Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Johnson is still dividing the Court

Much has changed since the Supreme Court issued its Johnson decision in June 2015, but one thing remains the same: we still have no comprehensive understanding of how the decision applies, and the law surrounding the Armed Career Criminal Act remains as murky as ever. Two decisions in the last week at the Sixth Circuit exemplify this murkiness, revealing stark divisions within the appeals court and unusual allegiances among the judges.

Perhaps most notably, last Friday's decision in United States v. Harper saw a panel of judges reluctantly following---then lambasting---the Court's out-of-the-blue Verwiebe decision, which had held that the Supreme Court's decision in Voisine negated a decade of ACCA jurisprudence prohibiting the use of reckless conduct as an ACCA predicate. In Harper, Judge Kethledge noted that the panel was bound by Judge Sutton's decision in Verwiebe, but then devoted the large majority of the Harper decision to "explain[ing] why, in our view, the decision in Verwiebe was mistaken." The fact that the panel chose to publish the Harper decision criticizing the (also published) Verwiebe decision may indicate that at least these three judges would be inclined to grant en banc review of Verwiebe.

We see this same inter-chambers conflict in a single decision in today's decision in Brian Williams v. United StatesThere, a three-judge panel managed to produce a majority opinion, a concurrence, and a dissent, all on the same subject as as Verweibe and Harper: what constitutes "violence." Specifically, the panel addressed Ohio's felonious assault statute, which potentially allows conviction "based on a showing of purely mental injury." In a 2012 published decision, the Court had determined that the statute did qualify as a violent felony; however, in a 2016 order, the Court granted Mr. Williams leave to file a second-or-successive petition because "much has changed in the four years" since the earlier decision, and ordered the district court to determine whether the statute was still categorically violent under the ample new precedent. The district court found no reason to upend the existing precedent. Neither did the Sixth Circuit. Judge Moore's majority opinion held that the question was "of little import here," because the prior precedent addressed the elements clause rather than the residual clause of the ACCA, and thus "the holding of Johnson [] is not implicated in this case." Judge Moore concurred, noting that she agreed that the panel was bound by prior published precedent, but arguing that the prior published precedent was wrong and should be reconsidered en banc.

Judge Merritt dissented, saying what we're all thinking at this point:

"Perhaps this confusion is not surprising because, as Justice Breyer said, the Armed Career Criminal Act creates a 'time-consuming legal tangle.' Justice Alito agreed and referred to the analytical process simply as a 'mess.'"

Whatever analytical "mess" these decisions point to, it is helpful to remind ourselves that there are very real consequences. In both cases, the individuals raising these arguments will spend many more years in prison as a result of these decisions.

Tuesday, November 07, 2017

When is a Special Supervised Release Condition Appropriate?

United States v. Blake Childress
 
In 2012, Blake Childress pled guilty to being a convicted felon in possession of a firearm. At the time of sentencing, he had a pending state incest charge. After his federal sentencing, he was tried and convicted on the incest charge.  However, the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals reversed the incest conviction and remanded for a new trial.  He pled to a reduced charge of aggravated assault.  Based on his guilty plea, the federal district court held a hearing on the probation officer’s petition to modify Childress’s supervised release order.   The district court subsequently added two modifications to his special conditions of supervised release, including a psychosexual assessment.   Blake Childress appealed the modification that required him to submit to a psychosexual assessment because he was merely convicted of aggravated assault.

The Sixth Circuit reviewed the imposition of the special supervised release condition from a procedural and substantive dimension.  The procedural dimension requires the district court to state in open court at sentencing the reasons and rationale for the imposition of the special condition.  This dimension was not challenged by Childress. 

From the substantive dimension, the condition must be reasonably related to the factors applicable to supervised release as detailed in 18 U.S.C. § 3583(d)(1) and must involve no greater deprivation of liberty than reasonably necessary to comply with the sentencing purposes. 18 U.S.C. § 3583(d)(2).  Finally, the special condition must be consistent with any pertinent policy statement. 18 U.S.C. § 3583(d)(3). 

Childress challenged the condition from the substantive dimension and disagreed with the district court’s conclusion that the psychosexual assessment was reasonably related to “the history and characteristics of the defendant.”  However, the Sixth Circuit upheld the district court’s conclusion that his history and characteristics warranted imposing a sex-offender evaluation.  The Sixth Circuit relied on United States v. Carter, 463 F.3d 526 (6th Cir. 2006) and held that “the question is not whether the title of the offense denotes a sexual offense but whether the defendant ‘actually committed the offense…in a sexual manner.’”
 

Friday, November 03, 2017

We've joined Twitter! Hello 21st Century.

As Oprah famously posted in her first tweet:
The Sixth Circuit Blog is officially joining the Twitter-verse, under the handle "6thCirBlog." 

https://twitter.com/6thCirBlog
If you are a Twitter person, please consider following us or tweeting to us. Jonathan Zittrain, Harvard law professor, once remarked, "The qualities that make Twitter seem inane and half-baked are what makes it so powerful." We just hope to expand the conversation about criminal appellate law in the Sixth Circuit. 

We'll primarily be posting links to our summaries and analysis of Sixth Circuit published criminal opinions. We may also occasionally share news of note to criminal appellate practitioners in the circuit. 

Nothing will change about the blog or the RSS feed. So if you sympathize with former Daily Show host Jon Stewart, who said about Twitter -- "I have no idea how it works, or why it is" -- then you have no need to worry.

Wednesday, November 01, 2017

Evenly divided Sixth Circuit allows 10-year mandatory minimum to stand for minor player in drug conspiracy

This week in United States v. Gibson, the judges of Sixth Circuit, after hearing en banc argument, announced that they were evenly divided on the question whether a co-conspirator who only directly handled a very small amount of drugs should be held accountable for the total amount of drugs involved in the entire conspiracy. That means that, because the original panel decision affirmed the co-conspirator's sentence and conviction, the sentence and conviction remain affirmed.

The background of the case is laid out in Laura's post from April last year (The en banc reviews keep coming!):
Though he only made three small sales of meth, Mr. Gibson pled guilty to conspiracy to distribute meth that involved fifty grams or more of methamphetamine. This triggered the ten-year mandatory minimum. Mr. Gibson made Alleyne arguments as well as Guideline arguments, both of which were rejected by the Sixth based on existing precedent. Judges Daughtrey, Rogers, and Cook were not entirely happy with the result. Judge Rogers wrote:

"The result in this case may appear unjust. Mandatory minimums for limited-amount co-conspirators do not serve the drug statute's underlying purpose of more severely punishing larger-amount drug dealers. Nonetheless, absent a change in our law from the en banc court, the Supreme Court, or Congress, we are bound by our precendents." 
Judge Rogers also noted the Circuit split on the issue.
Robert had noted in a comment to that article:
Three issues to watch with this case: (1) en banc review is rare, but all the more so in cases (such as this) where plain error review apparently applies; (2) Gibson received the mandatory statutory minimum for the offense to which he pled; and (3) the Government argued that further review was unnecessary because current prosecutorial guidelines prescribe charging an individualized drug quantity and seeking a jury instruction for a finding of an individualized drug quantity. ...
Frustratingly, we don't get to know how the vote count went down, or why exactly the court was split on the case. But I have to imagine that the concerns Robert raised might have had something to do with it, so it would seem that this issue is still one we need to watch out for and preserve.