US v. Thilo Brown
PUBLISHED AUTHORED OPINION filed. Originating case number: 2:02-cr-00519-PMD-1,2:16-cv-00268-PMD. . [16-7056]
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UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS
FOR THE FOURTH CIRCUIT
UNITED STATES OF AMERICA,
Plaintiff – Appellee,
Defendant – Appellant.
Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of South Carolina at
Charleston. Patrick Michael Duffy, Senior U. S. District Court Judge. (2:02-cr-00519PMD-1; 2:16-cv-268-PMD)
Argued: May 11, 2017
Decided: August 21, 2017
Before GREGORY, Chief Judge, and DUNCAN and DIAZ, Circuit Judges
Affirmed by published opinion. Judge Duncan wrote the opinion, in which Judge Diaz
joined. Chief Judge Gregory wrote a dissenting opinion.
ARGUED: Alicia Vachira Penn, OFFICE OF THE FEDERAL PUBLIC DEFENDER,
Charleston, South Carolina, for Appellant. William Camden Lewis, OFFICE OF THE
UNITED STATES ATTORNEY, Columbia, South Carolina, for Appellee. ON BRIEF:
Beth Drake, United States Attorney, Columbia, South Carolina, Marshall Taylor Austin,
Assistant United States Attorney, OFFICE OF THE UNITED STATES ATTORNEY,
Charleston, South Carolina, for Appellee.
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DUNCAN, Circuit Judge:
Petitioner-Appellant Thilo Brown appeals the district court’s order dismissing his
28 U.S.C. § 2255 motion. This court granted Petitioner a certificate of appealability on
the issue of whether, in light of Johnson v. United States, 135 S. Ct. 2551 (2015), his
prior South Carolina conviction for assault on a police officer while resisting arrest,
S.C. Code Ann. § 16-9-320(B) (“Resisting-Arrest Assault Conviction”), qualifies as a
predicate “crime of violence” for career-offender status under the Sentencing Guidelines,
U.S.S.G. §§ 4B1.1(a), 4B1.2(a) (2002). For the reasons that follow, we affirm the district
Petitioner can succeed only if, inter alia, a Supreme Court precedent has rendered
his motion timely by recognizing a new right entitling him to relief.
§ 2255(f)(3). As the dissent acknowledges, neither Johnson, nor Beckles, nor any other
Supreme Court case has recognized the specific right on which Brown seeks to rely. 1 See
Johnson, 135 S. Ct. at 2555–56, 2560, 2563; Beckles, 137 S. Ct. 886, 895 (2017); see
also id. at 903 n.4 (Sotomayor, J., concurring). With respect for its view, we are
constrained by the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA)
jurisprudence from extrapolating beyond the Supreme Court’s holding to apply what we
view as its “reasoning and principles” to different facts under a different statute or
The dissent specifically recognizes that Beckles leaves open the question of
whether Johnson applies under a mandatory-guidelines regime and quotes from Justice
Sotomayor’s concurring opinion in Beckles to that effect. See infra at 22. If a question is
expressly left open, then the right, by definition, has not been recognized.
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sentencing regime. We are thus compelled to affirm the dismissal of Petitioner’s motion
as untimely under 28 U.S.C. § 2255(f)(3).
On March 19, 2003, Petitioner pleaded guilty to possession with intent to
distribute 50 grams or more of crack cocaine in violation of 21 U.S.C. §§ 841(a)(1),
(b)(1)(A)(iii) (“Drug Offense”), and to carrying a firearm during the commission of a
drug crime in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 924(c) (“Firearm Offense”).
At sentencing, the district court designated Petitioner a career offender under
U.S.S.G. § 4B1.1(a) (2002) because he had a prior felony conviction that qualified as a
predicate controlled-substance offense, 2 and his prior Resisting-Arrest Assault
Conviction qualified as a predicate crime-of-violence offense.
J.A. 90, 91;
U.S.S.G. § 4B1.2(a) (2002). Because the district court sentenced Petitioner on July 14,
2003, before United States v. Booker, 543 U.S. 220 (2005), Petitioner’s career-offender
status resulted in a mandatory guideline range of 262–327 months for the Drug Offense
and a minimum consecutive sentence of sixty months for the Firearm Offense.3 J.A. 89–
Petitioner stipulated in his plea agreement that he had a prior felony drug
conviction for trafficking crack cocaine, and agreed not to contest the government’s filing
of an information, rendering him subject to a mandatory minimum sentence of 20 years
(240 months) for his Drug Offense. 21 U.S.C. § 851.
The Firearm Offense carried a mandatory minimum penalty of five years to life
imprisonment, to run consecutively to any other term of imprisonment imposed.
18 U.S.C. § 924(c); J.A. 79–80, 90.
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102. Petitioner received a total sentence of 322 months--the low end of the guidelines’
range for both offenses and well within the range of permissible statutory sentences that
the district court could have imposed. J.A. 8–9. The district court entered judgment
against Petitioner on July 21, 2003. J.A. 8–9. Petitioner did not appeal.
