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United States v. Collins

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

January 3, 2018



          STENGEL, C.J.


         Petitioner Jmeal Collins requests resentencing pursuant to the Supreme Court's decision in Johnson v. United States, 135 S.Ct. 2251 (2015). Johnson invalidated one specific clause of the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA) (18 U.S.C. § 924(e) (2012)) as unconstitutionally vague. Mr. Collins argues in his June 16, 2016 motion to correct sentence under 28 U.S.C. § 2255 that but for the application of the invalidated clause, his sentence would have been significantly shorter. I will grant Mr. Collins's motion to correct his sentence.


         The petitioner's underlying crime is a 2002 conviction by jury for one count of being a felon in possession of a firearm under 18 U.S.C. 922(g)(1), for which he was sentenced under §§ 922(g)(1) and 924(e) to twenty years imprisonment and five years supervised relief. At the time of his sentencing, Mr. Collins's presentence report classified him as an armed career criminal based on four previous violent felony convictions; this classification subjected him to the ACCA's sentence enhancement. The petitioner's four convictions were two first degree robberies (18 Pa. C.S. § 3701(a)(1)(i)-(iii)(2017)) and two aggravated assaults (18 Pa. C.S. § 2702(a)(1)-(2) (2017)).[1]

         Because Mr. Collins previously filed a habeas claim, he had to seek approval from the Third Circuit to proceed with this successive petition, and the Third Circuit granted him that permission on July 8, 2016. On Jan. 6, 2017, Mr. Collins filed an unopposed motion to lift the administrative stay on cases seeking relief based on Johnson, implemented by then-Chief Judge Petrese B. Tucker. On Feb. 2, 2017, I granted that motion. The government filed its response on March 2, 2017, and Mr. Collins filed his reply on April 27, 2017.


         A prisoner in federal custody may file a motion pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2255 challenging the validity of his sentence. Section 2255 provides, in relevant part:

A prisoner in custody under sentence of a court established by Act of Congress claiming the right to be released upon the ground that the sentence was imposed in violation of the Constitution or laws of the United States, or that the court was without jurisdiction to impose such sentence, or that the sentence was in excess of the maximum authorized by law, or is otherwise subject to collateral attack, may move the court which imposed the sentence to vacate, set aside or correct the sentence.

28 U.S.C. § 2255(a) (2012).

         In considering a petitioner's motion for § 2255 relief, “the court must accept the truth of the movant's factual allegations unless they are clearly frivolous on the basis of the existing record.” United States v. Booth, 432 F.3d 542, 545 (3d Cir. 2005) (quoting Gov't of the Virgin Islands v. Forte, 865 F.2d 59, 62 (3d Cir. 1989)).

         Section 2255 provides that “[u]nless the motion and the files and records of the case conclusively show that the prisoner is entitled to no relief, the court shall . . . grant a prompt hearing thereon, determine the issues and make findings of fact and conclusions of law with respect thereto.” 28 U.S.C. § 2255(b). Conversely, a court may dismiss a § 2255 motion where the records and files show conclusively that the movant is not entitled to relief. United States v. Nahodil, 36 F.3d 323, 326 (3d Cir. 1994).


         A. The Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA)

         In this case, I must determine whether Mr. Collins's prior state convictions have “as an element the use, attempted use, or threatened use of physical force, ” qualifying them as violent felonies under the ACCA and triggering his enhanced sentence. See § 924(e)(2)(B)(i). While this question may be stated easily, the application of the ACCA has become complex and murky.

         The ACCA imposes a fifteen-year mandatory minimum sentence on any individual convicted under 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)[2] who also has three previous independent convictions “for a violent felony or a serious drug offense, or both” (each crime punishable by over a year imprisonment). § 924(e)(1). A § 922(g) offense otherwise typically carries a ten-year maximum. See § 924(a)(2). Where the prosecution seeks an ACCA sentence enhancement, the court must determine whether the defendant has three qualifying convictions. Therefore, in this case, the issue is whether the defendant's prior convictions qualify as ACCA “violent felonies.”

         The ACCA defines 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[.]

§ 924(e)(2)(B) (emphasis added).

         This ACCA definition of “violent felony” contains three distinct clauses: the elements clause (subsection (i)), the enumerated offenses clause (the first clause of subsection (ii)), and the residual clause (the italicized portion of subsection (ii)).

         The petitioner's case, and cases like it, stem from a 2015 U.S. Supreme Court decision that invalidated the residual clause, finding it unconstitutionally vague in violation of the right to due process of law. Johnson, 135 S.Ct. at 2557, 2563. The Johnson decision applies retroactively to cases on collateral review. Welch v. United States, 136 S.Ct. 1257, 1268 (2016).

         In Mr. Collins's § 2255 motion, he argues that his prior robbery and aggravated assault convictions do not fit within the elements clause of the ACCA (the enumerated offenses clause does not encompass either of these convictions) and that his sentence is therefore unlawful. Now, after Johnson and Welch, courts examining these cases on collateral review must determine whether either of the two remaining ACCA clauses encompasses the offenses that triggered a petitioner's enhanced sentence.

         1. Divisibility

         To determine whether a statute qualifies as an ACCA predicate, a court must first determine whether the statute is divisible. A statute is divisible when it lists elements in the alternative. Mathis v. United States, 136 S.Ct. 2243, 2249 (2016); see also Descamps v. United States, 133 S.Ct. 2276, 2298 (2013). Elements are items upon which a jury must agree in order to convict. See Mathis, 136 S.Ct. at 2249.

         A statute is indivisible when its elements “define a single crime.” Id. at 2248. This is true even when the statute “enumerates various factual means of committing a single element.” Id. at 2249 (emphasis added). Means, unlike elements, need not garner jury unanimity. Id. If a statute is indivisible, the court must apply the categorical approach, discussed below. If the statute is divisible (lists alternative elements), the court must instead apply the modified categorical approach to determine whether an offense constitutes an ACCA “violent felony.”

         With that, a sentencing court dealing with an “alternatively phrased statute” must determine whether the alternative items are elements or means. Mathis, 136 S.Ct. at 2256. To decipher between means and elements, a court may look to the state statute and related case law. If, and only if, those sources prove indeterminate, a court may “peek” at record documents-and may do so solely to determine whether the statutory alternatives are means or elements. Id. at 2256-57.[3]

         This restrained glance at the record should apply only in occasional and appropriate instances-it “should prove more the exception than the rule.” Id. If after a “peek” at record documents, the means/elements inquiry remains unclear, then the sentencing court cannot satisfy the “demand for certainty” required to qualify an offense as an ACCA “violent felony.” Id. (quoting Shepard v. United States, 544 U.S. 13, at 21 (2005)) (quotation marks omitted). Record materials may not be used further in the analysis unless the “peek” definitively reveals the alternatives to be elements, and the modified categorical approach (discussed below) applies. Id. at 2253-54, 2257.

         If a statute is indivisible (its alternative items are means), a court must apply the categorical approach. And if it is divisible (the alternatives are elements), the modified categorical approach applies. I will provide a discussion of each in turn.

         2. ...

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