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Change is in the Air - A fresh look at Mathis and the Sentencing Commission's Views on Career Offender Sentencing EnhancementsVictor A. Afanador

Mathis v. United States, 579 U. S. ____ (2016), may serve as one of the biggest federal sentencing decisions of last year’s Supreme Court term. This decision, along with the United States Sentencing Commission’s (“USSC”) most recent report to Congress, shows a change in the analysis of federal sentencing trends for “career offenders.” There may be a movement to change many career offender sentencing enhancements and even retool sentencing for drug based trafficking offenses. This change in the direction of the wind could neutralize many career criminal federal sentencing weapons used by federal prosecutors.

In the 5-3 Mathis decision, the Court reaffirmed the application of a strict elements-based categorical approach in determining which crimes can constitute “prior crimes” under the Armed Career Criminal Act (“ACCA”). The ACCA imposes a mandatory minimum of 15 years for felons who have been convicted more than twice for “violent felonies,” including “burglary, arson, or extortion.” In Mathis, the ultimate question was whether the defendants’ prior Iowa state burglary charge could be used as a sentencing enhancement under the ACCA.

The Supreme Court rejected the sentencing court’s factual inquiry into the underlying facts of the crime to determine if the defendant’s actions qualified as burglary. Instead, to be deemed a “prior crime,” the underlying state statute must identify the same elements of the underlying crime. Since the elements of many felonies vary from state to state, the Court ruled that prior convictions can be used only if the elements of the prior conviction “categorically” match the “generic” (most commonly understood) version of the crime. This rigid approach would likely limit the crimes that satisfy the prior crimes requirement because many state statutes would be deemed too broad or uncertain, or as containing elements that are not divisible. This decision limits the flexibility of federal prosecutors in labeling defendants as career offenders.

This decision is a part of a developing transition of the federal career criminal sentencing enhancements. The August 2016 USSC report to Congress on Career Offender Sentencing Enhancements further evidences this trend to make changes to the sentencing enhancements. Currently, the career offender statute sets rigid enhancements for drug offenders who possess two prior drug related offenses (state or federal), regardless of the quantity of drugs or whether violence was a factor. For example, a person with two prior state court drug convictions involving possession or distribution can be sentenced as a career offender. The career offender enhancements may create drastic results, such as a defendant receiving a sentence of 15-19 years for an offense that should result in a 5-6.5 year sentence. 

The USSC report to Congress, however, recommends an amendment to the statute seeking leniency for its current application. The report notably reaches the following conclusions:

• The career offender directive should be amended to differentiate between career offenders with different types of criminal records, and is best focused on those offenders who have committed at least one “crime of violence.”
• Career offenders who have committed a violent offense generally have a more serious and extensive criminal history, recidivate at a higher rate than drug trafficking only career offenders, and are more likely to commit another violent offense in the future.
• Drug trafficking only career offenders are not meaningfully different from other federal drug trafficking offenders and should not categorically be subject to the significant increases in penalties required by the career offender directive.
• A single definition of the term “crime of violence” in the guidelines and other federal recidivist provisions is necessary to address increasing complexity and to avoid unnecessary confusion and inefficient use of court resources.

As you can see, the thrust of the USSC report is that “change is in the air.” Alongside the Mathis decision, this may help Congress foster a new trend in how we view all sorts of federal sentencing enhancements. Although there seems to be a more definite change looming, it will be interesting to see whether progress is continued or halted under a Trump Administration.