On June 26, 2015--after Petitioner’s conviction became final for purposes of direct
review, but before Petitioner filed any 28 U.S.C. § 2255 motion--the Supreme Court
decided Johnson. 135 S. Ct. at 2555. In Johnson, the Court held that ACCA’s residual
clause was void for vagueness. Id. at 2560, 2563. 4
On January 28, 2016, Petitioner filed a 28 U.S.C. § 2255 motion to vacate his
sentence. Relying on Johnson, Petitioner argued that his prior Resisting-Arrest Assault
Conviction could no longer serve as a predicate crime of violence under
U.S.S.G. § 4B1.2(a) (2002), and therefore, his earlier designation as a career offender
was unjustified. J.A. 19–23, 45–54. Petitioner’s argument rested on the premise that
Johnson’s holding invalidated not only ACCA’s residual clause, but also like-worded
residual clauses in the Sentencing Guidelines. On June 17, 2016, the district court
dismissed Petitioner’s motion with prejudice and declined to issue a certificate of
ACCA imposes a statutorily mandated 15-year minimum prison term for a
person who violates 18 U.S.C. § 922(g) and has three previous convictions that qualify as
either a “serious drug offense” or a “violent felony.” 18 U.S.C. § 924(e)(1). Prior to
Johnson, a crime qualified as a “violent felony” under ACCA’s residual clause if it
“otherwise involve[d] conduct that presents a serious potential risk of physical injury to
another.” Id. § 924(e)(2)(B)(ii).
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Petitioner appealed and moved for a certificate of
appealability on August 5, 2016. On December 7, 2016, this court granted Petitioner a
certificate of appealability on the issue of whether his prior Resisting-Arrest Assault
Conviction qualifies as a predicate offense for career-offender status in light of Johnson. 5
On appeal, Petitioner relies on 28 U.S.C. § 2255(f)(3) to render his motion timely.
Under § 2255(f)(3), a petitioner can file a § 2255 motion relying on a right newly
recognized by the Supreme Court provided that, inter alia, he files within a one-year
window running from “the date on which the right asserted was initially recognized by
the Supreme Court.” Id. § 2255(f)(3).
Petitioner acknowledges, as he must, that the Supreme Court’s recent holding in
Beckles, forecloses his argument that Johnson explicitly invalidated all residual clauses
with wording similar to ACCA’s invalidated residual clause. Petitioner nevertheless
urges this court to extrapolate a recognized right from Booker, Johnson, and Beckles, read
together. Petitioner and the dissent maintain that we can find his asserted right in the
Although Petitioner raised other arguments for vacating his sentence before the
district court, we only granted a certificate of appealability as to whether his prior
Resisting-Arrest Assault Conviction qualifies as a predicate offense for career-offender
status in light of Johnson. If we were inclined to agree with Petitioner’s argument that
his prior conviction did not qualify under the applicable residual clause,
U.S.S.G. § 4B1.2(a)(2) (2002), we would normally have to decide whether his prior
conviction would nevertheless qualify as a predicate career-offender conviction under the
applicable force clause, U.S.S.G. § 4B1.2(a)(1) (2002). However, before oral argument,
the government withdrew its argument that Petitioner’s prior Resisting-Arrest Assault
Conviction qualifies as a predicate offense for career-offender status under the applicable
force clause. Beth Drake, Letter to the Fourth Circuit (May 8, 2017). Therefore, the
success of Petitioner’s appeal rises and falls on his residual-clause argument.
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principles animating these decisions even though none of them, nor any other Supreme
Court precedent, have recognized a right to challenge the pre-Booker mandatory
Sentencing Guidelines as void for vagueness and despite the fact that the Beckles Court
expressly declined to address the issue of whether the pre-Booker mandatory Sentencing
Guidelines are amenable to void-for-vagueness challenges. See Beckles, 137 S. Ct. at
895; see also id. at 903 n.4 (Sotomayor, J., concurring).
We review de novo the question presented on appeal. See United States v. DiazIbarra, 522 F.3d 343, 347 (4th Cir. 2008); United States v. Thompson, 421 F.3d 278,
280–81 (4th Cir. 2005). As explained below, because of the procedural posture we are
compelled to affirm.
In accordance with Congress’s intent to limit the number of collateral-review
cases before federal courts and to respect the finality of convictions, the Antiterrorism
and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, Pub. L. No. 104-132, 110 Stat. 1214 (codified
as amended in scattered sections of 8, 18, 22, 28, 40, and 42 U.S.C.) (“AEDPA”),
provides for a one-year statute of limitations for § 2255 motions. 28 U.S.C. § 2255(f).
Normally, for a motion to be timely under § 2255(f), a petitioner must file for relief
within one year of the date that his judgment of conviction becomes final.
See id. § 2255(f)(1); Clay v. United States, 537 U.S. 522, 525 (2003). However, under
§ 2255(f)(3), courts will consider a petitioner’s motion timely if (1) he relies on a right
recognized by the Supreme Court after his judgment became final, (2) he files a motion
within one year from “the date on which the right asserted was initially recognized by the
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Supreme Court,” 28 U.S.C. § 2255(f)(3), and (3) the Supreme Court or this court has
made the right retroactively applicable. See Dodd v. United States, 545 U.S. 353, 358–59
(2005); United States v. Mathur, 685 F.3d 396, 397–98 (4th Cir. 2012); United States v.
Thomas, 627 F.3d 534, 536–37 (4th Cir. 2010). Although this court can render a right
retroactively applicable, only the Supreme Court can recognize a new right under
See Dodd, 545 U.S. at 357–59; Thomas, 627 F.3d at 536–37;
see also Mathur, 685 F.3d at 399–401. Consequently, to find Petitioner’s motion timely,
we must conclude that it relies on a right “recognized” in Johnson or another more recent
Supreme Court case. See Dodd, 545 U.S. at 357–59; see also Mathur, 685 F.3d at 399–
401. “As with any question of statutory interpretation, our analysis begins with the plain
language of the statute.” Jimenez v. Quarterman, 555 U.S. 113, 118 (2009).
