Whiteside: New Relief for Career Offenders

A recent Fourth Circuit opinion gives some needed relief for a limited class of federal inmates. Whiteside v. United States opens the door for convicted defendants to bring post-conviction claims, under 28 U.S.C. § 2255, based on their erroneous classification as career offenders. This is likely to have the most impact on individuals who were sentenced as a career offender based on Maryland second degree assault.

Criminal defendants with two prior qualifying convictions – for a serious drug felony or a crime of violence – are subject to the “career offender” enhancement under Section 4B1.1 of the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines. If the enhancement applies, the otherwise applicable Guidelines range is nearly doubled, usually resulting in a lengthy term of imprisonment.

The test for which types of convictions qualify for the career offender enhancement recently changed in favor of defendants. In a recent opinion, United States v. Royal, 731 F. 3d 333 (4th Cir. 2013), the Fourth Circuit held that a Maryland second degree assault conviction no longer supports the career offender enhancement as a crime of violence.

Until last month, however, one critical question remained open: May a defendant who was sentenced as a career offender based on a conviction that no longer qualifies due to a change in  law (i.e. Maryland second degree assault), bring a 2255 claim on the grounds that he is no longer a career offender?

The Fourth Circuit answered this question in the affirmative in Whiteside v. United States, No. 13-7152, 2014 WL 1364019 (4th Cir. April 8, 2014). Whiteside allows a defendant who was sentenced based on an erroneous career offender status to raise the claim in a Section 2255 post-conviction motion.  This could lead to a new sentencing or a reduction of sentence.

The court also explained that, even if the defendant did not raise such a claim within the statutory period (which is normally within one year from the date the conviction becomes final, under 18 U.S.C. § 2255(f)(1)), he or she may raise it later, so long as it is within one year of the decision that changed the conviction’s status from qualifying to non-qualifying.

The Whiteside decision is a huge win for criminal defendants: for Whiteside, the new sentencing hearing meant that his recommended sentence decreased from approximately 18 to 21 years with the enhancement to 11 to 14 years without it. For other defendants, the range—and the stakes—may be even greater.

Not surprisingly, the Government has pledged to appeal the decision.