7th Circuit orders hearing on counsel’s performance in habeas case

A man who received an enhanced federal sentence for robbery convictions has been granted a hearing on his ineffective assistance of counsel claim. The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Wednesday that under the facts of this case, defense counsel may have been required to anticipate future developments in caselaw.

The case of Jeffery Bridges v. United States of America, 20-1623, began over a two-day period in March 2017 when Jeffery Bridges robbed four Indianapolis retail stores. He later pleaded guilty to all four robberies, stipulating to the application of a career offender enhancement based on two prior robbery convictions in state court and the assumption that his federal Hobbs Act robbery convictions were crimes of violence.

Using the enhancement, Bridges’ sentencing guidelines range was 151 to 188 months. His counsel did not object, and the Indiana Southern District Court ultimately imposed a 140-month sentence.

Bridges had waived his appellate rights, so he later sought habeas relief from his sentence on the grounds of ineffective assistance of counsel. He claimed his counsel should have known Hobbs Act robbery was not a crime of violence under the sentencing guidelines, but the district court denied his petition without holding a hearing. Specifically, the court ruled that even if Hobbs Act robbery was not a crime of violence, there was no binding 7th Circuit precedent on that issue, so his counsel was not required to anticipate a future development in caselaw.

In a 28-page reversal, the 7th Circuit agreed with Bridges that Hobbs Act robbery is not a crime of violence. Judge David Hamilton pointed to the decision in Johnson v. United States, 576 U.S. 591 (2015), which prompted an amendment to the definition of crime of violence.

“Even though Hobbs Act robbery is one of the two most common federal robbery crimes … it does not qualify as ‘robbery’ within the meaning of the new guideline definition of crimes of violence,” Hamilton wrote. “The heart of the problem is that a person may commit Hobbs Act robbery by threatening physical violence against any ‘person or property.’ 18 U.S.C. § 1951(b)(1). The guideline definition is narrower, as it is understood to require a threat of physical violence against a person.”

Every federal appellate court to address the issue has concluded that, under the amended definition, Hobbs Act robbery is not a crime of violence, Hamilton continued. Under the “categorical approach,” the 7th Circuit reached the same conclusion Wednesday, finding Hobbs Act robbery is not a categorical fit for either robbery or extortion under the amended definition.

“In sum, Hobbs Act robbery criminalizes threats against property, and both generic robbery and guideline extortion reach only threats against persons,” Hamilton wrote for the panel. “Hobbs Act robbery is not a categorical fit, so Bridges was not convicted of a crime of violence as the Guidelines define the phrase. The career offender guideline should not have been applied.”

Turning next to Bridges’ ineffective assistance of counsel argument, the 7th Circuit determined his counsel should have known that Hobbs Act robbery was not a crime of violence at the time of sentencing in 2018. Thus, the appellate panel remanded for an evidentiary hearing on defense counsel’s performance.

“The district court reasoned that the lack of controlling precedent in this circuit defeated Bridges’ Sixth Amendment argument,” Hamilton wrote. “We respectfully disagreed. In some circumstances, defense counsel may be required to anticipate arguments foreshadowed but not yet adopted by existing case law.”

While there was no binding 7th Circuit precedent on the crime-of-violence issue, “case law sufficiently foreshadowed this argument … ,” Hamilton wrote. He continued, “Competent counsel would also know that the categorical approach frequently produces counterintuitive results and has been the subject of much judicial handwringing.”

Thus, the need to investigate whether Bridges could raise a viable categorical approach argument was “crucial,” the panel held, entitling him to an evidentiary hearing. If on remand Bridges can demonstrate that he pleaded guilty on the advice of counsel that fell below constitutional standards, he should not be held to his pleas.

The panel pointed specifically to the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals’ ruling in United States v. O’Connor, 874 F.3d 1147 (10th Cir. 2017), which held that Hobbs Act robbery was not a crime of violence. O’Connor was handed down well before Bridges was sentenced, Hamilton wrote, and “(w)ith modern methods of legal research, it would not have taken long in 2018 for counsel to have found” that decision.

“We cannot say that the record ‘conclusively shows’ that reasonable counsel would not have found this noteworthy published opinion, one of the few at the time of Bridges’ plea that considered the effects” of the amendment, Hamilton wrote. It was also not “conclusive” that defense lawyers in the 7th Circuit were not raising the crime of violence issue in 2018, he said.

“To be clear: we are not holding as a matter of law that counsel was ineffective,” the panel noted. “It is possible that defense counsel had a reasonable sentencing strategy that deserves deference.”

Finally as to the issue of prejudice, the panel held that “(i)f the court had computed the counterfactual guideline range properly, counsel’s possibly deficient performance might well have withstood scrutiny.” However, “(t)he court … mistakenly thought that the 140-month sentence it imposed would have been within the guideline range if the career offender enhancement had not applied.”

“We recognize that this decision further elevates the abstract and artificial categorical approach over the known facts of the case,” Hamilton concluded. “But this method ensures that dramatic sentencing enhancements are applied to only those defendants who clearly fall within their intended scope.”

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