To “recognize” something is (1) “to
acknowledge [it] formally”
(2) “to acknowledge or take notice of [it] in some definite way.” Recognize, MerriamWebster Tenth Collegiate Dictionary 976 (1996); see also Tapia v. United States, 564
U.S. 319, 327 (2011). Thus, a Supreme Court case has “recognized” an asserted right
within the meaning of § 2255(f)(3) if it has formally acknowledged that right in a definite
way. Cf. Williams v. Taylor, 529 U.S. 362, 412 (2000) (interpreting the phrase “clearly
established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court” within another provision
of AEDPA to mean “the holdings, as opposed to the dicta” of Supreme Court precedent).
Correspondingly, if the existence of a right remains an open question as a matter of
Supreme Court precedent, then the Supreme Court has not “recognized” that right.
Cf. Tyler v. Cain, 533 U.S. 656, 662–64 (2001) (interpreting the word “made” within
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another provision of AEDPA--“made retroactive to cases on collateral review by the
Supreme Court”--to mean “held”).
We now turn to the right Petitioner claims the Supreme Court recognized in
Johnson. Petitioner’s motion relies on a claimed due-process right to have his guidelines’
range calculated without reference to an allegedly vague Sentencing Guidelines’
provision, despite the fact that the district court imposed his sentence within permissible
statutory limits. Regrettably for Petitioner, the Supreme Court did not recognize such a
right in Johnson.
While Johnson did announce a retroactively applicable right,
Welch v. United States, 136 S. Ct. 1257, 1265 (2016), Johnson dealt only with the
residual clause of ACCA--a federal enhancement statute, Johnson, 135 S. Ct. at 2555–56.
Johnson did not discuss the mandatory Sentencing Guidelines’ residual clause at issue
here or residual clauses in other versions of the Sentencing Guidelines. See id. at 2555–
Petitioner urges this court to cobble together a right by combining Johnson’s
reasoning with that of two other Supreme Court cases, Booker and Beckles. Petitioner’s
three-case extrapolation begins with the unobjectionable premise that Booker recognized
a constitutional distinction between mandatory Sentencing Guidelines and advisory
Sentencing Guidelines. Booker, 543 U.S. at 245. Moving on from Booker, Petitioner
argues that the mandatory Sentencing Guidelines cabined a sentencing judge’s discretion
in a manner that raises the same concerns animating the Supreme Court’s decision in
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Johnson: denying fair notice to defendants and inviting arbitrary enforcement by judges.
Johnson, 135 S. Ct. at 2557. To prove this point, Petitioner points to several related cases
in the lower courts, which he claims serve as evidence that “the mandatory Guidelines
look and act like the ACCA.” Reply Br. at 18. Finally, Petitioner points out that the
Beckles Court carefully limited its holding to the advisory Sentencing Guidelines, thus, in
his view, leaving open the question of whether defendants could challenge sentences
imposed under the mandatory Sentencing Guidelines as void for vagueness.
Beckles, 137 S. Ct. at 895; see also id. at 903 n.4 (Sotomayor, J., concurring).
Yet Petitioner’s argument is self-defeating. If the Supreme Court left open the
question of whether Petitioner’s asserted right exists, the Supreme Court has not
“recognized” that right. See supra Part II.A.
While the residual clause at issue here mirrors the residual clause at issue in
Johnson, the Beckles Court made clear that the right announced in Johnson did not
automatically apply to all similarly worded residual clauses. See Beckles, 137 S. Ct. at
890; see also United States v. Mack, 855 F.3d 581, 585 (4th Cir. 2017).
specifically held that Johnson failed to invalidate the advisory Sentencing Guidelines’
former definition of “crime of violence,” U.S.S.G. § 4B1.2(a)(2) (2006), which was
“identically worded” to ACCA’s residual clause.
Beckles, 137 S. Ct. at 890.
Petitioner himself points out, the Beckles Court carefully crafted its holding to avoid
deciding whether the logic of Johnson applied outside the context of ACCA. See id.; see
also Mack, 855 F.3d at 585. Hence, Beckles confirms that the Supreme Court has yet to
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recognize a broad right invalidating all residual clauses as void for vagueness simply
because they exhibit wording similar to ACCA’s residual clause. 6
In short, Petitioner’s cited cases do not recognize, and the dissent does not point
to, any right helpful to him. 7 Johnson only recognized that ACCA’s residual clause was
unconstitutionally vague, 135 S. Ct. at 2557; it did not touch upon the residual clause at
issue here. Likewise, Beckles only recognized that the advisory Sentencing Guidelines
are not amenable to vagueness challenges. 137 S. Ct. at 895. In a future case, the
Supreme Court may agree with an argument similar to Petitioner’s that because the
challenged residual clause looks like ACCA and operates like ACCA, it is void for
vagueness like ACCA. See id. at 892 n.2 (noting former circuit split). But Beckles
demonstrates that quacking like ACCA is not enough to bring a challenge within the
purview of the right recognized by Johnson.
Accordingly, at least for purposes of
Prior to Beckles, the majority of circuits held that Johnson’s holding extended to
like-worded residual clauses in versions of the advisory Sentencing Guidelines,
see Beckles, 137 S. Ct. at 892 n.2 (surveying cases), but Beckles ultimately reached the
contrary conclusion, id. at 890 (“This Court held in Johnson . . . that the identically
worded residual clause in the [ACCA] was unconstitutionally vague. Petitioner contends
that the [advisory] Guidelines’ residual clause is also void for vagueness. Because we
hold that the advisory Guidelines are not subject to vagueness challenges under the Due
Process Clause, we reject petitioner’s argument.”).
