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United States v. Taylor

United States Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit

October 12, 2017

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Plaintiff - Appellee
v.
LAWRENCE JAMES TAYLOR, Defendant-Appellant

         Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Texas

          Before CLEMENT, PRADO, and HAYNES, Circuit Judges.

          EDITH BROWN CLEMENT, Circuit Judge

         We are tasked with deciding whether Lawrence James Taylor's claim that his sentence enhancement is no longer valid under the Armed Career Criminal Act ("ACCA") is constitutionally or statutorily based in light of the district court's conclusion that the now constitutionally defunct residual clause "played no role" at his sentencing. We hold that Taylor's claim is constitutionally based and warrants relief under 28 U.S.C. § 2255.

         Facts and Proceedings

         In 2006, Lawrence James Taylor pleaded guilty to possession of a firearm by a convicted felon-which usually carries a maximum sentence of 10 years' imprisonment. See 18 U.S.C. § 924(a)(2). The presentence report ("PSR") recommended an enhanced sentence under the ACCA because Taylor had two "violent felony"[1] convictions for burglary of a building and one "crime of violence"[2] conviction for injury to a child. See 18 U.S.C. § 924(e)(2)(B). In accordance with the ACCA enhancement, the PSR calculated a guideline range of 235 to 293 months' imprisonment.

         Taylor objected to several aspects of the PSR. He did not object or claim, however, that his Texas conviction for injury to a child was excluded as an ACCA predicate. At his sentencing, Taylor conceded his injury-to-a-child conviction was a "crime of violence." The district court adopted the findings and conclusions of the PSR and imposed a prison term of 260 months. Taylor appealed his sentence, but did not contend that the district court erred when it determined his injury-to-a-child conviction was an ACCA predicate. This court affirmed. See United States v. Taylor, 263 Fed.Appx. 402, 407 (5th Cir. 2008).

         Taylor subsequently filed two motions under § 2255 to vacate his sentence. The district court denied relief as to both motions, and this court affirmed.

         In 2015, the Supreme Court held that "imposing an increased sentence under the residual clause of the [ACCA] violates the Constitution's guarantee of due process." Johnson v. United States, 135 S.Ct. 2551, 2563 (2015). The Court subsequently announced this was a new, substantive rule and therefore applied retroactively. See Welch v. United States, 136 S.Ct. 1257, 1268 (2016).

         Taylor sought assistance from the Federal Public Defender's office ("FPD") to determine whether his injury-to-a-child conviction still counted as an ACCA predicate after Johnson. The FPD moved the district court for appointment as Taylor's counsel. The district court denied the motion, reasoning it "would result in a waste of judicial resources."

         Taylor requested authorization from this court to file another petition under § 2255(h) and again asked for appointment of counsel. While those motions were pending before this court, Taylor filed a "placeholder" petition in the district court to guard against exceeding the one-year deadline to file motions based on Johnson. Taylor moved the court to stay or abate the placeholder action until this court could rule on the motions that remained pending here.

         Before this court ruled on Taylor's motions, the district court denied the placeholder petition and the motion to stay. The district court ruled that the placeholder petition was untimely[3] and that the ACCA's residual clause "did not play any role in Movant's sentencing." The district court noted Taylor's concession that the injury-to-a-child offense counted as a violent felony, and it stated that Taylor should have challenged the classification of the conviction at sentencing. The district court opined that if Taylor were allowed to file his successive § 2255 motion, "the [federal] sentencing scheme . . . would be upended." The court further declared that because Taylor did not argue that his injury-to-a-child conviction fell outside the definition of a violent felony at sentencing, "there would be no basis for a § 2255 review of that issue even if his second and successive § 2255 motion had been his first and even if it had been timely filed."

         This court subsequently appointed the FPD as counsel and granted authorization to file a successive § 2255 petition. When granting authorization to file the petition, this court explained that Fifth Circuit precedent indicated that a Texas conviction for injury to a child may not qualify as an ACCA predicate offense in light of Johnson.[4] This court warned, however, that "[the] grant of authorization is tentative in that the district court must dismiss the § 2255 motion without reaching the merits if it determines that Taylor has failed to make the showing required to file such a motion." The case was transferred back to the district court "for filing as a § 2255 motion."

         Within a week, and before any documents were filed, the district court entered a sua sponte order dismissing the action, adopting its reasoning from its previous order dismissing the placeholder motion. The district court denied Taylor's request for a certificate of appealability and concluded that Taylor could not make the showing this court required because Taylor failed to make the ...


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