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Blackeagle v. United States

United States District Court, D. Idaho

February 1, 2017



          B. Lynn Winmill Chief Judge


         Before the Court is Petitioner's Motion to Vacate, Set Aside, or Correct Sentence Under 28 U.S.C. § 2255 (Dkt. 1), the Government's Motion to Stay (Dkt. 3), and the Government's Motion to Dismiss (Dkt. 5). Having fully reviewed the record, the Court finds that the facts and legal arguments are adequately presented in the briefs and record. Accordingly, in the interest of avoiding further delay, and because the Court conclusively finds that the decisional process would not be significantly aided by oral argument, the motions shall be decided on the record before this Court without oral argument. For the reasons explained below, the Court will deny the motion to stay and will grant the government's motion to dismiss the petition.


         A. Factual Background

         On August 23, 2013, Defendant Andrew Tony Blackeagle pleaded guilty to assault with a dangerous weapon. The United States Probation Office prepared a Presentence Investigation Report (PSR), which calculated Blackeagle's Total Offense Level as 21. The Total Offense Level would have been 18 but for a three-level enhancement applied under § 4B1.1(a) of the United States Sentencing Guidelines, based on the PSR's conclusion that Blackeagle was a “career offender.” See PSR, Cr. Dkt. 26[1], ¶ 22. To qualify as a career offender, a defendant must have committed at last two prior drug crimes or “crimes of violence.” See U.S.S.G. § 4B1.1(a).[2] Here, the PSR concluded that Blackeagle had committed two prior crimes of violence: (1) assault with a deadly weapon; and (2) attempted strangulation. PSR, Cr. Dkt. 26, ¶ 22.

         A “crime of violence” is defined in Guidelines § 4B1.2 as follows:

(a) 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 the use of explosives, or otherwise involves conduct that presents a serious potential risk of physical injury to another.

U.S.S.G. § 4B1.2(a) (emphasis added).

         The emphasized language - contained in both subsections (a)(1) and (a)(2) - is key to this petition. The emphasized language in subsection (a)(1) has come to be known as the “force” clause, or the “elements” clause. The Supreme Court has clarified that the force mentioned in this section must be “violent force - that is, force capable of causing physical pain or injury to another person.” See Johnson v. United States, 559 U.S. 133, 140 (2010). Subsection (a)(2) identifies enumerated offenses-burglary of a dwelling, arson, extortion, and offenses involving the use of explosives-and then contains an “otherwise involves” clause (emphasized above). The “otherwise involves” clause is more commonly referred to as the “residual clause.” See Chambers v. United States, 555 U.S. 122, 124 (2009).

         In this case, Blackeagle did not object to the PSR's conclusion that he was a career offender, nor did he ask the Court to make any specific findings regarding the underlying conclusion that his prior two convictions qualified as “crimes of violence.” In other words, he did not ask the Court to clarify whether his prior convictions qualified as crimes of violence under any particular clause of Guidelines §4B1.2(a).

         At the November 5, 2013 sentencing hearing, the Court adopted the PSR's findings and sentencing calculations, thus concluding that Blackeagle was a career offender under § 4B1.1(a) based on his two prior convictions for “crimes of violence.” See Presentence Investigation Report, Cr. Dkt. 26, ¶ 22; Statement of Reasons, Cr. Dkt. 31, ¶ 1.A. The Court also adopted the advisory Guidelines range set forth in the PSR, which was 77 to 96 months' imprisonment, corresponding to a Total Offense Level of 21 and a Criminal History Category of VI. See Statement of Reasons, Cr. Dkt. 31, ¶ III.

         The Court imposed a below-guidelines sentence of 67 months' imprisonment, to be followed by three years of supervised release. See Jdgmt., Cr. Dkt. 32. The Court explained that it “reduced the term of imprisonment by ten months [from 77 months to 67 months] to credit the defendant time in custody that most likely would not be credited to him by the Bureau of Prisons.” Statement of Reasons, Cr. Dkt. 31, ¶ V.D.

         On June 20, 2016, Blackeagle filed the pending § 2255 motion seeking to vacate his sentence in light of United States Supreme Court's decision in Johnson v. United States, 135 S.Ct. 2241 (2015). As explained further below, Blackeagle says that under Johnson, he should not have received the three-level career-offender enhancement because one of his prior convictions - attempted strangulation - does not qualify as a “crime of violence” in light of Johnson. Thus, according to Blackeagle, his advisory Guidelines range should have been 57 to 71 months of imprisonment (rather than 77 to 96 months), corresponding to a Total Offense Level of 18.

         B. Legal Background

         In Johnson, the Supreme Court addressed a challenge to the residual clause of the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA), 18 U.S.C. § 924(e), which provides that a defendant with three prior “violent felony” convictions faces a fifteen-year mandatory-minimum sentence if convicted of violating 18 U.S.C. § 922(g). 18 U.S.C. § 924(e). The ACCA residual clause definition of “violent felony, ” which encompasses any crime that “involves conduct that presents a serious potential risk of physical injury to another, ” is identical to the residual clause of the Guidelines' definition “crime of violence.” The Johnson Court held that the residual clause is so vague that it “both denies fair notice to defendants and invites arbitrary enforcement by judges.” 135 S.Ct. at 2557. Accordingly, Johnson held that an increase to a defendant's sentence under the clause “denies due process of law.” In Welch v. United States, 136 S.Ct. 1257, 1268 (2016), the Supreme Court held that Johnson is retroactive as applied to the ACCA. However, neither the Supreme Court nor the Ninth Circuit has addressed whether Johnson is retroactive as to the identical language in the Sentencing Guidelines.


         A prisoner in custody under sentence of a federal court, making a collateral attack against the validity of his or her conviction or sentence, must do so by way of a motion to vacate, set aside or correct the sentence pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2255 in the court that imposed the sentence. Tripati v. Henman, 843 F.2d 1160, 1162 (9th Cir. 1988). Section 2255 was intended to alleviate the burden of habeas corpus petitions filed by federal prisoners in the district of confinement by providing an equally broad remedy in the more convenient jurisdiction of the sentencing court. United States v. Addonizio, 442 U.S. 178, 185 (1979). Under 28 U.S.C. § 2255, a federal sentencing court may grant relief if it concludes that a prisoner in custody was sentenced in violation of the Constitution or laws of the United States.


         Blackeagle's ultimate argument has two parts: First, he says that the residual clause in the Career Offender Guidelines - which is identically worded to the residual clause in the ACCA at issue in Johnson - is unconstitutionally vague. Second, he says his prior conviction for attempted strangulation cannot qualify as a crime of violence without relying on the Guidelines' residual clause. Blackeagle thus concludes that his sentence is illegal and that he should be re-sentenced without the career-offender finding in place.

         The Court is not persuaded. Even assuming Blackeagle is correct on his first argument - that the residual clause in the Guidelines is unconstitutional - Blackeagle's second argument lacks merit because his prior conviction for attempted strangulation qualifies as a crime of violence under the “force” clause of Guidelines § 4B1.1(a). As ...

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