Petitioner’s motion would also be untimely to the extent it relies on the general
principles of due-process jurisprudence noted in Johnson, principles recognized long
before Johnson which provide too broad a standard to constitute a right or rule in other
similar contexts. Cf. Anderson v. Creighton, 483 U.S. 635, 639 (1987) (noting, for
qualified-immunity purposes, that requiring a clearly established rule “depends
substantially upon the level of generality at which the relevant ‘legal rule’ is to be
identified,” and explaining that the right to “due process of law” is too abstract to provide
a workable standard in every case); Chaidez v. United States, 568 U.S. 342, 347–48
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collateral review, we must wait for the Supreme Court to recognize the right urged by
Petitioner. See Dodd, 545 U.S. at 359. We hold that Petitioner raises an untimely motion
in light of § 2255(f)(3)’s plain language, the narrow nature of Johnson’s binding holding,
and Beckles’s indication that the position advanced by Petitioner remains an open
question in the Supreme Court.
We note as well that our recent decision in In re Hubbard, 825 F.3d 225 (4th Cir.
2016), is not to the contrary. The relief sought by the Petitioner contrasts sharply with
the relief this court granted to the movant in Hubbard. Here, unlike in Hubbard, we
consider Petitioner’s arguments after authorizing this appeal through a certificate of
appealability and in a post-Beckles world. To grant Petitioner’s requested relief we must
confront the timeliness issue: whether he can rely on Johnson as a rule “recognized by
the Supreme Court.” 28 U.S.C. § 2255(f)(3).
The threshold certification inquiry in Hubbard concerned whether the movant
could make a prima facie showing that his application relied on “a new rule of
constitutional law, made retroactive to cases on collateral review by the Supreme Court,
that was previously unavailable.” 28 U.S.C. § 2255(h)(2); see also id. § 2244(b)(3)(C);
In re Hubbard, 825 F.3d at 228; In re Vassell, 751 F.3d 267, 270–71 (4th Cir. 2014). In
this circuit, making such a prima facie showing requires the movant to meet a relatively
low bar, In re Hubbard, 825 F.3d at 231; and this court does not need to reach “the
question of the successive motion’s timeliness at the gatekeeping stage,” In re Vassell,
751 F.3d at 271.
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Consistent with what is required of this court at the 28 U.S.C. § 2255(h)(2) stage,
we did not consider the timeliness of the movant’s underlying merits argument. Instead
we assumed, prior to the Supreme Court’s resolution of Beckles, that disagreement
among the federal courts of appeals on Johnson’s application to other residual clauses
was “likely . . . enough to establish that [the petitioner] has made ‘a sufficient showing of
possible merit to warrant a fuller exploration by the district court,’ . . . confirmed by [this
court’s] own ‘glance’ at the government’s merits arguments.” In re Hubbard, 825 F.3d at
232 (internal citation omitted).
Today’s narrow holding, like the holding of Hubbard, is compelled by this case’s
procedural posture. Had this case come before us on direct appeal, we might have had
the inferential license necessary to credit Petitioner’s interpretations of the negative
implications found in Booker, Johnson, and Beckles. Unfortunately for Petitioner, we
must consider his argument through the narrow lens that § 2255(f) affords this court on
We are constrained from reading between the lines of Booker, Johnson, and
Beckles to create a right that the Supreme Court has yet to recognize. We are compelled
to affirm because only the Supreme Court can recognize the right which would render
Petitioner’s motion timely under § 2255(f)(3).
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GREGORY, Chief Judge, dissenting:
To take advantage of 28 U.S.C. § 2255(f)(3), a petitioner must first assert a right
newly recognized by the Supreme Court.
The majority reads this to mean that a
petitioner must assert the right as expressed in the Supreme Court’s narrow holding
newly recognizing that right, and where the four corners of that holding do not
encompass the precise facts underlying a petitioner’s claim, § 2255(f)(3) is not satisfied.
But § 2255(f)(3) contains no such requirement, and in my view, a newly recognized right
is more sensibly read to include the reasoning and principles that explain it. And where a
petitioner asserts that right, with all its contours and complexities, I would find that he or
she satisfies § 2255(f)(3).
In Johnson, the Supreme Court recognized a defendant’s right not to have his or
her sentence fixed by the application of the categorical approach to an imprecise and
indeterminate sentencing provision, and it struck down the ACCA’s residual clause as
inconsistent with that newly recognized right. Because Brown asserts that same right, I
would find his petition timely under § 2255(f)(3), even though his challenge is to the
residual clause under the mandatory Sentencing Guidelines, rather than the ACCA. I
would further find that Johnson compels the conclusion that the residual clause under the
mandatory Guidelines is unconstitutionally vague, and I would grant Brown’s petition
and remand for resentencing. Accordingly, I must respectfully dissent.
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On March 19, 2003, Brown pleaded guilty to possession with intent to distribute
fifty grams or more of cocaine base, in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 841(a)(1) and
(b)(1)(A)(iii), and to carrying a firearm during the commission of a drug crime, in
violation of 18 U.S.C. § 924(c). J.A. 11. The presentence investigation report (“PSR”)
indicated that Brown was eligible for the career-offender enhancement under the
mandatory Sentencing Guidelines, based on his prior felony convictions for drug
trafficking and assault on a police officer while resisting arrest. J.A. 90. The PSR
assigned Brown an offense level of 34, J.A. 90, and a criminal history category of VI,
J.A. 96. According to the PSR, Brown’s mandatory Guidelines range was therefore 262–
327 months in prison for the drug charge, and 60 months to life for the firearm charge, to
run consecutively to any other term of imprisonment. J.A. 102.
