The Fourth Circuit recently examined, and ultimately foreclosed, an argument that could have called the career offender guidelines within the federal sentencing guidelines into question.
Background of Guidelines
The U.S. Sentencing Commission promulgated the career offender guidelines in response to a directive from Congress in the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984. A defendant is classified as a “career offender” under the guidelines if he (1) commits a felony that is a “controlled substance offense” or a “crime of violence” when he is at least 18 years old and (2) has at least two “prior felony convictions” of either a “controlled substance offense” or a “crime of violence.” U.S. Sentencing Comm’n, Guidelines Manual 2016 § 4B1.1 (Nov. 1, 2016). Crime of violence is defined as a prior felony that (1) involved “the use, attempted use, or threatened use of physical force against the person of another” (force clause); (2) is a burglary of a dwelling, arson, or extortion or involves use of explosives (enumerated offenses); or (3) “otherwise involves conduct that presents a serious potential risk of physical injury to another” (residual clause). Id. § 4B1.2 amend.
The sentencing guidelines automatically assign all career offenders to Criminal History Category VI, with offense levels based on the statutory maximum penalty allowed. In fiscal year 2016, 1,796 of the 67,742 cases reported to the Sentencing Commission involved career offenders. In 91.9 percent of those cases, the career offender status increased the guidelines range. Additionally, the career offender enhancements deem career offenders ineligible for any reduction in sentence based on the retroactive amendments to the crack guideline.