The Federal Docket

Fuad Said v. Attorney General (11th Cir. March 2022)

In an immigration appeal that likely affects federal criminal cases, the Eleventh Circuit held that a petitioner’s prior state law conviction for possession of marijuana did not constitute an offense involving a “controlled substance” as defined under federal law. The Court noted that the definition of marijuana under federal law, while still classifying marijuana as a controlled substance, excludes cannabis that falls under the definition of “hemp.” The petitioner’s conviction was under a Florida law that did not make that distinction and thus would ostensibly allow for a conviction based on possession of hemp. Accordingly, the petitioner’s prior offense was not a categorical match with the federal definition of a controlled substance offense.

United States v. Begay (9th Cir. May 2022), EN BANC

Sitting en banc, the Ninth Circuit held that federal second degree murder (18 USC 1111(a)) is a “crime of violence” under 18 USC 924(c) where, employing the categorical approach, a conviction requires acting “deliberately or recklessly with extreme disregard for human life.” The Ninth Circuit distinguished reckless disregard for human life from mere recklessness but otherwise emphasized that “anything less than intentional conduct does not qualify as a crime of violence.”

Wooden v. United States. (U.S. Supreme Court, March 2022)

The Supreme Court issued a significant opinion regarding the applicability of the Armed Career Criminal Act (“ACCA”) to a defendant with multiple convictions that arise from a single criminal episode. William Dale Wooden was sentenced to a mandatory minimum of 15 years in prison under the ACCA based on the district court finding that he had several prior convictions for a “violent felony” based on his prior convictions for burglary. Wooden had committed 10 burglaries that were charged as separate counts in an indictment, and he pleaded guilty to all of the counts. The Supreme Court reversed the district court, holding that Wooden’s prior convictions counted as only one prior conviction for the purposes of the ACCA since the burglaries arose out of “a single criminal episode in 1997,” when Wooden broke into a storage facility and then stole items from 10 separate storage units. These successive burglaries occurred on “one occasion” and thus could not be counted as separate convictions.

Justice Gorsuch concurred, emphasizing the importance of the rule of lenity. His concurrence includes a lengthy discussion of the rule, its origins, and its significance.

United States v. Hope (4th Cir. March 2022)

The Fourth Circuit vacated a defendant’s sentence for possession of a firearm by a convicted felon after the district court improperly enhanced the defendant’s sentence under the ACCA. The district court did so based on finding that Hope’s prior South Carolina convictions for felony marijuana offenses were for a “controlled substance offense.” The Fourth Circuit reversed, holding that the South Carolina marijuana offenses did not meet the federal definition of “controlled substance offenses” because South Carolina’s definition of marijuana included hemp at the time, and hemp is not a “controlled substance offense” under federal law. Judge Thacker dissented based on his view that the error did not amount to “plain error.”

United States v. Goodall (9th Cir. October 2021)

The Ninth Circuit affirmed a defendant’s conviction and sentence after he argued that they were illegal in light of US v. Davis, where SCOTUS held that conspiracy to commit Hobbs Act robbery is not a predicate crime of violence under 924(c). The Court held that the defendant’s challenge was foreclosed by his appeal waiver, and the exception to appellate waivers from US v. Torres only applies to illegal sentences, not convictions.

Cartwright v. United States (6th Cir. August 2021)

The Sixth Circuit reversed a district court’s denial of a habeas petition asserting that the defendant was no longer an armed career criminal under Johnson v. US. A conviction for burglary under Tennessee law is not categorically a crime of violence where a defendant can commit the crime after entering a dwelling or building lawfully.

United States v. Antonio Simmons (4th Cir. August 2021)

The Fourth Circuit reversed convictions for several defendants convicted of RICO, VICAR, and carrying a firearm during crimes of violence. In a complex opinion, the Court held that RICO conspiracy is a divisible offense requiring the modified categorical approach to determine if the offense is a crime of violence. The Court concluded that a RICO conspiracy, even an “aggravated” one, is not a crime of violence under 924(c). The Court also reversed the defendants’ VICAR convictions where the jury instructions referred to the wrong state law. Finally, the Court reversed one of the VICAR and 924(c) counts predicated on attempted murder where the defendants only took a preparatory act, not an overt act, in driving around looking for the victim.

United States v. Joshua Dudley (11th Cir. July 2021)

The Eleventh Circuit affirmed a defendant’s ACCA-enhanced sentence for possession of a firearm as a convicted felon. The defendant had previously pleaded guilty to several different felony offenses on the same day, but there was no indication in the indictment when these offenses occurred or whether they were related, save for the State’s statements during the colloquy regarding a factual basis. The Eleventh Circuit held that the sentencing court here properly relied on those statements because the defendant had implicitly confirmed the substance of those statements by failing to object or add facts.

United States v. Roosevelt Coats, III (11th Cir. August 2021)

The Eleventh Circuit affirmed a defendant’s ACCA-enhanced sentence for possession of a firearm by a convicted felon. The Court held that it was plain error for the district court to accept the defendant’s guilty plea where the defendant was not advised that the Government would have to prove his knowledge of his felon status, but the defendant was not prejudiced where the record showed the Government would have been able to prove his knowledge at trial. The Court also held that a prior conviction for burglary under Georgia law is a predicate “violent felony” under the ACCA, and it held that the district court properly applied the obstruction enhancement and denied the defendant acceptance of responsibility credit based on the defendant’s pre-indictment conduct.

United States v. Leon Carter (11th Cir. August 2021)

The Eleventh Circuit vacated a defendant’s 15-year sentence under the Armed Career Criminal Act. The Court held that the defendant’s prior conviction for aggravated assault under Georgia law was not a conviction for a “violent felony” under the ACCA’s elements clause because it only requires a mens rea of recklessness.

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