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Arizona armed robbery held not a violent felony for purposes of the Armed Career Criminal Act, a federal statute imposing minimum mandatory sentencing for repeat offenders with three qualifying violent felony priors.
A criminal appeal from the U.S. District Court for the District of Arizona, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed and remanded the trial court’s denial of defendant’s § 2255 motion to vacate, set aside, or correct the sentence against him.
28 USC § 2255 provides in part:
(a) A prisoner in custody under sentence of a court established by Act of Congress claiming the right to be released upon the ground that the sentence was imposed in violation of the Constitution or laws of the United States, or that the court was without jurisdiction to impose such sentence, or that the sentence was in excess of the maximum authorized by law, or is otherwise subject to collateral attack, may move the court which imposed the sentence to vacate, set aside or correct the sentence.
Guilty Plea to Felony Firearm Possession
This appeal was about mandatory sentencing for certain recidivists under the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA), not about the defendant’s guilt or innocence to the charged offenses.
In August 2006, defendant Jones pleaded guilty to one count of “felon in possession of a firearm and armed career criminal.” He was guilty of having violated two federal statutes: 18 USC § 922(g)(1) and 18 USC § 924(e), the latter being the ACCA.
Defendant was a repeat offender. He had five prior felony convictions of which three were armed robberies. Armed robbery in Arizona is a Class 2 felony. ARS § 13-1904. When sentenced, the trial court found defendant had been previously convicted of three violent felonies – that is, three armed robberies under Arizona criminal law equals three violent felonies under federal criminal law. A serious drug offense, violent felony, or combination thereof kicked in the ACCA’s mandatory minimum imprisonment of 15 years. However, the U.S. Supreme Court decided another case that changed the ACCA along with its application in sentencing Jones.
U.S. Supreme Court’s Holds ACCA Residual Clause Unconstitutionally Vague
In Johnson v. US, 135 SCt 2551 (2015), the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the ACCA’s Residual Clause as unconstitutionally vague. Shortly thereafter, the supreme court gave Johnson retroactive effect in cases on collateral review. See Welch v. US, 136 SCt 1257 (2016). The change in felony sentencing law motivated defendant to file his timely § 2255 motion.
Jones argued he did not have the three ACCA qualifying felony priors to support a 15-year mandatory minimum sentence. That the 174 months imprisonment he was sentenced to on December 11, 2006, per ACCA, on top of six months in state custody already served, was excessive. When the trial court denied his § 2255 motion, defendant appealed.
Violent Force Not an Element of Armed Robbery in Arizona Criminal Law
The pivotal question in Jones’ appeal was whether armed robbery in Arizona law was a prior crime of “violent force” for purposes of the ACCA’s Force Clause or was included in its Enumerated Felonies Clause.
In analyzing whether Arizona’s armed robbery crime was or was not a felony involving violent force under the ACCA, the appeals court applied the “’categorical approach,’ looking ‘only to the fact of conviction’ and ‘the statutory definitions of the prior offense, and not to the particular facts underlying those convictions.’” Holding Arizona armed robbery was not a categorical crime of violence under ACCA’s Force Clause, it relied on the reasoning in US v. Molinar, 2017 WL 5760565 (2017). The force clauses in the ACCA and in the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines were identical and neither categorically qualified Arizona armed robbery as a crime of violence, or violent felony.
Lastly, the case of US v. Dixon, 805 F3d 1193 (9th Cir. 2015), was controlling in that Dixon previously held how “robbery is not one of the ACCA’s enumerated felonies.”
With three armed robbery priors removed from defendant’s ACCA predicates, he did not have the conviction record to warrant the 15-year prison sentence – the ACCA mandatory minimum did not apply.
The trial court’s denial of defendant’s § 2255 motion was reversed and the case remanded for further proceedings. In its pur curiam opinion, the appeals court held that Arizona armed robbery is not a violent felony for purposes of the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA).