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Vasquez v. United States

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

January 10, 2017

PAUL J. VASQUEZ, Petitioner,


         Petitioner Paul Vasquez (Petitioner) relies on Johnson v. United States, 135 S.Ct. 2551 (2015), to request this Court to vacate his sentence. See MOTION TO CORRECT SENTENCE PURSUANT TO 28 U.S.C. § 2255 (Doc. No. 1) (Motion); REPLY TO UNITED STATES' RESPONSE TO DEFENDANT'S MOTION TO VACATE, SET ASIDE, OR CORRECT SENTENCE (Doc. No. 10) (Reply). Petitioner argues that the prior convictions used to increase his base offense level under U.S.S.G. § 2K2.1(a)(2) are not crimes of violence after Johnson, and therefore that he should be resentenced using the corrected base offense level and the resulting lower Sentencing Guidelines range. See Mot. at 1-2. The United States opposes the Motion. See UNITED STATES' RESPONSE TO DEFENDANT/MOVANT'S MOTION TO CORRECT SENTENCE PURSUANT TO 28 U.S.C. § 2255 (Doc. No. 9) (Response). The Court will grant the Motion in part.

         I. BACKGROUND

         On July 1, 2008, Petitioner pleaded guilty to one count of being a felon in possession of a firearm. Mot. at 2. He did not enter into a plea agreement. Resp. at 1. Petitioner's base offense level was enhanced under U.S.S.G. § 2K2.1(a)(2) due to his prior convictions for aggravated battery with a deadly weapon and battery on a peace officer, which were both considered crimes of violence. Mot. at 1-2. U.S.S.G. § 2K2.1(a) sets a base offense level of 12, which is enhanced to 20 if a defendant has a prior felony conviction for a crime of violence or a controlled substance offense, and to 24 if the defendant has two or more such prior convictions. Petitioner's total offense level was 27 after adjustments. Mot. at 2. When combined with his criminal history category of VI, this resulted in an advisory Sentencing Guidelines range of 130-162 months. Mot. at 2. Petitioner was sentenced to the statutory maximum sentence of ten years, or 120 months. Mot. at 2. He is currently scheduled for release in February 2017. Mot. at 3.

         U.S.S.G. § 2K2.1(a)(2) incorporates the definition of “crime of violence” found in U.S.S.G. § 4B1.2(a). See U.S.S.G. § 2K2.1(a)(2) cmt. n.1. At the time of Petitioner's offense, that definition included any felony that “(1) has as an element the use, attempted use, or threatened use of physical force against the person of another, or (2) is burglary of a dwelling, arson, or extortion, involves use of explosives, or otherwise involves conduct that presents a serious potential risk of physical injury to another.” U.S.S.G. § 4B1.2(a) (2007) (emphasis added). The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals has held that this italicized part of U.S.S.G. § 4B1.2, the residual clause, is unconstitutionally vague in light of Johnson. See United States v. Madrid, 805 F.3d 1204, 1211 (10th Cir. 2015).

         Petitioner asserts that his prior convictions could have qualified as crimes of violence only under the now-invalid residual clause of U.S.S.G. § 4B1.2(a). Mot. at 12, 16. He asks this Court to apply Johnson retroactively to his case on collateral review and to resentence him without the enhanced base offense level. Mot. at 16. Petitioner's total offense level would have been 15 if neither of his prior convictions qualified for enhancement under U.S.S.G. § 2K2.1(a), resulting in a Guidelines range of 41-51 months. Mot. at 2-3. If only one conviction had been counted, his total offense level would have been 23 and his advisory Guidelines range would have been 92-115 months. Resp. at 12. The United States concedes that Petitioner's conviction for battery on a peace officer is not a crime of violence, so that Petitioner is substantively eligible for at least partial relief.[1] Resp. at 11-12. But the United States argues that Johnson is not retroactively applicable to Guidelines cases on collateral review, and therefore that Petitioner's Motion must be denied on procedural grounds. Resp. at 11.

         This issue is currently before the Supreme Court in Beckles v. United States, 616 F.App'x 415 (11th Cir. 2015), cert. granted, 136 S.Ct. 2510 (June 27, 2016). However, Petitioner has already served more than the corrected minimum advisory Guidelines range were he to prevail on his Motion. The Court will therefore consider the merits due to the possible prejudice to Petitioner from any delay. See United States v. Carey, No. 16-8093, ___ F.App'x ___, 2016 WL 6543343 (10th Cir. Nov. 4, 2016) (unpublished) (granting a writ of mandamus directing the district court to rule on a § 2255 motion without waiting for Beckles when the petitioner would be eligible for immediate release if his claim was meritorious).


         The Supreme Court held in Johnson that the residual clause of the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA), 18 U.S.C. § 924(e)(2)(B), was unconstitutionally vague, so that its application to impose an increased sentence was a violation of due process. 135 S.Ct. 2551, 2557, 2563. Johnson applies retroactively to all ACCA cases on collateral review. Welch v. United States, 136 S.Ct. 1257, 1268 (2016). Johnson also applies to cases on direct appeal where an enhanced Guidelines range was derived from application of the residual clause in the Sentencing Guidelines. Madrid, 805 F.3d at 1211. But the United States contends that Johnson is procedural rather than substantive when it is applied to the Sentencing Guidelines, and therefore that Johnson does not apply retroactively to Guidelines cases on collateral review. Resp. at 11.

