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United States v. Arrington

United States District Court, District of Columbia

September 24, 2019



          Royce C. Lamberth, United States District Judge.

         Defendant Derrek Arrington seeks a court order modifying his sentence under 28 U.S.C. § 2255. He looks for relief in the holding of Johnson v. United States, 135 S.Ct. 2551 (2015). The Johnson Court held that the residual clause defining “violent felony” under the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA) was unconstitutionally vague. Arrington was sentenced pursuant to then-mandatory guidelines that contained an identical residual clause defining “crime of violence.” If the ACCA residual clause is unconstitutionally vague, the logic goes, so too is the residual clause under the mandatory sentencing guidelines. The government objects to all this and more. It says that Arrington’s claim is untimely and procedurally defaulted, that Johnson did not apply to the mandatory sentencing guidelines, that it cannot apply to the guidelines retroactively anyways, and that in any event Arrington’s sentence was still valid under other, unchallenged clauses within the guidelines.

         I. BACKGROUND

         In September of 2000, a jury convicted Arrington of assaulting a federal officer with a dangerous weapon, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 111(a) and (b), and unlawful possession of a firearm by a convicted felon, in violation 18 U.S.C. § 922(g). Def.’s Suppl. Mot. Vacate 4, ECF No. 177. Because Arrington had already been convicted of two separate armed robbery offenses-one in Maryland and one in Washington, D.C.-Judge Robertson sentenced him as a “career offender” under the mandatory guidelines. Id. at 5–6. The career offender designation raised the sentencing guideline range, and Arrington received the statutory maximums for his § 111 and § 922 convictions-twenty years in all. Id. at 7. He appealed, but the D.C. Circuit affirmed. United States v. Arrington, 309 F.3d 40 (D.C. Cir. 2002). He filed a previous § 2255 motion, which was denied. Def.’s Suppl. Mot. Vacate 8–9, ECF No. 177. In June of 2016, he filed this second § 2255 motion. Emerg. Suppl. Mot., ECF No. 174.


         Arrington’s motion relies on the Supreme Court’s 2015 holding in Johnson. There, the Court considered whether one of the clauses defining “violent felony” under the ACCA was unconstitutionally vague. Johnson, 135 S.Ct. at 2555. The statute defined a violent felony as:

any crime punishable by imprisonment for a term exceeding one year . . . that-
(i) has as an element the use, attempted use, or threatened use of physical force against the person of another; or
(ii) is burglary, arson, or extortion, involves use of explosives, or otherwise involves conduct that presents a serious potential risk of physical injury to another[.]

18 U.S.C. § 924(e)(2)(B) (emphasis added).

         According to the Court, the italicized residual clause was indeed void for vagueness. Johnson, 135 S.Ct. at 2563. “Two features of the residual clause conspire to make it unconstitutionally vague.” Id. at 2557. First, it “leaves grave uncertainty about how to estimate the risk posed by a crime. It ties the judicial assessment of risk to a judicially imagined ‘ordinary case’ of a crime, not to real-world facts or statutory elements.” Id. And second, it “leaves uncertainty about how much risk it takes for a crime to qualify as a violent felony. It is one thing to apply an imprecise ‘serious potential risk’ standard to real-world facts; it is quite another to apply it to a judge-imagined abstraction.” Id. at 2558. In other words, the clause invited unpredictable and arbitrary enforcement.

         Two years later, the Court expounded on Johnson in Beckles v. United States, 137 S.Ct. 886 (2017). In considering a vagueness challenge to the advisory sentencing guidelines, the Court looked to “the twin concerns underlying vagueness doctrine-providing notice and preventing arbitrary enforcement” Id. at 894. Unanimously, the Court distinguished the advisory guidelines’ residual clause from its carbon copy struck down in Johnson. Id. at 897. Advisory sentencing guidelines, according to the Court, are fundamentally different from the statute at issue in Johnson and are not subject to due process vagueness challenges. Id. The Court was satisfied that notice is adequately provided by the statutory ranges that the guidelines operate within. Id. at 894. Prohibited conduct and its spectrum of associated punishment is already publicized to would-be defendants-the guidelines merely advise a judge within that spectrum. See Id . at 895 (“[T]he legally prescribed range is the penalty affixed to the crime.” (citing Alleyne v. United States, 570 U.S. 99, 112 (2013))). Arbitrary enforcement concerns are likewise misplaced-the guidelines are not regulations to be enforced at all, but rather conventions to be consulted. Id. at 894.

         Unlike the ACCA, the advisory guidelines do not “fix the permissible sentences” for crimes. Id. at 892. When Arrington was sentenced, however, the sentencing guidelines were “mandatory and binding on all judges.” United States v. Booker, 543 U.S. 220, 233 (2005). Departures were rarely available. Id. at 234. In 2005, the Supreme Court in Booker struck down the “mandatory” portions of the sentencing statute, rendering the guidelines merely advisory. Id. at 259. The clause at issue in Beckles is the very same one Arrington now confronts, the only difference being the mandatory force of the guidelines during Arrington’s sentencing. While Beckles foreclosed challenges to the clause under the advisory regime, it did not decide whether its holding extended to sentences imposed under the mandatory guidelines. Concurring in Beckles, Justice Sotomayor pointed this out:

The Court's adherence to the formalistic distinction between mandatory and advisory rules at least leaves open the question whether defendants sentenced to terms of imprisonment before our decision in [Booker]-that is, during the period in which the Guidelines did “fix the permissible ...

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