A panel of judges in the federal 6th Circuit Court of Appeals recently declined to issue a ruling on a defendant’s motion to vacate a sentence that was enhanced by a firearm provision in the United States Sentencing Guidelines.
Writing on behalf of the three-judge appellate panel, Judge Martha Craig Daughtrey held the appeal of Teron Harris in abeyance pending a U.S. Supreme Court decision that will clarify whether a residual clause in the United States Sentencing Guidelines is unconstitutional.
The case stemmed from the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision last year in Johnson v. United States.
In that case, the high court held that a so-called “residual clause” in the Armed Career Criminal Act was unconstitutionally vague.
Daughtrey wrote that the decision “effected a sea change in the realm of criminal sentencing” and gave many incarcerated defendants an opportunity to reduce lengthy prison sentences that were imposed under that provision.
Before the Johnson case was decided, Harris was sentenced under a provision of the United States Sentencing Guidelines for being a felon in possession of a firearm after sustaining at least two felony convictions for “crimes of violence.”
Ultimately, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Ohio determined that Harris’ guidelines sentencing range was 84 to 105 months in prison, but it chose to vary downward and imposed a sentence of 60 months.
Harris did not appeal from that conviction or sentence. Instead, when the Supreme Court decided Johnson, he filed a motion to vacate, set aside or correct his sentence.
According to Harris, the high court’s declaration that the residual clause of the Armed Career Criminal Act’s definition of a “violent felony” was unconstitutional identified the same language contained in the sentencing guidelines provision under which he was sentenced.
Harris argued that Johnson could and should be retroactively applied to his case and, in that case, neither of his prior felony convictions could serve as predicates to enhance his offense level for being a felon in possession of a firearm.
If Harris succeeded in his motion, his new sentencing range would be reduced to 24 to 30 months.
Because he has already served 30 months, he claimed that he is now eligible for release from prison.
The district court denied the motion, citing a “critical distinction” between the Johnson case and Harris’ case.
“As the district court explained, Johnson involved an ACCA enhancement that actually increased a statutory-maximum penalty; although Harris’s advisory guidelines sentencing range also was enhanced, the new range still remained within the range of punishments established by statute,” Daughtrey wrote. “Harris now appeals that ruling, arguing once again that the decision in Johnson announced a new, substantive rule of law that should apply retroactively to collateral review both of sentences imposed pursuant to the ACCA and to sentences imposed pursuant to the definition of a ‘crime of violence’ found in the guidelines.”
The reviewing court noted that because the language in the Armed Career Criminal Act defining a violent felony was identical to the language in the sentencing guidelines defining a “crime of violence,” some individuals who were sentenced under the career-offender provisions of the guidelines sought relief pursuant to the Johnson decision and were successful.
Harris, however, mounted a collateral attack on his pre-Johnson sentence, according to the court’s opinion.
And, because he did not directly appeal from his conviction and sentence, the judgment of the district court became final in 2014.
“Although we sympathize with the situation in which Harris now finds himself, were we to accept his request for an immediate ruling on his motion, he would not receive the relief he envisions,” Daughtrey wrote.
Instead, the appellate panel pointed out that the Supreme Court certified Beckles v. United States back in June, a case that presents the question of whether the residual clause of the sentencing guidelines is constitutional in light of the Johnson ruling. But the high court has not yet heard arguments in that case.
Despite Harris’ argument that the Johnson case applies retroactively to his situation, the appellate panel held that it was “reluctant to make such a determination.”
“Indeed, the fact that the Supreme Court has granted certiorari in Beckles expressly to decide both the applicability of Johnson to the guidelines’ residual clause and whether such application should be deemed retroactive to cases on collateral review indicates that such a right was not recognized earlier and was not held in a prior Supreme Court decision to be applicable retroactively,” Daughtrey wrote.
The 6th Circuit court concluded that, were it to rule upon Harris’s motion to vacate his sentence, “we would be forced to dismiss the matter” for failure to comply with a one-year period for filing such a motion.
“Rather than do so, only to have Harris later seek authorization to file a second or successive motion, we elect to hold Harris’s appeal from the denial of his motion in abeyance, pending the Supreme Court’s issuance of a decision in Beckles,” Daughtrey wrote.
Judges Eric Clay and Deborah Cook concurred.
The case is cited Harris v. United States, Case No. 16-3332.