         New constitutional rules of criminal procedure are not generally applicable to cases that are already final when the rules are announced. See Welch, 136 S.Ct. 1264 (citing Teague v. Lane, 489 U.S. 288, 310 (1989)). A new rule is retroactively applicable to cases on collateral review only if it is substantive rather than procedural, or if it represents a “watershed” change in criminal procedure that impacts accuracy or fundamental fairness. Id. A substantive rule “alters the range of conduct or the class of persons that the law punishes, ” and includes “decisions that narrow the scope of a criminal statute by interpreting its terms, as well as constitutional determinations that place particular conduct or persons covered by the statute beyond the State's power to punish.” Id. at 1264-65 (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). By contrast, a procedural rule “regulate[s] only the manner of determining the defendant's culpability.” Id. at 1265 (emphasis in original) (internal quotation marks omitted). It does not create “a class of persons convicted of conduct the law does not make criminal.” Id. (internal quotation marks omitted).

         The Supreme Court determined in Welch that the rule announced in Johnson was substantive, and therefore retroactive, because Johnson narrowed the reach of the ACCA by limiting the offenses that qualified for an enhanced sentence. Id. After Johnson, a sentence imposed under the residual clause of the ACCA is not a legitimate sentence. See Id. The application of Johnson to Guidelines cases similarly reduces the offenses which merit an enhanced Guidelines range. See Madrid, 805 F.3d at 1213.

         The United States argues that the advisory nature of the Sentencing Guidelines makes this effect procedural rather than substantive. Resp. at 6-9. A judge does retain the authority to sentence outside the Guidelines, see Madrid, 805 F.3d at 1211, so that a statutorily authorized sentence imposed after calculation of an erroneously enhanced Guidelines range is not an illegal sentence even if it is higher than the maximum of the correct range. See Resp. at 7-9. But a rule does not need to eliminate the possibility of a certain sentence to be substantive. See Montgomery v. Louisiana, 136 S.Ct. 718, 734 (2016). Montgomery held that the rule announced in Miller v. Alabama, 132 S.Ct. 2455 (2012), which invalidated the mandatory imposition of life without the possibility of parole on juvenile offenders, was a substantive rule despite the fact that the sentencing court could still impose the penalty. Montgomery, 136 S.Ct. at 734. Miller required that a sentencing court consider an offender's youth when determining the appropriate punishment, but Miller also determined that “sentencing a child to life without parole is excessive for all but the rare juvenile offender whose crime reflects irreparable corruption.” Id. (internal quotation marks omitted). This reduced the number of juvenile offenders that could be constitutionally subjected to a sentence of life in prison, so it announced a substantive rule with retroactive effect. Id.

         Similarly here, reducing the number of offenses that qualify as crimes of violence under the Guidelines reduces the range of conduct that will trigger an enhanced penalty and the number of offenders that will be subject to enhancement. “[T]he Guidelines are the mandatory starting point for a sentencing determination; a district court can be reversed for failing to correctly apply them despite the ability to later deviate from the recommended range.” Madrid, 805 F.3d at 1211. While all sentencing decisions are within the discretion of the district court and subject to deferential review, “the extent of the difference between a particular sentence and the recommended Guidelines range is surely relevant” to the reasonableness of a particular sentence. Gall v. United States, 552 U.S. 38, 40 (2007). A sentence that falls within the recommended Guidelines range may be presumed to be reasonable. Id. But “a district judge must give serious consideration to the extent of any departure from the Guidelines and must explain his conclusion that an unusually lenient or an unusually harsh sentence is appropriate in a particular case with sufficient justifications.” Id. at 46.

         The Guidelines therefore provide the basis for the sentence even when the term imposed falls outside the advisory range. Peugh v. United States, 133 S.Ct. 2072, 2083 (2013). This system, “in practice, make the imposition of a non-Guidelines sentence less likely.” Id. at 2083- 84. “The Sentencing Guidelines represent the Federal Government's authoritative view of the appropriate sentences for specific crimes. “ Id. at 2085. “[A]n increase in the guidelines range applicable to an offender create[s] a significant risk that [the offender will] receive a higher sentence.” Id. at 2083; see also Molina-Martinez v. United States, 136 S.Ct. 1338, 1345 (2016) (“[T]he Guidelines are not only the starting point for most federal sentencing proceedings but also the lodestar. The Guidelines inform and instruct the district court's determination of an appropriate sentence. In the usual case, then, the systemic function of the selected Guidelines range will affect the sentence. . . . In most cases a defendant who has shown that the district court mistakenly deemed applicable an incorrect, higher Guidelines range has demonstrated a reasonable probability of a different outcome.”).

         The United States urges the Court to follow Miller v. United States, 16-cv-00566-WJ-WPL (D.N.M. Sept. 23, 2016), which concluded that Johnson announced a procedural rule when applied to the Guidelines due to their advisory nature. Resp. at 4. But the United States has failed to mention Soto v. United States, 16-cv-00308-JAP-CG (D.N.M. Sept. 16, 2016), Martinez Jr. v. United States, 16-cv-00449-RB-LAM (D.N.M. Dec. 2, 2016), or any of the other district court decisions in this Circuit which have reached the opposite conclusion. See Martinez Jr., 16-cv-00449-RB-LAM (collecting cases from other districts). The Court concludes that the rule announced in Johnson reduces the range of conduct that merits a longer recommended Guidelines sentence, and thereby limits the number of offenders that can ...

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