but did not oppose remand on that issue.

Congrats (again!) to the Defender office in Western NC on the win!

Court Clarifies Supervise Release Revocation Review

US v. Padgett: Padgett was serving a pair of concurrent terms of supervised release when was allegedly involved in an incident in which he fired a gun five times after an argument. As a result, he was charged with violating the conditions of his term of supervised release in various ways. He contested the allegations, but the district court found he committed them and sentenced him to consecutive terms of imprisonment of 10 and 14 months, followed by more (concurrent) terms of supervised release.

On appeal, the Fourth Circuit affirmed Padgett's revocation and sentence. First, it clarified that while the ultimate decision to revoke a term of supervised release, factual determinations about the defendant's conduct were reviewed for clear error. Applying that standard, the court found that the district court did not clearly err by crediting the eyewitness testimony presented by the Government that Padgett possessed a firearm, was in an argument with someone else, and fired the gun in the air. Second, the court concluded that the sentences were within the advisory Guideline range and statutory range and were not plainly unreasonable.

Ambiguous Offense Dates Can't Support ACCA Enhancement

US v. Span: Span pleaded guilty to being a felon in possession of a firearm. At sentencing, the Government argued that he qualified for an enhanced sentence under ACCA thanks to four prior North Carolina robbery convictions. It provided state court documents - indictments, judgment, and a plea "transcript" (actually a filled in form) - to support its position. Span agreed that the convictions qualified as "violent felonies," but argued that the Government had not proven that they occurred "on occasions different from one another." In particular, the dates of the offenses on the various documents provided by the Government were inconsistent. The district court concluded that ACCA applied based on three of the four priors, that the date discrepancies were likely typographical errors, and that the robberies were "separate criminal episodes" that involved different individual victims (although they all involved the same business). Span was sentenced to the mandatory minimum term of 180 months in prison.

On appeal, a divided Fourth Circuit vacated Span's sentence. Noting that while the ultimate conclusion that ACCA applied was a legal one subject to de novo review, the court reviewed the district court's factual determinations only for clear error. Nonetheless, it found clear error in the district court's conclusion that the three prior convictions occurred on occasions different from one another. Looking to the Government's documents, the court recognized that '[n]o single offense date for any predicate robbery conviction is consisted across all three sources." In light of those discrepancies, the district court clearly erred in its conclusion. Without that factual finding, the legal conclusion that ACCA applied was also incorrect. As a result, Span's sentence was vacated (the court did not reach Span's constitutional challenge to the ACCA finding).

Judge Motz dissented, arguing that the majority had misapplied the clear error standard. She argued that the district court's conclusion about when the offenses occurred was plausible, although possibly incorrect. Given the deference afforded factual determinations on appeal, such a conclusion was not clearly erroneous.

Congrats to the Defender office in Western NC on the win!

Tuesday, June 02, 2015

Court Vacates Something for Reasons Unknown - But Is Unhappy With the Government

US v. Adams: Adams was charged with . . . something. Based on a check of the docket sheet on PACER, it was multiple counts of conspiracy, racketeering, and murder. I have no idea what the outcome of the proceedings were, however, because most of the documents below are sealed. But I assume he was convicted of something, since he appealed.

Good news for Adams - he won. On plain error review, no less. But, again, I have no idea how or why, because the court's nearly unanimous opinion is, likewise, sealed (although, to be fair, it urges the district court to revisit whether the documents should stay sealed). What isn't sealed, however, is the Fourth Circuit's sealing order, which has little to do with sealing (on which the panel was unanimous), and everything to do with questioning why the Government put up a fight on appeal.

The opinion, written by Judge King, contains a footnote (set forth in the sealing order) that expresses surprise "that the government failed to confess plain error on appeal and thereby enhance the integrity of judicial proceedings." It invoked Berger v. US and the old chestnut that a prosecutor's first duty was to justice.

Judge Agee joined all of the panel opinion except that footnote. In a concurrence issued as part of the sealing order (and itself partially redacted). He emphasized the Government's "'broad' prosecutorial discretion," that said discretion applies on appeal, and that this "case does not present one of those rare occasions when we should disparage a coordinate branch for doing what the Constitution and its statutory mandate charge it to do." Of course, we have no idea if Judge Agree is correct, since we don't even know what the issue(s?) on appeal was, much less what the Government's argument was.

Senior Judge Davis issued his own concurrence, joining Judge King's opinion "in full." He contrasted himself to Judge Agee, "who apparently believe[s] it is never appropriate for those of us in the Judicial Branch to express reservations or disapproval of manifestly irregular, if not illegal, 'strategic choices' by prosecutors," and instead "believe[s] judges need to say more, not less, to the political deficits in our criminal justice system." He goes on to say (internal citation omitted):

Contemporary discord in this country we all love, especially in stressed communities where interaction with the criminal justice system is a regular and dispiriting occurrence for many residents, might well be reduced if we judges better used our voices to inform and educate the political branches about how the decisions they make actually operate down here on the ground floor of the criminal justice system. In an era of mass incarceration such as ours, any fear that restrained judicial commentary on dicey prosecutorial practices or “strategic choices” might result in 'the Government [] becom[ing] a less zealous advocate,' is most charitably described as fanciful.