The district court adopted the PSR’s factual findings and Guideline applications,
and on July 14, 2003, sentenced Brown to 322 months in prison. Brown’s sentence
consisted of 262 months for the drug charge and 60 months for the firearm charge. J.A.
8–9. Brown did not appeal his sentence.
On January 28, 2016—more than twelve years later—Brown filed a 28 U.S.C.
§ 2255 motion to vacate his sentence. J.A. 19–23. He argued that the Supreme Court’s
June 26, 2015 decision in Johnson v. United States, 135 S. Ct. 2551 (2015), rendered his
motion timely because he was asserting Johnson’s newly recognized right—made
retroactively applicable on collateral appeal—within one year of the Court’s recognition
of that right. See 28 U.S.C. § 2255(f)(3). In Johnson, the Court held that the ACCA’s
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residual clause was unconstitutionally vague. Brown argued that the identically worded
provision in § 4B1.2(a)(2) of the mandatory Sentencing Guidelines was therefore also
void for vagueness. J.A. 20. And, he contended, because his assault conviction did not
constitute a crime of violence under the Guidelines’ force clause and was not an
enumerated offense—the only other avenues for categorizing a prior offense as a crime of
violence—his conviction did not qualify as a crime of violence under the mandatory
J.A. 20–22. 1
He further argued that his felony conviction for drug
trafficking was not a controlled substance offense. J.A. 22. Brown argued that in light of
these errors, he should not have been designated a career offender under the mandatory
Sentencing Guidelines and was entitled to resentencing.
The district court did not address whether Brown’s argument regarding the assault
claim was timely in light of Johnson, but instead went directly to the merits of the claim.
J.A. 38. The court concluded that because Brown’s assault conviction qualified as a
crime of violence under the Guidelines’ force clause, it did not need to reach the question
Under the mandatory Sentencing Guidelines, § 4B1.2(a) reads in full:
The term “crime of violence” means any offense under federal or state law,
punishable by imprisonment for a term exceeding one year, that—
(1) has as an element the use, attempted use, or threatened use of physical
force against the person of another, or
(2) is burglary of a dwelling, arson, or extortion, involves use of explosives, or
otherwise involves conduct that presents a serious potential risk of
physical injury to another.
U.S. Sentencing Guidelines Manual § 4B1.2(a) (U.S. Sentencing Comm’n 20002)
(emphasis added). Section 4B1.2(a)(1) is the force clause, and § 4B1.2(a)(2) consists of
the enumerated-offense and residual clauses, with the residual clause denoted above in
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of whether the conviction was a crime of violence under the Guidelines’ residual
clause—or whether the residual clause was still valid in light of Johnson. J.A. 40. And,
the court found, Brown’s argument that his drug trafficking conviction was not a
controlled substance offense was “not based at all on Johnson,” but rather was “simply an
unrelated claim that this Court erred when it sentenced Brown in 2003.” J.A. 42. The
court stated that Brown could not “use Johnson to revive an untimely, unrelated claim,”
and it rejected his drug trafficking claim without discussing the merits. J.A. 42. The
court dismissed Brown’s § 2255 motion with prejudice and declined to grant a certificate
of appealability (“COA”). J.A. 43. Brown timely appealed and moved for a COA.
This Court subsequently granted Brown a COA “on the issue of whether assault
on a police officer while resisting arrest under South Carolina law qualifies as a predicate
offense for career offender status in light of Johnson v. United States.” Order, United
States v. Thilo Brown, No. 16-7056 (4th Cir. Dec. 7, 2016), ECF No. 14. 2
As the majority recognizes, a threshold issue for this Court is whether Brown’s
§ 2255 petition is timely. Under 28 U.S.C. § 2255(f)(1), a petitioner has one year from
the date that his or her judgment of conviction becomes final to attack the corresponding
sentence. Because Brown’s judgment of conviction has been final for more than a
decade, to bring a § 2255 petition, he must satisfy one of § 2255(f)’s other conditions for
Because we granted a COA only as to Brown’s argument regarding his assault
conviction, the question of whether his South Carolina drug trafficking conviction
constitutes a controlled substance offense under the Guidelines is not before this Court.
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restarting the limitations period. Here, he relies on § 2255(f)(3), which permits a § 2255
petition that “assert[s] . . . a right that has been newly recognized by the Supreme Court
and made retroactively applicable to cases on collateral review” within one year of the
Supreme Court’s recognition of the right. 28 U.S.C. § 2255(f)(3); see also Dodd v.
United States, 545 U.S. 353, 357–58 (2005) (describing § 2255(f)(3) as requiring that
“(1) the right asserted by the applicant was initially recognized by this Court; (2) this
Court newly recognized the right; and (3) a court must have made the right retroactively
applicable to cases on collateral review” (internal quotation marks omitted)). Brown
argues that his § 2255 petition is timely because he filed it within one year of the
Supreme Court’s decision in Johnson, which the Court subsequently held retroactively
applicable to cases on collateral review in Welch v. United States, 136 S. Ct. 1257 (2016).
I agree, and unlike the majority, I would find Brown’s petition timely.
