Sunday, November 16, 2014

Big 5-4 en banc opinion from the 11th Circuit

The blog covered the panel decision in Spencer v. U.S. here in which the panel held:
We hold that a defendant who unsuccessfully raised a career offender issue at both sentencing and on direct appeal can use a timely-filed first motion under 28 U.S.C. § 2255 to pursue the same issue when an intervening case from the Supreme Court validates his argument and applies retroactively. Under that intervening case, this defendant’s third degree Florida felony child abuse conviction no longer qualifies as a predicate crime of violence. He therefore is not properly treated as a career offender. We vacate the district court’s denial of his section 2255 motion and remand for resentencing. 
Seems rather straightforward.  Someone who preserves an issue should be allowed to raise it when the law changes, especially where it means an extra 81 months in prison.

But the 11th Circuit in a 5-4 opinion, per Judge Pryor (joined by Ed Carnes, Hull, Tjoflat & Marcus), said no:
This appeal concerns whether a federal prisoner may relitigate an alleged misapplication of the advisory United States Sentencing Guidelines in a collateral attack on a final sentence. After he pleaded guilty to distributing cocaine and we affirmed the judgment against him, Kevin Spencer moved to vacate his sentence of imprisonment, 28 U.S.C. § 2255, for an alleged error in the application of the advisory guidelines. Spencer argues that an intervening decision of the Supreme Court, Begay v. United States, 553 U.S. 137, 128 S. Ct. 1581 (2008), makes clear that the district court and this Court erroneously classified him as a “career offender” based on a prior conviction for felony child abuse, which he argues is not a “crime of violence.” United States Sentencing Guidelines Manual § 4B1.1 (Nov. 2006). Spencer maintains that this alleged error represents a “fundamental defect which inherently results in a complete miscarriage of justice,” Hill v. United States, 368 U.S. 424, 428, 82 S. Ct. 468, 471 (1962), that can be revisited on collateral review. We disagree.
 There were a number of powerful dissents by Martin, Jordan, Wilson & Rosenbaum.

Here's Judge Wilson:
Kevin Spencer has served approximately eight years of the prison sentence he received after pleading guilty to selling two rocks of crack cocaine to an undercover police officer. Had the district court correctly applied the sentencing guidelines, Spencer would likely be a free man today. Instead, because of the district court’s erroneous application of the career offender enhancement, Spencer faces the prospect of spending nearly six more years in prison unnecessarily.
Contrary to the Majority, I do not read Supreme Court precedent to say that a “lawful” sentence forecloses a determination by us that a complete miscarriage of justice has taken place in Spencer’s case. Accordingly, I would reach the merits of Spencer’s claim because I believe that an erroneous guideline determination that is likely to result in a person spending such a considerable amount of additional time in prison—here, six years—constitutes a fundamental error resulting in a complete miscarriage of justice.
 Judge Martin:
I believe the federal courts as an institution would be stronger if we simply acknowledge that we got Mr. Spencer’s sentence wrong from the start, and fix it. The government now concedes that, contrary to its argument to Mr. Spencer’s sentencing court in 2007, he had no prior crime of violence conviction at the time he was sentenced. But the government nevertheless urges this Court to lay the burden of its mistaken 2007 argument upon Mr. Spencer. The majority of this Court has done just that. So Mr. Spencer will continue to serve an extra many years of a mistaken sentence, even though he has been right about how we got his sentence wrong from the start.

Judge Jordan:
Kevin Spencer is serving more than 12 years in prison (151 months to be exact) for selling $20 worth of crack cocaine. The panel found, see Spencer v. United States, 727 F.3d 1076, 1100 (11th Cir. 2013), the government now concedes, see En Banc Brief for the United States at 57-58, and the majority does not dispute, that Mr. Spencer’s mistaken career offender designation more than doubled his advisory sentencing range from 70-87 months to 151-188 months. For those of us familiar with—and sometimes numbed by—the ranges produced by application of the Sentencing Guidelines, it may be easy to overlook the dramatic increase resulting from the error. To put it in perspective, the 81-month increase is roughly the time needed to complete both college and law school.
And Judge Rosenbaum starts off this way:
Today the Court holds that Sentencing Guidelines error that does not cause the imposition of a sentence greater than the statutory maximum can never be cognizable under § 2255 unless a prior conviction on which an enhancement is based is vacated or the petitioner is actually innocent of the crime for which he was sentenced. The reason for this, the Court explains, is that all sentences based on errors under the Sentencing Guidelines but still lower than the statutory maximum are necessarily “lawful,” and “lawful” sentences are not cognizable under § 2255. But the notion that “lawful” sentences cannot be challenged on a § 2255 petition is not supported by United States v. Addonizio, 442 U.S. 178, 99 S. Ct. 2235 (1979), the case on which the Court relies for the proposition, and is undermined by the statute’s own text.

Powerful dissents.  It just seems absolutely wrong to let a man sit in prison for 81 more months when everyone acknowledges that he wasn't a career offender.  Why is finality is worthy goal when justice, fairness, and the law dictate a different result.  If Spencer is sentenced today, he probably gets 2 years instead of 15. 

It is worth noting that the two newest court members, Julie Carnes and Jill Pryor, did not participate. Also, Senior Judge Phyllis Kravitch who was part of the panel elected not to participate.  And the visiting district judge on the panel was not permitted to participate.  So this case may well have turned out differently if the new judges were on the en banc court.  This case looks destined for the Supremes.


Anonymous said...

It's bs. But hey, we seem to be lagging behind bastions of democracy such as Iran, which just disbarred a prosecutor for ordering the torture of prisoners. Here we make them federal judges.

Anonymous said...

Horrible, but also reflects how political parties make an impact on the bench. The panel was split 5/4 along party lines, with republican appointees favoring finality over justice. The democratic appointees favored justice over barriers.

P. Guyotat said...

Actually, 7:35 p.m., it was not split along party lines. Judges Hull and Marcus were both appointed by WJC. That being said, Judge Hull is arguably the most conservative judge on the Eleventh Circuit; Judge Marcus is more moderate, but still quite conservative on law-and-order issues. It is significant, however, that all the BHO appointees (who participated) were in dissent. So your general point still stands.

Anonymous said...

Your goverment is a fraud, your legals system a joke. You want people to respect you, show them you deserve their respect.

Anonymous said...

Interesting that all 4 dissenters were both prosecutors with the U.S. Attorney Office (Wilson and Martin the USA) and district court judges.

So was Judge Marcus but....

Anonymous said...

I am really surprised to see Judge Marcus in the majority--I guess you can't take the US Atty out of the Judge.

Anonymous said...

I found Martin's dissent powerful.

Anonymous said...

The quality of mercy is not strain'd,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest:
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.