The Sentence Reduction Potential of Dimaya and Johnson
On April 17, 2018, the Supreme Court of the United States published an opinion in an immigration case called Sessions v. Dimaya. This case caused waves because the left-leaning justices split with right-leaning justices evenly at 4-4 and the deciding vote was the freshman justice Gorsuch.
In what has conservatives raging against their new justice, is really not much of an immigration issue. Well it is, because it brings some civil immigration cases into the constitutional realm of criminal cases. In this case, the question was whether or not a statute which anticipated possible/potentially violent conduct was too vague to withstand constitutional scrutiny.
No attempt is made here to take political sides or to create a partisan bias. The reason why you’re probably here reading this is to find out if Dimaya can be helpful to an inmate in federal prison. The short answer is, “Maybe.”
What did the Dimaya Case Accomplish?
You can skip this section entirely if you’re not interested in the legal analysis of this case, although it does help explain how and who this case helps.
This opinion, with dissents, is nearly 100 pages long, so there is a lot to unpack. However, the essential part that impacts federal inmates has to do with sentencing enhancements for violent crimes.
What the Dimaya case decided was that the residual clause of 18 U.S.C. §16(b) was unconstitutionally vague and violated the U.S. Constitution’s 5th Amendment, which guarantees due process.
Lets make that simpler to understand. That law above, 18 U.S.C. §16(b), is the second part of a 2-part definition of what constitutes a “Crime of Violence.” The first part says that violence has to be used, attempted, or threatened for the underlying crime to be considered a violent one.
The second part, the part we’re interested in here, says that “any other felony that, by its nature, involves a substantial risk that physical force against the person or property of another may be used in the course of committing the offense.”
The problem with this phrasing is that a “substantial risk” is subjective and vague. A court could assume that violence could be a result of many different types of felonies. While holding a gun, threatening to kill somebody to facilitate a robbery is certainly a crime of violence under the first definition above.
The Supreme Court decided to rely on it’s criminal definition of what makes a law unconstitutional for being too vague. The definition of a violent crime is generally made by §16, as is addressed above. Criminally, however, the definition of a crime of violence is defined in §924(e)(2).
This, by the way, is why this case caused an uproar, because it treats deportation as a punishment severe enough to cross over into criminal punishment, rather than a civil process. And treating deportation as a criminal matter gives non-citizens constitutional due process rights.
But never mind that now.
The Supreme Court decided in Sessions v. Dimaya that the residual clause of the definition of a “crime of violence” from §16 is void for being too vague, just like the residual clause of a “crime of violence” for criminal prosecution from §924(e)(2) is void for being too vague, which they had decided in 2015 with Johnson vs. United States, 576 U.S. ___, ___.
How Dimaya Could Reduce Federal Sentences
Very basically, Dimaya reinforced Johnson’s decision that the residual clauses of the definition of a “crime of violence” in both 18 U.S.C. §16(b) and §924(e) were unconstitutional because they were too vague.
What this means in terms of reducing sentences for federal inmates falls out of this. If a federal inmate had his sentence increased because their crime was a “violent” one, even if there was no violence, then the basis for that sentence increase is now considered unconstitutional.
In order to get this sentence increase eliminated, effectively getting a sentence reduction, involves filing a Motion to Vacate, Set Aside, or Correct Sentence. Sometimes called a 2255, ((because the statute allowing this is found in 28 U.S.C. §2255)) this allows a judge to correct a sentence for constitutional reasons (like the Dimaya decision here). However, there is a time limit.
The law that regulates the use of a 2255 motion sets a 1-year time limit on filing one. Four things can start this 1-year clock, but the relevant part here is that the Dimaya decision starts the clock for any inmate that can take advantage of it.
That means that any inmate who is affected by the Dimaya decision, meaning their sentence could potentially be decreased by using it, has until April 16, 2019 in order to file a motion to “Correct a Sentence” before they are no longer eligible to do so.
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