It is well-settled in this Circuit that the Johnson Court recognized a new
constitutional rule, and that the Welch Court made that rule retroactively applicable to
cases on collateral review. In re Hubbard, 825 F.3d 225, 228 (4th Cir. 2016) (“Johnson
announced a new rule of constitutional law that the Supreme Court made retroactive
. . . .”). 3 And it is undisputed that Brown filed his § 2255 motion within one year of
Although the Welch Court describes Johnson as newly recognizing a “rule,”
rather than a “right,” courts, including this one, use the terms interchangeably. See, e.g.,
United States v. Powell, 691 F.3d 554 (4th Cir. 2012) (calling it “well settled” that the
analysis in Teague v. Lane, 489 U.S. 288 (1989), which discusses what constitutes a
newly recognized rule, governs whether a new right is retroactively applicable under
§ 2255(f)(3)). And courts have described Johnson as recognizing a new “right” for
purposes of § 2255(f)(3). See, e.g., Holt v. United States, 843 F.3d 720, 723 (7th Cir.
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Johnson and Welch. The only question for this Court’s timeliness inquiry, then, is
whether Brown is asserting that particular right in his § 2255 petition. Or, said another
way, the question is whether Johnson newly recognized a right that would permit Brown
to collaterally attack, through § 2255(f)(3), the constitutionality of his sentence, which
was enhanced under the residual clause in the mandatory Sentencing Guidelines. A
logical starting point for the analysis is therefore the contours of the right that the
Supreme Court newly recognized in Johnson.
In Johnson, the Supreme Court held that the ACCA’s residual clause was
unconstitutionally vague in violation of the Fifth Amendment’s Due Process Clause.
Johnson, 135 S. Ct. at 2555–57.
It based its holding on the principle that “the
Government violates [due process] by taking away someone’s life, liberty, or property
under a criminal law so vague that it fails to give ordinary people fair notice of the
conduct it punishes, or so standardless that it invites arbitrary enforcement,” id. at 2556,
finding that this principle applies to “statutes fixing sentences” just as it applies to
“statutes defining elements of crimes,” id. at 2557.
The ACCA’s residual clause defined a violent felony as “any crime punishable by
imprisonment for a term exceeding one year” that “otherwise involves conduct that
presents a serious potential risk of physical injury to another.” 18 U.S.C. § 924(e)(2)(B).
2016) (stating that in Welch, the Court “newly recognized the right [in Johnson] to be
retroactive” (emphasis added)). Therefore, I use “rule” and “right” interchangeably.
Pg: 19 of 27
To determine whether a particular crime qualified as a violent felony under the ACCA’s
residual clause, courts had to use the “categorical approach” to “picture the kind of
conduct that the crime involves in ‘the ordinary case,’ and to judge whether that
abstraction present[ed] a serious potential risk of physical injury.” Johnson, 135 S. Ct. at
2557 (quoting James v. United States, 550 U.S. 192, 208 (2007), overruled by Johnson,
135 S. Ct. 2551). According to the Johnson Court, this inquiry “le[ft] grave uncertainty
about how to estimate the risk posed by a crime” and “tie[d] the judicial assessment of
risk to a judicially imagined ‘ordinary case’ of a crime, not to real-world facts or statutory
elements.” Id. “The residual clause,” the Court concluded, “offer[ed] no reliable way to
choose . . . what [an] ‘ordinary’ [non-enumerated crime] involves.” Even more, said the
Court, “the residual clause le[ft] uncertainty about how much risk it takes for a crime to
qualify as a violent felony” by requiring courts “to apply an imprecise ‘serious potential
risk’ standard . . . to a judge-imagined abstraction.” Id. at 2558. In light of this, the
Court held that “the indeterminacy of the wide-ranging inquiry required by the residual
clause both denies fair notice to defendants and invites arbitrary enforcement by judges,”
and thus, “[i]ncreasing a defendant’s sentence under the clause denies due process of
law.” Id. at 2557.
In Welch, the Court held that Johnson is a substantive decision that is retroactively
applicable to cases on collateral review. 136 S. Ct. at 1265. Discussing Johnson’s
holding, the Welch Court explained that “[t]he vagueness of the residual clause rests in
large part on its operation under the categorical approach, . . . because applying [the
residual clause’s serious potential risk] standard under the categorical approach required
Pg: 20 of 27
courts to assess the hypothetical risk posed by an abstract generic version of the offense.”
Id. at 1262. And because Johnson struck down the ACCA’s residual clause as void for
vagueness, the clause “can no longer mandate or authorize any sentence,” explained the
Welch Court. Id. at 1265. “Johnson establishes, in other words, that ‘even the use of
impeccable factfinding procedures could not legitimate’ a sentence based on that clause.”
Id. (quoting United States v. U.S. Coin & Currency, 401 U.S. 715, 724 (1971)). In sum,
Johnson and Welch established that a defendant’s due process rights are violated when a
court, using the categorical approach, fixes that defendant’s sentence based on a statute
that fails to provide proper notice of what constitutes criminal conduct and requires
courts to apply imprecise and indeterminate standards. See id; see also Johnson, 135 S.
Ct. at 2557.
Subsequently, in Beckles v. United States, 137 S. Ct. 886 (2017), the Supreme
Court sharpened the focus on this newly recognized right. There, the defendant filed a
§ 2255 motion to vacate his sentence on the grounds that after Johnson, the residual
clause in the advisory Guidelines’ definition of crime of violence was void for vagueness.
Id. at 891. 4 The Court, relying heavily on the distinction between the advisory and
mandatory Guidelines, held that “the advisory Guidelines are not subject to vagueness
Beckles’s § 2255 motion was timely because he brought it within one year of the
date on which his conviction became final. See 28 U.S.C. § 2255(f)(1); see also Beckles,
137 S. Ct. at 891; United States v. Beckles, 565 F.3d 832 (11th Cir. 2009), cert. denied,
558 U.S. 906 (2009). Therefore, he did not need to demonstrate—nor did the Supreme
Court need to consider—whether Johnson newly recognized a right that would allow
Beckles to collaterally attack his advisory Guidelines sentence pursuant to 28 U.S.C.
