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United States v. Collins

United States District Court, D. Rhode Island

November 2, 2016

JOHN COLLINS, Defendant.


          WILLIAM E. SMITH, Chief Judge.

         Before the Court is Defendant John Collins's motion to vacate, set aside, or correct his sentence, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2255. (See Def.'s Mot. to Vacate Sentence under § 2255 (Armed Career Criminal Act) (“Def.'s Mot. to Vacate”), ECF No. 29.) His motion was filed in the wake of the Supreme Court's decision in Johnson v. United States (Johnson II), 135 S.Ct. 2551, 2557 (2015), which invalidated the residual clause of the Armed Career Criminal Act (“ACCA”), see 18 U.S.C. § 924(e)(2)(B)(ii), for being unconstitutionally vague. Defendant argues that, after Johnson II, he no longer has three qualifying predicate convictions under ACCA, and thus he is serving a sentence longer than that allowed by law. (Def.'s Mot. to Vacate 1-2.) The Government opposes Defendant's motion, arguing that his three prior convictions remain ACCA-qualifiers under the force clause, which defines a violent felony as one that “has as an element the use, attempted use, or threatened use of physical force against the person of another.” 18 U.S.C. § 924(e)(2)(B)(i).

         For the reasons stated below, the Court holds that assault by an inmate, in violation of R.I. Gen. Laws § 11-25-2, is not a violent felony under ACCA's force clause. The Court will schedule a hearing on Defendant's motion and re-sentencing.

         I. Background

         On August 11, 2003, Collins pleaded guilty to being a felon in possession of a firearm, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 922(g) (Count I), and possession of an unregistered sawed-off shot gun, in violation of 26 U.S.C. §§ 5841, 5861(d), and 5871 (Count II). Probation prepared a presentence investigation report (“PSR”), which concluded that Collins was an armed career criminal under ACCA with three prior convictions for ACCA-qualifying predicate offenses. (See PSR ¶ 22.) Specifically, Collins had been convicted of (1) second degree murder, in violation of R.I. Gen. Laws § 11-23-1; (2) assault by an inmate, in violation of R.I. Gen. Laws § 11-25-2; and (3) assault on a correctional officer, in violation of R.I. Gen. Laws § 11-5-8. (See id.)

         On October 31, 2003, this Court sentenced Collins to 210 months of incarceration on Count I and 120 months on Count II, to be served concurrently. (Judgment 1-2, ECF No. 25.) ACCA provides for a sentence of at least 180 months but not more than life imprisonment for possessing a firearm or ammunition when a person has three prior convictions by any court for violent felonies or serious drug offenses or a combination of both. See 18 U.S.C. § 924(e). In the absence of an ACCA designation, a conviction for being a felon in possession of a firearm carries with it a maximum sentence of 120 months. See 18 U.S.C. § 924(a)(2). Collins has been incarcerated since at least June 2003 (or, more than 13 years). (Def.'s Mot. to Vacate 2, ECF No. 29.) Therefore, if one of Defendant's predicate offenses no longer qualifies as a violent felony under ACCA, Defendant has served a longer sentence than the statutory maximum sentence allowed by law and must be released.

         II. Analysis

         A. The Offense: Assault by an Inmate, R.I. Gen. Laws § 11-25-2

         To determine whether an offense qualifies as a violent felony, the Court may “look only to the fact of conviction and the statutory definition of the prior offense, ” which is termed the “categorical approach.” Taylor v. United States, 495 U.S. 575, 602 (1990). To satisfy the force clause under the categorical approach, the use, attempted use, or threatened use of violent force must be an element of the prior offense. See Descamps v. United States, 133 S.Ct. 2276, 2293 (2013). If a conviction for the offense is possible without proof of attempted, threatened, or actual use of violent force, then the conviction does not qualify as a violent felony, even if the defendant in fact used, attempted to use, or threatened to use violent force in the commission of the crime. See id. Put differently, the Court looks not to the facts underlying the actual conduct for which a defendant was convicted, but rather the elements of that offense. Mathis v. United States, 136 S.Ct. 2243, 2252 (2016).

         The Court must first determine the offense for which Defendant was convicted. See id. at 2256 (“The first task for a sentencing court faced with an alternatively phrased statute is thus to determine whether its listed items are elements or means.”). When it is not clear on the face of the statute, as here, whether a statute is divisible (meaning the statute describes two or more distinct offenses as opposed to various means by which a single offense can be committed), a court must employ the “modified categorical approach, ” see Descamps, 133 S.Ct. at 2281, which is described below.

         At the time of Defendant's conviction, R.I. Gen. Laws § 11-25-2, entitled “Assault or escape by a custodial unit inmate, ” stated:

Every prisoner confined in any custodial unit of the adult correctional institutions or in the custody of the warden or other correctional employee while outside the confines of the institutions or in the custody of the director of mental health, retardation and hospitals pursuant to the provisions of § 40.1-5.3-1 of the general laws, who shall assault the warden, or other correctional employee of said institution, or shall escape, or attempt to effect an escape, shall be sentenced by the court to a term of imprisonment in the adult correctional institutions for not less than one year nor more than twenty (20) years, except where the original sentence was imprisonment for life, said term to commence from the expiration of the original term of such prisoner.

R.I. Gen. Laws § 11-25-2 (1984) (emphasis added). Deferring to the state-law construction of the offense, it is plain that § 11-25-2 is divisible into the distinct offenses of “assault by an inmate” and “escape by an inmate.” See State v. Robalewski, 418 A.2d 817, 819, 826 (R.I. 1980), abrogated on other grounds by Horton v. California, 496 U.S. 128, 151-52 (1990) (affirming convictions for assault by an inmate and escape by an inmate in separate counts; rejecting the argument that an assault under § 11-25-2 merges into an escape under the same statute; and stating that the defendant did not dispute that “assault and escape are distinct offenses”); see also State v. Tregaskis, 540 A.2d 1022, 1023 (R.I. 1988) (analyzing a conviction for escape as a custodial-unit inmate pursuant to R.I. Gen. Laws § 11-25-2 and excluding the language about assault by an inmate).

         Under the modified categorical approach, the Court looks to a limited class of documents - so-called Shepard-documents - for the sole purpose of determining a defendant's relevant offense under a divisible statute. Descamps, 133 S.Ct. at 2281. Here, the government has produced Defendant's judgment of conviction and the charging documents, which indicate that Defendant was convicted of “Assault by a maximum custodial inmate.” (See United States' Resp. to Pet. under § 2255 Johnson Claim in ACCA Case (“Gov't Resp.”) 15, ECF ...

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