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Levering v. United States

United States Court of Appeals, Eighth Circuit

May 21, 2018

Merwyn L. Levering, Petitioner - Appellant,
United States of America, Respondent - Appellee.

          Submitted: October 18, 2017

          Appeal from United States District Court for the District of Nebraska - Omaha

          Before LOKEN, MURPHY, and COLLOTON, Circuit Judges. [*]


         In 2004, a jury convicted Merwyn Levering of two firearms offenses: unlawful possession of a firearm as a previously convicted felon, and unlawful possession of a stolen firearm. Based on his criminal history, the district court[1] enhanced Levering's sentence pursuant to the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA), 18 U.S.C. § 924(e), and USSG § 4B1.4. The court later vacated Levering's sentence under 28 U.S.C. § 2255 in light of intervening precedent, but again applied the ACCA enhancement at a resentencing. Levering appeals the new sentence, and we affirm.

         Following a three-day jury trial, Levering was found guilty of possession of a firearm as a previously convicted felon (Count I), see 18 U.S.C. §§ 922(g), 924(e), and possession of a stolen firearm (Count II), see 18 U.S.C. § 922(j). The ACCA establishes a mandatory minimum term of fifteen years' imprisonment and a maximum of life imprisonment if a defendant is convicted under § 922(g) and has sustained at least three previous convictions for a "violent felony . . . committed on occasions different from one another." 18 U.S.C. § 924(e)(1). At sentencing, the district court determined that Levering had sustained at least three such convictions so that he was subject to an enhanced statutory penalty under § 924(e) and an increased sentencing guideline range under USSG § 4B1.4(b)(3)(A). The court imposed concurrent sentences of 262 months on Count I (at the bottom of the advisory guideline range) and 120 months on Count II.

         The district court vacated Levering's sentences in 2015 after the decision in Johnson v. United States, 135 S.Ct. 2551 (2015), which declared unconstitutional the "residual clause" of § 924(e)(2)(B)(ii). 135 S.Ct. at 2563. In light of Johnson, the court concluded that one of Levering's prior convictions on which the court had relied at sentencing-a 2000 Nebraska conviction for escape from official detention-no longer qualified as a violent felony. At resentencing, however, the court determined that without considering the escape conviction, Levering was still an armed career criminal based on three other prior convictions: a 1989 Nebraska conviction for first-degree assault and two 1994 Iowa convictions for assault while participating in a felony. The court then varied downward from the advisory guideline range and sentenced Levering to 240 months on Count I and 120 months on Count II, to be served concurrently.

         The principal dispute on appeal concerns whether the two Iowa assault convictions were for violent felonies "committed on occasions different from one another" within the meaning of the ACCA. The convictions arose from Levering's high-speed flight from law enforcement officers in a stolen automobile on June 13, 1994. On that date, Levering drove a vehicle through Polk, Dallas, and Adair counties in Iowa, weaved in and out of traffic, ran his vehicle into a pursuing police car, and forced other vehicles off the road. Levering was charged and convicted of assaults in all three counties. The district court concluded that the convictions from Dallas County and Adair County were for violent felonies that were committed on different occasions, and counted them both as predicate offenses for purposes of the ACCA.

         Levering argues that the district court erred in making that determination. He contends that all of his assaults on June 13, 1994, occurred on a single "occasion" while he fled from law enforcement officers in a high-speed chase across three Iowa counties. We must determine, therefore, whether Levering committed the two Iowa assaults in Dallas County and Adair County on "occasions different from one another."

         As we explained in United States v. Davidson, 527 F.3d 703 (8th Cir. 2008), vacated in part on other grounds by 551 F.3d 807 (8th Cir. 2008), and repeat here, the statutory provision at issue has its genesis in a decision of this court. Id. at 707-08. In United States v. Petty, 798 F.2d 1157 (8th Cir. 1986), vacated, 481 U.S. 1034 (1987), this court held that a defendant was subject to an enhanced sentence under 18 U.S.C. § 1202(a)(1) (Supp. 1984), based on "three previous convictions . . . for robbery or burglary, " when he was "convicted in a single indictment of six counts of robbery stemming from an incident during which he robbed six different people in a restaurant simultaneously." 798 F.2d at 1159-60. When Petty petitioned for a writ of certiorari, the Solicitor General confessed error, noting that "the legislative history strongly supports the conclusion that the statute was intended to reach multiple criminal episodes that were distinct in time, not multiple felony convictions arising out of a single criminal episode." United States v. Petty, 828 F.2d 2, 3 (8th Cir. 1987). The Supreme Court remanded the case to this court for reconsideration in light of the Solicitor General's position, Petty, 481 U.S. at 1034, and this court remanded the case for resentencing. Petty, 828 F.2d at 3.

         The following year, Congress amended the statute to add the requirement that a defendant must have sustained three convictions "on occasions different from one another" to qualify as an armed career criminal. Senator Biden, then the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, explained his view that "a single multi-count conviction could still qualify where the counts related to crimes committed on different occasions, but a robbery of multiple victims simultaneously (as in Petty) would count as only one conviction." 134 Cong. Rec. S17360-02 (Nov. 10, 1988).

         Since then, courts presented with multiple convictions for felonies committed on a single day have striven to determine what is a separate "occasion." We have said that offenses occur on different occasions if they are "separate and distinct criminal episodes that did not result from a continuous course of conduct." United States v. Hamell, 3 F.3d 1187, 1191 (8th Cir. 1993); see also United States v. Deroo, 304 F.3d 824, 828 (8th Cir. 2002). But this rephrasing raises more questions: What is an "episode, " and what is a "continuous course of conduct?"

         We know that the Petty situation-six robberies in a restaurant at the same time-is one episode, a continuous course of conduct, and a single "occasion." We have also concluded that two convictions for drug sales to two customers in the same room seconds apart counted as only one prior conviction under the ACCA, because the offenses were "committed, in essence, simultaneously." United States v. Willoughby, 653 F.3d 738, 742 (8th Cir. 2011). But even when an offender sets out to commit multiple violent felonies on a single day, he can sustain more than one qualifying conviction. In Deroo, we held that three burglaries on one night were distinct occasions where the defendant burglarized three cabins with different owners on different lakes. 304 F.3d at 828. We observed that the burglaries occurred in three separate places and involved three separate victims. Id. United States v. Gray, 85 F.3d 380 (8th Cir. 1996), similarly held that burglaries of two homes located very close to each other within twenty-five minutes were committed on separate occasions. Id. at 381.

         In Hamell, we held that two assaults were committed on different occasions where the defendant stabbed one victim with a knife inside a tavern, and shot at another victim twenty-five minutes later after that victim called the police and approached the defendant's girlfriend. 3 F.3d at 1191. We explained that the "assaults happened at different times and places and had different motivations." Id. United States v. Humphrey, 759 F.3d 909 (8th Cir. 2014), likewise concluded that a defendant's convictions for first-degree assault and first-degree robbery were separate predicate offenses where the two offenses were committed fifteen minutes and three blocks apart against different victims. Id. at 911-12. Synthesizing our decisions, the court in Willoughby observed that important considerations in the inquiry include "the time lapse between offenses, " "the physical distance between ...

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