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Slusser v. United States

United States District Court, E.D. Tennessee

November 22, 2016

LARRY MICHAEL SLUSSER, Petitioner,
v.
UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Respondent.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          THOMAS A. VARLAN, CHIEF UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Before the Court is Petitioner's duly authorized successive motion to vacate, set aside, or correct his sentence pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2255 [Doc. 64]. The petition relies on Johnson v. United States, 135 S.Ct. 2551 (2015), in which the Supreme Court held that the residual clause of the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA), 18 U.S.C. § 924(e), was unconstitutionally vague [Id.]. The United States responded in opposition on September 28, 2016 [Doc. 66]; Petitioner replied in turn [Doc. 68]. For the reasons below, the petition [Doc. 64] will be DENIED and DISMISSED WITH PREJUDICE.

         I. BACKGROUND

         In 2011, Petitioner pled guilty to, and was subsequently convicted of, possessing a firearm as a convicted felon, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1) [Docs. 12, 14]. Based on nine prior Tennessee convictions-two for aggravated assault, one for Class D burglary, one for drug trafficking, and five for aggravated burglary-the United States Probation Office deemed Petitioner to be an armed career criminal subject to the ACCA's fifteen-year mandatory minimum sentence [Presentence Investigation Report ¶¶ 35, 36, 38-41]. In accordance with that designation, this Court sentenced Petitioner to 180 months' incarceration [Doc. 24].

         Petitioner did not appeal, instead filing a collateral challenge asserting numerous grounds of prosecutorial misconduct and ineffective assistance of counsel [Doc. 34]. This Court denied and dismissed that original petition on September 9, 2015 [Docs. 57, 58]. On August 26, 2016, the Sixth Circuit transferred the instant, duly authorized successive petition challenging the propriety of Petitioner sentence in light of the Johnson decision [Doc. 64 (suggesting that an undisclosed number of his prior convictions no longer qualify as ACCA predicate offenses)].

         II. TIMELINESS OF PETITIONER'S CLAIMS

         Section 2255(f) places a one-year statute of limitations on all petitions for collateral relief under § 2255 running from either: (1) the date on which the judgment of conviction becomes final; (2) the date on which the impediment to making a motion created by governmental action in violation of the Constitution or laws of the United States is removed, if the movant was prevented from making a motion by such governmental action; (3) the date on which the right asserted was initially recognized by the Supreme Court, if that right has been newly recognized by the Supreme Court and made retroactively applicable to cases on collateral review; or (4) the date on which the facts supporting the claim or claims presented could have been discovered through the exercise of due diligence. 28 U.S.C. § 2255(f). Supreme Court precedent makes clear that Johnson's invalidation of the ACCA residual clause amounted to a new rule made retroactively applicable on collateral review. See Welch v. United States, 136 S.Ct. 1257, 1265 (U.S. 2016) (“Johnson is . . . a substantive decision and so has retroactive effect . . . in cases on collateral review.”); In re Windy Watkins, 810 F.3d 375, 380-81 (6th Cir. 2015) (finding Johnson constitutes a new substantive rule of constitutional law made retroactively applicable on collateral review and thus triggers § 2255(h)(2)'s requirement for certification of a second or successive petition). Petitioner submitted the instant petition within subsection (f)(3)'s window.

         III. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         The relief authorized by 28 U.S.C. § 2255 “does not encompass all claimed errors in conviction and sentencing.” United States v. Addonizio, 442 U.S. 178, 185 (1979). Rather, a petitioner must demonstrate “(1) an error of constitutional magnitude; (2) a sentence imposed outside the statutory limits; or (3) an error of fact or law . . . so fundamental as to render the entire proceeding invalid.” Short v. United States, 471 F.3d 686, 691 (6th Cir. 2006) (quoting Mallett v. United States, 334 F.3d 491, 496-97 (6th Cir. 2003)). He “must clear a significantly higher hurdle than would exist on direct appeal” and establish a “fundamental defect in the proceedings which necessarily results in a complete miscarriage of justice or an egregious error violative of due process.” Fair v. United States, 157 F.3d 427, 430 (6th Cir. 1998).