Pg: 21 of 27
challenges under the Due Process Clause.” Id. at 890. This is because the advisory
Guidelines “merely guide the district court’s discretion,” the Court explained, and
“[u]nlike the ACCA, . . . the advisory Guidelines do not fix the permissible range of
sentences.” Id. at 892. “Rather, the Guidelines advise sentencing courts how to exercise
their discretion within the bounds established by Congress.” Id. at 895. Accordingly, the
Court observed, “‘[t]he due process concerns that . . . require notice in a world of
mandatory Guidelines no longer’ apply.” Id. at 894 (alterations in original) (quoting
Irizarry v. United States, 553 U.S. 708, 714 (2008)).
The Beckles Court thus excluded from the scope of Johnson’s rule those
sentencing provisions that advise, but do not bind, a sentencing court. But in so doing,
the Court did not disturb Johnson’s holding that where a vague sentencing provision
operates to fix a defendant’s sentence under the categorical approach, it is susceptible to
attack under the Due Process Clause. Indeed, Justice Sotomayor, concurring in the
judgment, noted that the majority opinion “at least leaves open the question whether
defendants sentenced . . . during the period in which the Guidelines did fix the
permissible range of sentences . . . may mount vagueness attacks on their sentences.” Id.
at 903 n.4 (Sotomayor, J., concurring in the judgment) (internal citations and quotation
marks omitted). 5
Thus, the decision in Beckles, while shrinking the universe of
The majority reads Justice Sotomayor’s statement to mean that the question of
whether the Johnson Court newly recognized a right applicable to a challenge to the
mandatory Guidelines is still open. See Maj. Op. at 2 n.1, 6, 9. But Justice Sotomayor, in
her concurrence, suggested only that the merits of such a challenge have not yet been
decided. And she noted that the majority’s decision in Beckles did not foreclose such a
Pg: 22 of 27
sentencing provisions susceptible to attack on vagueness grounds, reinforced that a
defendant has the due process right—as newly recognized in Johnson—not to have his
sentence fixed by the application of the categorical approach to an imprecise and
indeterminate sentencing provision.
With the scope of Johnson’s right in mind, I next consider whether Brown can rely
on that right to render his § 2255 motion timely.
Brown contends that because the mandatory Sentencing Guidelines’ residual
clause is identical in text to the ACCA’s residual clause, enhancements under both
clauses were applied using the categorical approach, and the clauses were similarly used
to fix, rather than advise, applicable sentencing ranges, he can rely on the right newly set
forth in Johnson to challenge his career-offender status under the mandatory Guidelines.
I consider his arguments in turn.
First, it is undisputed that the text of the residual clause under the mandatory
Guidelines is identical to the text of the ACCA’s residual clause. Both definitions
include felonies that “involve conduct that presents a serious potential risk of physical
injury to another.” U.S.S.G. § 4B1.2(a)(2); 18 U.S.C. § 924(e)(2)(B)(ii). Section 4B1.2(a)(2)’s
challenge. But she said nothing of timeliness under § 2255(f)(3), or whether the Court’s
Beckles decision would in any way undermine a petitioner’s ability to bring a
§ 2255(f)(3) petition challenging the mandatory Guidelines in light of the right newly
recognized in Johnson.
Pg: 23 of 27
text therefore supports Brown’s argument that Johnson’s newly recognized right is
applicable to a challenge to § 4B1.2(a)(2)’s residual clause.
Second, courts applied the categorical approach to both residual clauses. Like
courts applying the ACCA, “[i]n determining whether a prior conviction triggers a
sentence enhancement under the Sentencing Guidelines, ‘[courts] approach the issue
categorically, looking “only to the fact of conviction and the statutory definition of the
prior offense.”’” United States v. Montes-Flores, 736 F.3d 357, 364 (4th Cir. 2013)
(quoting United States v. Cabrera-Umanzor, 728 F.3d 347, 350 (4th Cir. 2013)).
Accordingly, when courts categorized prior felony convictions as crimes of violence
under the mandatory Guidelines’ residual clause, they had to engage in the same
“arbitrary enforcement,” Johnson, 135 S. Ct. at 2556, as courts enhancing a sentence
under the ACCA’s residual clause. This too supports Brown’s argument that Johnson is
applicable to his challenge here.
Finally, like the residual clause at issue in Johnson, the mandatory Guidelines’
residual clause imposed fixed, rather than advisory, sentencing ranges. When Brown was
sentenced, the Supreme Court had not yet decided United States v. Booker, 543 U.S. 220,
245 (2005) (establishing Sentencing Guidelines as “effectively advisory”), and the
Guidelines were still mandatory, operating like statutes to fix sentences. Before Booker,
the Guidelines had “the force and effect of laws,” id. at 234, and were considered
indistinguishable from state laws, id. at 233 (“[T]here is no distinction of constitutional
significance between the Federal Sentencing Guidelines and the Washington procedures
at issue in [Blakely v. Washington, 542 U.S. 296 (2004)].”). While judges theoretically
Pg: 24 of 27
had the ability to depart from the Guidelines’ prescribed range, “departures [were] not
available in every case, and in fact [were] unavailable in most.” Id. at 234. 6 Instead, in
most cases, the Guidelines took into account nearly all relevant factors for determining an
individual’s sentence, such that “no departure [was] legally permissible” and “the judge
[wa]s bound to impose a sentence within the Guidelines range.” Id. Like the ACCA’s
residual clause, then, the mandatory Guidelines’ residual clause bound courts to impose
sentences within the prescribed range.
