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United States v. Lisbon

United States District Court, D. Maryland

July 18, 2017



          James K. Bredar United States District Judge

         On July 10, 2017, the Defendant appeared for sentencing. The parties sharply disagreed on whether "career offender" status should be accorded to the Defendant when the sentencing guidelines were computed in his case. All similarly situated co-defendants in this case (and in a companion matter, Crim. No. JKB-16-0484) joined the Defendant‘s contention that the career offender provision is inapplicable in the circumstances present here, and the Office of the Federal Public Defender, as amicus, also argued in favor of that position. During the sentencing hearing, the Court found that the Defendant‘s conviction of the crime of racketeering conspiracy, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1962(d), did not subject him to treatment as a career offender under the guidelines, despite his otherwise apparently qualifying criminal history. The Court now issues this Memorandum to explain its ruling.

         I. The Career Offender Provision, Conspiracies, and the Rule of Lenity.

         The rule of lenity has been a cornerstone of American jurisprudence since the early days of the republic, demanding that in the criminal context, statutory ambiguity should be resolved in favor of the defendant. United States v. Santos, 553 U.S. 507, 515 (2008); see also United States v. Wiltberger, 18 U.S. 76, 105 (1820) ("[Probability is not a guide which a court, in construing a penal statute, can safely take."). Ambiguities in the sentencing guidelines demand that in this case the Court decline to apply the career offender enhancement, U.S. Sentencing Guidelines Manual ("U.S.S.G.") § 4B1.2(b) (U.S. Sentencing Comm‘n 2016), in determining Defendant Lisbon‘s sentence.

         The career offender enhancement refers to the sentencing guidelines‘ application of an increased offense level and increased criminal history category when (1) a defendant is at least eighteen years of age at the time of the offense, (2) the offense of conviction is a felony that is either a crime of violence[1] or a controlled substance offense, and (3) the defendant has at least two prior felony convictions for crimes of violence or controlled substance offenses. U.S.S.G. § 4B1.1 (2016). The guidelines define "controlled substance offense" as

an offense under federal or state law, punishable by imprisonment for a term exceeding one year, that prohibits the manufacture, import, export, distribution, or dispensing of a controlled substance (or a counterfeit substance) or the possession of a controlled substance (or a counterfeit substance) with intent to manufacture, import, export, distribute, or dispense

U.S.S.G. § 4B1.2(b). The commentary to that provision indicates that "[f]or purposes of this guideline-'crime of violence‘ and 'controlled substance offense‘ include the offenses of aiding and abetting, conspiring, and attempting to commit such offenses." Id. cmt. n.1. However, the guideline text itself neither mentions conspiracy or other inchoate offenses, nor does it provide any textual clues to indicate that its definition should be read expansively.[2] Commentary that functions to interpret a guideline or to explain how it is applied is controlling, but where the commentary is inconsistent with the text "in that following one will result in violating the dictates of the other, " courts must comply with the text, not the commentary. Stinson v. United States, 508 U.S. 36, 42-45 (1993).

         The Court need not rule on the close and difficult question of whether the commentary‘s inclusion of conspiracy and other inchoate offenses is inconsistent with the text of the sentencing guidelines or whether it simply interprets the text. Indeed, it is in the very subtlety of that inquiry that the answer is found to the core question, which is, of course, whether the career offender provision applies here at all.

         The Court is confronted with an abstract question: is commentary language that expands the scope of the coverage of an otherwise clearly stated and limited guideline, such that offenses not otherwise covered are now swept in, inconsistent with that guideline? Or, is such commentary merely interpretive and explanatory? At some point, expansion creates inconsistency. But at what point? Put differently, here we have commentary that clearly and materially expands the scope of a guideline. But does the commentary encourage so much expansion that it creates an inconsistency with the guideline? The Court could attempt to define the point at which expansion becomes inconsistency and then sentence based on that subtle conclusion, but should it do so? Should years of a man‘s liberty turn on such fine line drawing? Wherever the Court ultimately drew the line would be subject to reasonable debate. And, it is that circumstance that implicates the rule of lenity.

         Penal provisions should not be so ambiguous or subtle that their plain meaning is subject to reasonable debate. Because such a circumstance prevails here, the rule of lenity dictates that rather than attempt the drawing of the finest of lines, defining when expansion becomes inconsistency, instead the Court should abandon the subtle "line drawing" exercise and simply resolve the ambiguity in the Defendant‘s favor. Accordingly, applying the rule of lenity, the Court finds that Defendant Lisbon‘s conviction for RICO conspiracy does not constitute a "controlled substance offense" subject to enhancement under the career offender provision.

         II. RICO Conspiracies as Career Offender Predicates.

         Alternatively, even if § 4B1.2(b) "controlled substance offenses" can include conspiracies generally, the "formal categorical approach" to consideration of predicate offenses counsels in favor of considering the crime of RICO conspiracy to be beyond the scope of the career offender enhancement provision.[3] A defendant may be convicted of RICO conspiracy if he is employed by or associated with "any enterprise engaged in, or the activities of which affect, interstate or foreign commerce, " and he conspires "to conduct or participate, directly or indirectly, in the conduct of such enterprise‘s affairs through a pattern of racketeering activity." 18 U.S.C. § 1962. Racketeering activity includes "any act or threat involving murder, kidnapping, gambling, arson, robbery, bribery, extortion, dealing in obscene matter, or dealing in a controlled substance or listed chemical . . . which is chargeable under State law and punishable by imprisonment for more than one year" along with any act that is indictable under one of over one hundred enumerated provisions of the United States Code. 18 U.S.C. § 1961(1).

         In Taylor v. United States, 495 U.S. 575 (1990), the Supreme Court established a principle termed the "formal categorical approach" to help assess when a defendant‘s prior conviction constitutes a predicate offense subject to an applicable sentencing guideline.[4]Descamps v. United States, 133 S.Ct. 2276, 2283 (2013). According to that approach, a sentencing court may not consider the facts underlying a particular conviction but must look only to the statutory definition of the offense. Id. Only if the elements of the offense are the same as or included among those of the "generic version" of a crime listed in a sentencing guideline does the guideline apply. Id. The "generic version" is defined by contemporary usage and "roughly corresponds to the definitions of the offense in a majority of the States‘ criminal codes." United States v. Garcia-Santana, 774 F.3d 528, 534 (9th Cir. 2014) (citing Taylor, 495 U.S. at 589, 592) (internal quotation marks omitted). If the instant offense "sweeps more broadly than the generic crime, " a conviction under that law cannot count as a predicate under the applicable guideline. Descamps, 133 S.Ct. at 2283.

         Taylor also acknowledged a "narrow range of cases" in which a sentencing court may go beyond the statutory elements to determine whether a sentencing guideline applies. Id. at 2284. Called the "modified categorical approach, " this rule applies in cases where (1) the statutory offense is divisible into two or more distinct versions, each defined by alternative elements, and (2) at least one of those alternatives matches or is subsumed by the generic definition of the crime in the sentencing guidelines. Id. If both of these conditions are met, a sentencing court may look beyond the statutory elements to examine a limited class of documents (e.g., ...

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