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Court Opens Door for Long-Timers Serving Mandatory Guidelines Sentences

In In re Hoffner–F.3d–, 2017 WL 3908880, the Court today holds that persons sentenced in the bad ol’ days of the mandatory Guidelines may proceed on challenges under 28 U.S.C. § 2255 to guideline enhancements resting on the same language held unconstitutionally vague in the Supreme Court's landmark decision in Johnson v. United States, 135 S. Ct. 2551 (2015). The Circuit thus limits the sweep of Beckles v. United States, 137 S. Ct. 886, where the high court held earlier this year that Johnson’s constitutional rule, invalidating a 15-year mandatory minimum provided by statute, has no application where a defendant was sentenced pursuant to a higher range under the advisory Guidelines system that came to be in 2005. Today’s green light is of profound significance to many, albeit far from all, defendants sentenced under the “career offender” guideline, which commonly doubles and can even triple the sentencing range.

Formally speaking, the Court rules that Hoffner, a federal prisoner seeking leave to file a second or successive motion under § 2255, had made a "prima facie" showing that the applicable pre-filing requirements were satisfied for claims that Johnson rendered sentences under the mandatory Guidelines unconstitutional inasmuch as predicated on the "residual clause" found at U.S.S.G. § 4B1.2 from 1989 onward (until revised last year by the Sentencing Commission pursuant to Johnson). That is, a prisoner may go forward on a second or successive § 2255 motion where his sentence was enhanced based on a prior conviction for an offense that – in the language held unconstitutionally vague in Johnson – "otherwise involves conduct that presents a serious potential risk of physical injury to another." The prima facie showing entitles Hoffner and many similarly situated prisoners to pursue relief despite the usual bar on successive motions. Those motions will now be resolved in the first instance in the district courts, with the issue likely to return to the Third Circuit in the future.

Congratulations to Lisa Freeland and her colleagues in the Defender’s office in the Western District of Pennsylvania on emerging victorious from the house of horrors that is today’s ‘retroactivity’ doctrine.

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