         IV. ANALYSIS

         The ACCA mandates a fifteen-year sentence for any felon who unlawfully possesses a firearm after having sustained three prior convictions “for a violent felony or a serious drug offense, or both, committed on occasions different from one another.” 18 U.S.C. § 924(e)(1) (emphasis added). The provision defines “serious drug offense” as any “offense under State law, involving manufacturing, distributing, or possessing with intent to manufacture or distribute, a controlled substance . . . for which a maximum term of imprisonment of ten years or more is prescribed by law.” 18 U.S.C. § 924(e)(2)(A)(ii). The Act goes on to define “violent felony” as “any crime punishable by imprisonment for a term exceeding one year” that (1) “has as an element the use, attempted use, or threatened use of physical force against the person of another” (the “use-of-physical-force clause”); (2) “is burglary, arson, or extortion, involves the use of explosives” (the “enumerated-offense clause”); or (3) “otherwise involves conduct that presents a serious potential risk of physical injury to another” (the “residual clause”). 18 U.S.C. § 924(e)(2)(B). Only the third portion of the above definition-the residual clause-was held to be unconstitutionally vague by the Supreme Court in Johnson. 135 S.Ct. at 2563. The Court went on to make clear, however, that its decision did not call into question the remainder of the ACCA's definition of violent felony-the use-of-physical-force and enumerated-offense clauses. Id.; United States v. Priddy, 808 F.3d 676, 682-83 (6th Cir. 2015). Nor does Johnson disrupt the use of a prior serious drug offense as an independent form of ACCA predicate conviction. See, e.g., United States v. Smith, No. 10-CR-20058, 2015 WL 5729114, at *9-13 (E.D. Mich. Sept. 20, 2015) (noting that Johnson does not affect a defendant's categorization as an armed career criminal based on his or her prior serious drug offenses).

         The validity of Petitioner's sentence thus depends on whether three or more of his prior convictions qualify as “serious drug offenses” under § 924(e)(2)(A) or, in alternative, “violent felonies” under one of the unaffected provisions of § 924(e)(2)(B). See, e.g., United States v. Ozier, 796 F.3d 597, 604 (6th Cir. 2015) (explaining courts need not decide what import, if any, Johnson has on the Sentencing Guidelines' residual clause where the petitioner's prior convictions qualify as predicate offenses independent of the residual clause), overruled on other grounds by Mathis v. United States, 136 S.Ct. 2243, 2251 n.1 (2016). To determine whether an offense qualifies under one of the above provisions, courts must first identify the precise crime of conviction by employing a “categorical approach, ” looking “only to the statutory definitions- elements-of a defendant's prior offense, and not to the particular facts underlying [each individual] conviction[].” Descamps v. United States, 133 S.Ct. 2276, 2283, 2285 (2013). When the conviction involves violation of a “divisible” statute-one which comprises multiple, alternative versions of the crime-courts resort to the “modified categorical approach” under which they “consult a limited class of documents, such as indictments and jury instructions, to determine which alternative formed the basis of the defendant's prior conviction.” Id. at 2281.

         Review of Petitioner's PSR reveals that at least three of his prior convictions categorically qualify as ACCA predicate offenses independent of the now-defunct residual clause. As a result, Petitioner has failed to demonstrate an entitlement to collateral relief.

         As an initial matter, the Court notes that one of the convictions designated as a predicate offense supporting ACCA enhancement was a Tennessee conviction for Class D burglary. Binding Sixth Circuit precedent makes clear that the offense categorically qualifies as a predicate conviction under the enumerated-offense clause. See, e.g., Priddy, 808 F.3d at 685 (finding that post-1989 Tennessee Class D burglary is categorically a violent felony under the ACCA's enumerated offense clause).[1] Likewise, Petitioner's prior conviction for drug trafficking remains a serious drug offense under § 924(e)(2)(A)(ii). See, e.g., United States v. ...


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