The Court’s decision in Beckles, while foreclosing void-for-vagueness challenges
to the residual clause under the advisory Guidelines, shows that sentencing under the
ACCA’s residual clause and sentencing under the mandatory Guidelines’ residual clause
was the same. Indeed, the Court’s decision in Beckles rested on the distinction between
the mandatory and advisory Guidelines, with the advisory nature of the post-Booker
Guidelines dictating a result different than in Johnson. The Beckles Court explained that,
unlike the ACCA, “[t]he advisory Guidelines . . . do not implicate the twin concerns
underlying vagueness doctrine—providing notice and preventing arbitrary enforcement.”
Beckles, 137 S. Ct. at 894. This is because “even if a person behaves so as to avoid an
enhanced sentence under the career-offender guideline, the sentencing court retains
discretion to impose the enhanced sentence,” id., and the advisory Guidelines only
Similarly, when district courts fix sentences under the ACCA, they are prohibited
from sentencing a defendant below the statutory mandatory minimum, save for the
relatively rare cases where the government has filed a substantial assistance motion
pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 3553(e) and U.S.S.G. § 5K1.1, or where the defendant qualifies
for a safety-valve reduction under 18 U.S.C. § 3553(f).
Pg: 25 of 27
“advise sentencing courts how to exercise their discretion within the bounds established
by Congress” and do not “‘establish minimum and maximum penalties for [any]
crime,’” id. at 895 (quoting Mistretta v. United States, 488 U.S. 361, 396 (1989)). This is
entirely different from the mandatory Guidelines, which “b[ou]nd judges and courts in
the exercise of their uncontested responsibility to pass sentence in criminal cases,”
Mistretta, 488 U.S. at 391, and “ha[d] the force and effect of laws, prescribing the
sentences criminal defendants are to receive,” id. at 413 (Scalia, J., dissenting). The
considerations underlining the Court’s decision in Beckles are simply not implicated here,
where the residual clause operated just like a statute to fix Brown’s sentence. If anything,
then, Beckles clarifies Johnson’s animating principles and affirms that Johnson’s newly
recognized right does apply to challenges to the residual clause under the mandatory
Guidelines. Thus, contrary to the majority’s view, Brown need not “cobble together a
right by combining these [cases],” Maj. Op. at 8—the right he asserts stems from
Beckles and Booker merely reinforce that the right newly recognized in
Johnson is indeed applicable to Brown’s claim.
Ultimately, that the residual clause at issue here is contained in the mandatory
Sentencing Guidelines, rather than the ACCA, is a distinction without a difference for
purposes of this Court’s timeliness inquiry. The clauses’ text is identical, and courts
applied them using the same categorical approach and for the same ends—to fix a
The right newly recognized in Johnson is therefore clearly
applicable to Brown’s claim, because the mandatory Guidelines’ residual clause presents
the same problems of notice and arbitrary enforcement as the ACCA’s residual clause at
Pg: 26 of 27
issue in Johnson. The majority, by finding that a defendant sentenced under a nearly
identical provision with nearly identical effects cannot assert the right newly recognized
in Johnson, unnecessarily tethers that right to the ACCA itself, when the right clearly
stems from the due process protections that prohibit such sentencing schemes more
generally. This narrow view divests Johnson’s holding from the very principles on which
it rests and thus unduly cabins Johnson’s newly recognized right.
I would find that Brown is asserting the right newly recognized in Johnson. And
because this Court found that “the rule in Johnson is substantive with respect to its
retroactively,” Hubbard, 825 F.3d at 235, I would find that Brown satisfies all of
§ 2255(f)(3)’s requirements. I would thus find his petition timely.
Lastly, I would find in favor of Brown on the merits of his claim. As previously
discussed, first, the text of § 4B1.2(a)(2)’s residual clause is identical to the text of the
ACCA’s residual clause, which the Supreme Court held unconstitutionally vague in
Johnson. Second, courts enhanced sentences under § 4B1.2(a)(2)’s residual clause using
the categorical approach, just as they did when enhancing sentences under the ACCA’s
residual clause. And third, like the ACCA, the mandatory Guidelines fixed minimum and
maximum sentences and bound courts to sentence within particular ranges. This case
diverges from Johnson only because Brown’s sentence was enhanced under the
mandatory Guidelines, rather than the ACCA, but I can discern no principled reason that
Pg: 27 of 27
such a distinction should dictate an outcome different than in Johnson, particularly where
the concerns outlined in Beckles are not implicated.
As the Court recognized in Johnson, defendants have a due process right not to
have their sentences enhanced by the application of the categorical approach to an
imprecise and indeterminate sentencing provision. 135 S. Ct. at 2558. And as the Court
made clear in Beckles, when such sentencing provisions set a fixed, rather than advisory,
sentence under the categorical approach, they are void for vagueness. See Beckles, 137 S.
Ct. at 892. Here, the district court applied the categorical approach to § 4B1.2(a)(2)’s
residual clause, which fixed Brown’s sentencing range—precisely what the Johnson
Court said runs afoul of the Due Process Clause. These cases therefore compel the
conclusion that under the mandatory Guidelines, § 4B1.2(a)(2)’s residual clause is
unconstitutionally vague and cannot be the basis for enhancing Brown’s sentence.
For all of these reasons, I would grant Brown’s § 2255 motion and remand for
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