What is a “career offender” and how easy is it to overturn a that determination?
The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals recently addressed this issue and vacated a lower court judgment, ordering the district court to have another go at it.
The defendant, Darryl Lee Johnson, was ruled a career offender and was sentenced to one hundred and fifty one months in prison. He pled guilty to drug charges, namely the possession of heroin with the intent to distribute.
While Johnson did not dispute his conviction, he did dispute his sentence.
In order to qualify as a career offender under USSG sec. 4B1.1, the Fourth Circuit wrote, a defendant must have a minimum of two prior felony convictions of either a crime of violence or a controlled substance offense.
Johnson's argument turned on a prior conviction, which he argued was not a crime of violence. The crime was assault and battery of a high and aggravated nature.
So how could the appeals court vacate a judgment that classified such a crime as violent? After all, it does appear to be a violent crime.
The court didn't remand the case on the substantive issue, but rather, on the reasoning the lower court used to reach its conclusion.
A crime of violence is an offense that is punishable for more than one year and (1) has an element of use, attempted use, or threatened use of physical force against another, or (2) is burglary of a dwelling, arson, or extortion, involves explosives or conduct that may present a serious risk of physical injury to another.
The approach used to draw a conclusion is the categorical approach, where the offense's full range of conduct must fall within the definition of "crime of violence." Subsequently, the court modified categorical approach, which looks past the elements of the offense and at the specific act underlying the offense. Such an analysis would include a look into the facts and circumstances surrounding the conviction.
The appeals court ruled that while the district court applied the categorical approach, it failed to go further and apply the modified categorical approach.
As such, the case was sent back to the district court where it was directed to apply the modified categorical approach.