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Robinson v. United States

United States District Court, C.D. Illinois, Springfield Division

January 24, 2018

CHARLES R. ROBINSON, IV, Petitioner,
v.
UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Respondent.

          OPINION

          RICHARD MILLS, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         This matter is before the Court following the Seventh Circuit's Order granting the Petitioner's application for a successive motion under 28 U.S.C. § 2255 and authorizing this Court to consider the Petitioner's claim under Johnson v. United States, ___ U.S. ___, 135 S.Ct. 2551 (2015).

         In Johnson, the United States Supreme Court held that “imposing an increased sentence under the residual clause of the Armed Career Criminal Act violates the Constitution's guarantee of due process.” Id. at 2563.

         The Seventh Circuit's authorization is based on the possibility that the Petitioner was classified as a career offender at sentencing and one of his qualifying convictions was pursuant to the residual clause and, further, that Johnson applies to the guidelines. In Beckles v. United States, ___ U.S. ___, 137 S.Ct. 886 (2017), the United States Supreme Court held that because the advisory Guidelines are not subject to vagueness challenges under the Due Process Clause, Johnson does not apply to the guidelines. See id. at 890.

         I.

         The Petitioner was initially sentenced to life imprisonment. The Government claimed the Petitioner's sentence was based on the amount of drugs, not the career offender guideline. The Petitioner was recently re-sentenced to 360 months imprisonment. In authorizing the successive § 2255 motion, the Seventh Circuit noted it was not clear how that sentence was calculated. Regardless of how his sentence was calculated, the Court concludes that Petitioner is entitled to no relief.

         The residual clause of the career-offender guideline, unlike the residual clause of the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA), is not susceptible to vagueness challenges. See Beckles, 137 S.Ct. at 897. An important aspect of the Court's reasoning was that the ACCA constituted legislation that fixed the permissible range of sentences for qualifying conduct. See id. at 892. The guidelines now “merely guide the exercise of a court's discretion in choosing an appropriate sentence within the statutory range.” Id. Given that sentencing judges have discretion under the guidelines, the constitutional concerns present in Johnson-affording notice to defendants of what conduct will subject them to longer penalties under the ACCA and preventing arbitrary application of the ACCA's standards-are not implicated by the guidelines. See id.

         It is worth noting that in her concurrence in Beckles, Justice Sotomayor suggested that, based on the “formalistic distinction between mandatory and advisory rules, ” it is something of an open “question whether defendants sentenced to terms of imprisonment” prior to United States v. Booker, 543 U.S. 220 (2005)-at a time when the Guidelines fixed the permissible range of sentences-may challenge their sentences based on vagueness. See Beckles, 137 S.Ct. at 903 n.4 (Sotomayor, J., concurring in the judgment). Justice Sotomayor did not express her view on the merits of any such challenge. See id. (“That question is not presented by this case and I, like the majority, take no position on its appropriate resolution.”).

         The Petitioner was sentenced in 1999-several years before the Supreme Court decided Booker. At the time, the Guidelines were “mandatory and binding on all judges.” See Booker, 543 U.S. at 233. “Because they are binding on judges, we have consistently held that the Guidelines have the force and effect of laws.” Id. at 234. The Court recognized the ability of sentencing judges to depart in certain instances, but noted that judges in most cases were required to impose a sentence within the Guideline range. See id. In Booker, for example, the sentencing judge would have been reversed if he did not impose a sentence within the applicable range. See id. at 235.

         An argument can be made that the mandatory guidelines should be subject to vagueness challenges for the same reason as the ACCA. Before Booker, the Guidelines had the “full force and effect of laws” because judges were directed under 18 U.S.C. § 3553(b) to “impose a sentence of the kind, and within the range” set by the Guidelines. See Booker, 543 U.S. at 234. Departures were to be determined by considering “only the sentencing guidelines, policy statements, and official commentary of the Sentencing Commission.” 18 U.S.C. § 3553(b). The policy statements and commentary were also binding. See Stinson v. United States, 508 U.S. 36, 42-43 (1993). While “the advisory guidelines do not fix the permissible range of sentences, ” see Beckles, 137 S.Ct. at 892, the ACCA did fix the permissible range and the mandatory guidelines are analogous in that respect. Accordingly, there is a plausible argument for treating the mandatory career offender guideline's residual clause like that of the ACCA and finding that it is unconstitutionally vague, unlike the advisory career offender guideline range.

         II.

         Before Johnson was decided by the Supreme Court, the Seventh Circuit held that neither the advisory nor the mandatory guidelines were susceptible to vagueness challenges. See United States v. Tichenor, 683 F.3d 358 (7th Cir. 2012); United States v. Brierton, 165 F.3d 1133, 1138-39 (7th Cir. 1999). Following the decision in Johnson, the Seventh Circuit held in United States v. Hurlburt, 835 F.3d 715 (7th Cir. 2016) that vagueness challenges against the guidelines were permissible. See id. at 725. The Supreme Court then in Beckles overruled Hurlburt. United States v. Cook, 850 F.3d 328, 333 (7th Cir. 2017) (“This week, the Supreme Court overturned that decision, holding that ‘the Guidelines are not subject to a vagueness challenge under the Due Process Clause.'”). Based on the ruling in Beckles, a case can be made that Tichenor and Brierton are once again good law that precludes the Court from granting any habeas relief.

         It is also worth noting there is a distinction between a federal statute such as the ACCA that alters the statutory sentencing range and a mandatory guideline scheme. The top of a guideline range is generally not the same as a legislatively determined statutory maximum. See United States v. Rodriguez, 553 U.S. 377, 390 (2008). “[G]uidelines systems typically allow a sentencing judge to impose a sentence that exceeds the top of the guidelines range under appropriate circumstances.” Id.

         Additionally, under the old mandatory guideline scheme, courts had the authority to depart from the prescribed range in exceptional cases. See U.S.S.G. § 5K2.0; see also ...


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