Gilbert: Eleventh Circuit Corrects “Complete Miscarriage of Justice” in Federal Criminal Sentencing Under Career Offender Enhancement

This Monday, the Eleventh Circuit held in Gilbert v. United States that, for federal sentencing purposes, the act of being a U.S.S.G. § 4B1.1 career offender is essentially a separate offense. Based upon the Supreme Court’s retroactive decision in Begay and the Eleventh Circuit’s implementation of that decision in Archer, Gilbert is actually innocent of committing two violent felonies, the basis for that offense. Because circuit law squarely foreclosed his claim when he raised it at sentencing, on appeal, and in his first 28 U.S.C. § 2255 motion, Gilbert was entitled to relief under 28 U.S.C. § 2241. He may now be eligible for immediate release.

The Original Sentence and Appeals
In 1997, Gilbert was convicted of a crack cocaine offense and sentenced as a career offender under § 4B1.1 based upon previous convictions for possessing crack with intent to sell and carrying a concealed firearm. Under the then-mandatory Sentencing Guidelines, the enhancement increased his Guidelines range from 151-188 months to 292-365 months. Gilbert argued that carrying a concealed firearm was not a crime of violence, but the district court judge disagreed and, stating that he thought the sentence was too high, reluctantly sentenced Gilbert to 292 months. On appeal, the Eleventh Circuit held that carrying a concealed firearm was a crime of violence for purposes of the career offender guideline. Gilbert’s pro se § 2255 motion was denied in 1999, all post-conviction options now exhausted.

Legal Developments in 2008
In 2008, the Supreme Court decided Begay v. United States, holding that under the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA) the term “violent felony” applies only to crimes that are similar in kind and degree of risk to those expressly listed in the statute. That same year, the Eleventh Circuit applied the Begay analysis in United States v. Archer, abrogating its holding in the 1998 Gilbert decision. The Court held that “the crime of carrying a concealed firearm may no longer be considered a crime of violence under the Sentencing Guidelines.” Also in 2008, Amendment 706 provided a two-level reduction in base offense levels for crack cocaine offenses and was made retroactive.

In response to these developments, the district court sua sponte ordered the parties in Gilbert’s case to file responses regarding eligibility for a sentence reduction. The government argued that Gilbert was not entitled to any relief under Begay and Archer because a second § 2255 motion is permissible only where new evidence is discovered or the Supreme Court makes a previously unavailable constitutional law retroactive. The government also insisted that Amendment 706 could not apply because Gilbert was sentenced under the career offender guideline. The district court reluctantly agreed.

The Issue Before the Eleventh Circuit
Gilbert filed a motion to reopen his original § 2255 motion, suggesting that the court could treat it as a motion for relief under § 2241, which provides relief when a petitioner can prove actual innocence of the crime for which he was convicted. The district court denied his motion, but granted a certificate of appealability. The Eleventh Circuit held that the “savings clause” of § 2255 permitted relief under § 2241 under the authority of Wofford v. Scott and the doctrine of “actual innocence.”

The “savings clause” of § 2255 permits traditional habeas corpus relief under § 2241 where a § 2255 motion is inadequate or ineffective to test the legality of detention. In Wofford, the Eleventh Circuit held that the savings clause applies in the rare case when (1) the claim is based upon a retroactively applicable Supreme Court decision; (2) the holding of that decision establishes that the petitioner was convicted for a nonexistent offense; and (3) circuit law foreclosed the claim when it should have been raised.

The government argued that Gilbert failed to meet the second requirement: that he was convicted for a nonexistent offense because the career offender guideline was not a separate offense. The Court disagreed, applying the Supreme Court’s analysis in Sawyer v. Whitley that a sentencing enhancement based upon proof of statutory aggravating factors establishes a separate offense and raises the possibility that a defendant might be actually innocent of that offense. The Court extended Sawyer to the career offender context, commenting that, “To accept the government’s position that the law provides Gilbert no remedy for the clear wrong that has been done to him is to elevate form so far over substance as to make unrecognizable the concept of fair play and due process.”

Gilbert has served 171 months of his sentence. The maximum sentence he could have received for his underlying conviction was 188 months. He is likely entitled to an amended Guideline range of 130-162 months under Amendment 706, so “he is, in a very real sense, presently serving his illegal enhancement.” The Court vacated Gilbert’s sentences and remanded for resentencing. In addition, the Court issued a separate order to expedite issuance of the mandate.

The recent Eleventh Circuit opinion in Gilbert v. United States is available here.
The Supreme Court’s opinion in Begay is available here.
The Eleventh Circuit’s opinion in Archer is available here.

We have discussed cases applying the Begay analysis at the following posts:
Chambers (Supreme Court: failure to report to a penal institution is not violent felony)
Lee (Eleventh Circuit: walkaway escape is not violent felony)
Harris (Eleventh Circuit: fleeing from police at high speed is violent felony)
Hunter (Eleventh Circuit: possession of firearm is not violent felony under Archer, but providing no relief from illegal sentence)