Career Offender

The Federal Docket

United States v. Vargas (5th Cir. May 2022)

The Fifth Circuit affirmed a defendant’s sentence as a career offender based on his prior convictions. The defendant argued that his prior convictions did not count as “controlled substances” under the Guidelines since the Guidelines themselves do not include inchoate drug offenses like attempt and conspiracy–only the commentary to the Guidelines does. The Fifth Circuit deepened a circuit split by holding that the commentary are still binding on courts notwithstanding the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Kisor v. Wilkie.

United States v. Abreu (3rd Cir. May 2022)

The Third Circuit vacated a defendant’s sentence after holding the district court improperly enhanced the defendant’s offense level under the Guidelines based on the defendant’s prior conviction for conspiracy to commit second degree murder. The plain text of the relevant Guidelines provision does not include “conspiracy” under the definition of “crime of violence,” and courts may not rely on commentary to increase a defendant’s Guidelines range when the commentary goes beyond the plain text of the Guidelines.

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.”

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. Scott (3rd Cir. September 2021)

Joining the Fourth, Sixth, Seventh, Ninth, Tenth, and Eleventh Circuits, the Third Circuit held that a conviction for Hobbs Act robbery is not a prior conviction for a “crime of violence” under the “Career Offender” provisions of the Guidelines.

United States v. Abdulaziz (1st Cir. June 2021)

The First Circuit vacated a defendant’s sentence which had been enhanced based on a 2014 conviction under state law for distributing marijuana, which the sentencing court held was a “controlled substance offense” under the Guidelines. The First Circuit held that convictions under state laws that do not distinguish between marijuana and hemp, as defined and legalized under federal law, cannot serve as “controlled substance offenses” under the Guidelines.

United States v. Tony Dewayne Williams (6th Cir. March 2021)

The Sixth Circuit affirmed a defendant’s sentence which was enhanced based on a prior felony conviction under Tennessee law involving marijuana. The Court held that the sentencing court erred in enhancing the defendant’s sentence based on that conviction because the Tennessee law at issue included hemp under the definition of marijuana, while hemp was distinguishable and legal under federal law. Therefore, the Tennessee conviction was not a “controlled substance offense” under the Guidelines. However, since the defendant had only objected generally at sentencing and did not articulate grounds for his objection, plain error review applied, and the sentencing court’s error here were not clear or obvious given the complexity of the issue.

United States v. Simha Furaha (9th Cir. March 2021)

The Ninth Circuit affirmed a defendant’s sentence after the defendant challenged the district court’s application of an enhancement based on the defendant’s prior conviction under 924(c), which the sentencing court considered a “controlled substance offense” warranting an enhancement. The Court held that a sentencing court may apply the modified categorical approach to determine whether a defendant’s underlying “drug trafficking crime” under 924(c) was a “controlled substance offense” under 4B1.2.

Jeffery Bridges v. United States (March 7th Cir. 2021)

The Seventh Circuit remanded a defendant’s 2255 motion for an evidentiary hearing, holding that the defendant had made a sufficient showing that he may have received ineffective assistance of counsel based on his lawyer’s failure to argue that his Hobbs Act robbery was not a crime of violence under the career offender provision of the sentencing guidelines. While the Seventh Circuit had not yet decided whether Hobbs Act robbery was a crime of violence at the time of the defendant’s sentencing, other circuits had, the categorical approach under the Guidelines was well-known, and this was enough to warrant at least a hearing to determine whether the defendant’s counsel failed to reasonably investigate the issue before the defendant’s sentencing.

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