WHAT LURKS BELOW BECKLES [Dagger]

By Litman, Leah M.; Rahman, Shakeer | Northwestern University Law Review, January 1, 2017 | Go to article overview

WHAT LURKS BELOW BECKLES [Dagger]


Litman, Leah M., Rahman, Shakeer, Northwestern University Law Review


INTRODUCTION

The Supreme Court will soon decide if Travis Beckles's prison sentence is illegal. Mr. Beckles was sentenced years ago,1 and his appeal to the Supreme Court is on post-conviction review.2 Normally when the Supreme court invalidates a prison sentence in a post-conviction case, the Court's holding applies to all other post-conviction cases as well. But the way Mr. Beckles's lawyers are arguing his case, relief for Mr. Beckles will do nothing for prisoners in certain circuits whose sentences would be illegal for the same reason as Mr. Beckles's. And if the Supreme Court does not preemptively address these potential circuit splits in Beckles, then it may never have a chance to do so.

Mr. Beckles's challenge to his sentence is based in part on the Supreme Court's 2015 decision in Johnson v. United States, which held that the so-called "residual clause" of the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA) is unconstitutionally vague.3 ACCA's residual clause subjected defendants to longer prison sentences if they had previous convictions for any crime that "involves conduct that presents a serious potential risk of physical injury to another."4 Last April the Court made the rule invalidating ACCA's residual clause retroactive in Welch v. United States.5 Johnson and Welch were blockbuster decisions that have tied up lower courts in a flurry of litigation that includes thousands of courts of appeals cases.6 The Court granted certiorari in Beckles to resolve two questions that have split lower courts in the wake of Johnson and Welch: whether an identically worded "residual clause" in the United States Sentencing Guidelines is unconstitutionally void for vagueness, and, if so, whether the rule invalidating the Guideline's residual clause applies retroactively.7

Those are the two questions that Mr. Beckles's petition for certiorari directly raises.8 But there are other, equally significant questions that lurk beneath the surface in Beckles. Moreover, the circuits have already split on these other questions, or appear poised to do so. These questions will determine which prisoners would benefit from a favorable decision in Beckles, as well as which prisoners-including ones sentenced under ACCA-will benefit from the rule announced in Johnson. One of these questions is whether the statute of limitations has already expired to raise a challenge that the Guideline's residual clause is unconstitutionally void for vagueness. Prisoners have one year from the date on which the Supreme Court recognizes a new right to file post-conviction motions asserting that right.9 Mr. Beckles's attorneys are arguing that Mr. Beckles is asserting a right that the Court recognized in Johnson. For that reason, they argue that the statute of limitations to challenge Guideline sentences expired in June 2016. But some prisoners may not have challenged their Guideline sentences before that date, and others may need to refile challenges because their previous attempts were denied. If the Court rules as Mr. Beckles's attorneys are urging, all those prisoners who have similarly illegal sentences may not benefit from a ruling in Mr. Beckles's favor.

The other question that may prevent prisoners from benefiting from Johnson (or Beckles) is when courts of appeals should allow prisoners to challenge their ACCA sentences or their Guideline sentences based on those decisions. If a prisoner already filed one motion for post-conviction review in the past, the federal habeas statute requires the prisoner to get permission from a court of appeals panel in order to file what is called a "second or successive motion."10 Nearly all the prisoners who wish to bring Johnson claims were sentenced years ago, so they already filed their first post-conviction motion. The courts of appeals have been applying divergent standards when deciding whether to authorize second or successive motions in these cases. At least one court of appeals-the Eleventh Circuit-has been denying authorization on the ground that a prisoner's sentence might still be lawful based on other provisions the defendant was never sentenced under and based on other convictions that were never considered by the court imposing the sentence. …

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