November 25, 2017

Tenth Circuit: Plaintiff’s Request for Immediate Release from Federal Custody Denied Under ACCA’s Enumerated Clause

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in United States v. Snyder on Thursday, September 21, 2017.

This case arose from Snyder’s request for immediate release from federal custody on the basis that he had already served more than the maximum sentence allowed by law. Snyder argues that the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Johnson v. United States invalidates his sentence enhancement under the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA). The district court denied Snyder’s motion, and the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the denial, concluding that Snyder was not sentenced based on the ACCA’s residual clause that was invalidated in Johnson.

In 2004, Snyder pled guilty to being a felon in possession of a firearm. A presentence report was prepared and concluded that Snyder was subject to an enhanced sentence as an armed career criminal because he had sustained two convictions for burglary of two residences, and had a conviction of a controlled substance offense. Snyder’s argument that his burglary convictions failed to constitute predicate offenses under the ACCA were rejected by the district court.

In 2015, the Supreme Court decided Johnson. Snyder subsequently filed a motion to vacate his sentence for immediate release, asserting that, following the Court’s decision in Johnson, his burglary convictions no longer qualify as predicate offenses under the ACCA, so he is not an armed career criminal, and his enhanced sentence exceeds the maximum authorized by law.

The Circuit first determined whether the district court erred in concluding that Snyder’s motion was not timely.  By the plain language of the statute in question, the statute allows a motion to be filed within one year of the date on which the rights asserted was initially recognized by the Supreme Court. The Circuit concluded that to be timely, a motion need only to invoke the newly recognized right, regardless of whether the facts of record ultimately support the claim, and found that Snyder’s motion did just that.

The court then discussed whether Snyder had overcome the procedural-default rule, which is a general rule that claims not raised on direct appeal may not be raised on collateral review unless the petitioner can show cause and prejudice.

Cause is shown if a claim is so novel that its legal basis was not reasonably available to counsel at the time of the direct appeal. The Supreme Court has stated that if one of its decisions explicitly overrides prior precedent, then, prior to that decision, the new constitutional principle was not reasonably available to counsel, and defendant has cause for failing to raise the issue. The Johnson claim was not reasonably available to Snyder at the time of his direct appeal, and the Circuit found this sufficient to establish cause.

To establish actual prejudice, the Circuit held that Snyder must show that the error of which he complains is an error of constitutional dimensions and worked to his actual and substantial disadvantage. The Circuit found that Snyder has shown actual prejudice through his argument that the ACCA sentence enhancement is invalid after Johnson. The court concluded this by acknowledging that if Snyder is correct, he should have been sentenced to only ten years maximum, not eighteen as he had been sentenced. The sentence of eighteen years would then be unauthorized under law, creating an actual and substantial disadvantage of constitutional dimensions.

The Circuit next discusses the merits of Snyder’s claim. Snyder alleged that the sentence was imposed under an invalid legal theory and that he was, therefore, sentenced in violation of the Constitution. In order to make a determination, the relevant background of the legal environment at the time of sentencing must be evaluated. The Circuit held that the actual facts of record in this matter offered no basis whatsoever for the notion that the sentence Snyder received was based on the ACCA’s residual clause, rather than its enumerated offenses clause. The Circuit found no mention of the residual clause in the presentence report or any other pleading or transcript. Further, given the relevant background legal environment that existed at the time of Snyder’s sentencing, there would have been no need for reliance on the residual clause. The Circuit concluded that Snyder’s claim failed because the court’s ACCA’s determination at the time of sentencing rested on the enumerated crimes clause rather than the residual clause.

The decision of the district court denying Snyder’s motion is AFFIRMED by the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals.

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