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Improper Application of the “Career Offender Enhancement” Amounts to a “Fundamental Miscarriage of Justice”

On Tuesday, April 8, 2014, the Federal Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals announced Whiteside v. United States, a very important decision for people incarcerated and sentenced prior to 2011. If someone was sentenced as a “Career Offender” in Federal Court, he may be eligible to have that sentence reduced by the court.

In 2011, the Fourth Circuit announced the decision of United States v. Simmons which held that in Federal Court proceedings, a prior state court felony conviction required a showing that the individual was sentenced or was eligible to be sentenced to a term of prison greater than 1 year. Prior to Simmons, Courts in the Fourth Circuit had been considering prior convictions in state courts as felonies if the convictions were called “felonies” by the state or if the convictions were cases in which hypothetical offenders with aggravating factors could have been sentenced to over a year. In short, Simmons required the Courts to look at the individual, not a hypothetical offender.

Simmons thus changed the way District Courts in the Fourth Circuit were to apply prior state convictions for certain crimes and for certain sentencing enhancements. However, Simmons also revealed that there were numerous individuals already in federal prison to whom this issue had already negatively affected, primarily but not exclusively those whom were convicted of possessing a firearm when a felon and those who had the “Career Offender Enhancement” applied to their sentences. The Fourth Circuit granted a limited time frame under which individuals already improperly sentenced could seek to have their sentences corrected under the Simmons ruling.

However, once this limited time frame expired, there remained many individuals who were improperly sentenced but were procedurally barred from attacking their improper sentence. Some of these individuals, after discovering Simmons, fought for years to have their sentences reduced or vacated, but were told by the Government and the Courts that they were not eligible because they had not attacked this specific issue “at sentencing or on direct appeal.” This is absurd since, at the time these defendants were sentenced, Simmons had not yet been decided and therefore these defendants were sentenced and appealed without knowing they had a right to object to the application of the “Career Offender Enhancement.”

With April 8’s Whiteside opinion, the Fourth Circuit found that “erroneous application of the “Career Offender Enhancement” amounts to a fundamental miscarriage of justice” and as a result, those improperly sentenced are not procedurally barred but can petition to have their sentences corrected. The Fourth Circuit issued a scathing opinion on the behavior of the United States Attorney’s Office in these types of cases, noting that selective application by the United States Attorney’s Office in these proceedings under Simmons amounted to “an Executive Branch hijacking of the Court’s proper function.”

If you or a loved one is currently serving a federal prison sentence under which you believe the “Career Offender Enhancement” was improperly applied, you should immediately look into this matter. The attorneys at the Clifford Division of Clifford Clendenin & O’Hale, LLP are knowledgeable in the law and will fight for your rights. If you need criminal law representation, call 336-574-2788 or email [email protected]

For more information on this article, contact the Clifford Division of Clifford, Clenendin & O’Hale.


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