By John Van Swearingen

On March 13, 2017, the Fourth Circuit issued a published opinion in the criminal case United States v. Winston. Robert Winston (“Appellant”), currently serving a 275-month sentence for a federal firearms charge from 2002, filed a motion for post-conviction relief under 28 U.S.C. § 2255 (2012) in the United States District Court for the Western District of Virginia. Appellant asserted the sentencing enhancements applied to his case were invalidated by Johnson v. United States (“Johnson II“), a 2015 Supreme Court decision striking part of the Armed Career Criminal Act (“ACCA”) and narrowing the scope of “violent felonies” included thereunder. No. 13–7120, slip op. at 15 (U.S. June 26, 2015). The district court rejected Appellant’s arguments. On appeal, the Fourth Circuit reversed the district court, holding Virginia’s common law robbery no longer qualified as a “violent felony” under the ACCA, and remanded the case for further proceedings.

Facts and Procedural History

In 2002, Appellant was sentenced to 275 month’s imprisonment for a federal firearms charge. Appellant’s sentence was enhanced under the ACCA, which mandates a fifteen-year minimum sentence for any person convicted of a firearms offense who has three prior “violent felonies” or serious drug offenses. At the time, the ACCA had categories of “violent felonies:” those established under the statute’s force clause and those under the statute’s residual clause, which included burglaries, arsons, and any other conduct that posed a serious risk of injury to another person. Appellant had four prior then-qualifying convictions: (1) rape under the Uniform Code of Military Justice (“UCMJ”), (2) common law robbery in Virginia, (3) possession of cocaine with intent to distribute in Virginia, and (4) a federal conviction for distribution of cocaine base.

After the Supreme Court published its 2015 opinion in Johnson II, which limited the definition of “violent felony” under the ACCA by striking the residual clause for vagueness, Appellant filed the instant action asserting that neither the UCMJ rape conviction nor the Virginia robbery conviction satisfied the new definition of “violent felony.” Without the ACCA sentencing enhancements, Appellant’s maximum sentence in 2002 would have been ten years, meaning Appellant would be immediately available for release.

The district court has not yet addressed Appellant’s rape conviction. The matter before the Fourth Circuit focused solely on Appellant’s common law robbery conviction. The government argued two points to challenge Appellant’s motion for relief. First, the government argued that, since Appellant could not prove that his robbery conviction was defined a “violent felony” under the now-stricken residual clause of the ACCA, Appellant did not rely on a new rule of constitutional law and was thus foreclosed from requesting relief. Second, the government argued that common law robbery still satisfied the limited definition of “violent felony” under the ACCA.

The district court disagreed with the government’s procedural assertion but agreed with the government’s substantive assertion, and it accordingly held the Virginia crime of common law robbery was a “violent felony” under the ACCA. Appellant timely filed the instant appeal.

Appellant Relied on a New Rule of Constitutional Law for the Motion for Post-Conviction Relief.

28 U.S.C. §§ 2244(b)(2)(A), 2244(b)(4) (2012) requires that motions for post-conviction relief rely on a new rule of constitutional law. The record never established that Appellant’s common law robbery conviction was only considered for enhancement by the sentencing court under the residual clause of the ACCA struck in Johnson II. Thus, the government argued, Appellant could not show reliance on the holding in Johnson II and was, therefore, barred from moving for relief.

The Fourth Circuit agreed with the district court that the sentencing court’s failure to disclose the clause or clauses of the ACCA under which it considered Appellant’s convictions could not be fatal to Appellant’s claim. The Fourth Circuit held that any movant seeking post-conviction relief, where that movant’s conviction may have been enhanced based on the now-void residual clause struck in Johnson II, may challenge their sentence. To hold otherwise, according to the Fourth Circuit, would punish defendants for a sentencing court’s discretion in failing to disclose the clauses of the ACCA under which it evaluated the defendant’s enhancements.

The Virginia Crime of Common Law Robbery Is Not a Violent Crime under the ACCA

Appellant challenged the district court’s holding that the Virginia crime of common law robbery was a “violent felony” under the ACCA. Since the residual clause was struck from the ACCA, all violent felonies must meet the definition established in the statute’s force clause, 18 U.S.C. § 924(e)(2)(B)(i) (2012), which requires an element of “use, attempted use, or threatened use of physical force against the person of another.” The force clause was clarified in the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in United States v. Johnson (“Johnson I”), which defined “physical force” in the statute to mean only “violent force” that could cause injury or pain. No. 08–6925, slip op. at 6 (U.S. Mar. 2, 2010).

The Fourth Circuit noted that the Supreme Court’s decision in Moncrieffe v. Holder required the reviewing court to consider the “minimum conduct criminalized” by a state criminal law. No. 11–702, slip op. at 5 (U.S. Apr. 23, 2013). In Virginia, a common law robbery conviction can be sustained where a defendant steals the property of another by “violence or intimidation.” Pierce v. Commonwealth, 138 S.E.2d 28, 31 (Va. 1964). The “violence” element of the crime can be satisfied by the bare minimum of physical force needed to overcome a victim’s resistance. Maxwell v. Commonwealth, 183 S.E. 452, 454 (Va. 1936).

A conviction for common law robbery could therefore be sustained where only a minimum amount of “violence” is used – for example, turning someone’s body in order to grab their purse. Injurious “violent force” is not an element of the crime. The crime is therefore not a “violent felony” for sentencing enhancements under the ACCA. Thus, the Fourth Circuit reversed the district court’s holding and held the Virginia crime of common law robbery did not meet the standard set by the force clause of the ACCA, as clarified in Johnson I.

Disposition

The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s holding regarding the procedural matter but reversed the district court’s substantive holding regarding the status of common law robbery as a “violent felony.” Thus, the district court’s judgment was vacated, and the case was remanded for further consideration regarding Appellant’s rape conviction under the UCMJ.

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