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United States v. Pettis

United States District Court, D. Minnesota

May 20, 2019

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Plaintiff,
v.
CHARLES LYNCH PETTIS, Defendant.

          Jeffrey S. Paulsen, UNITED STATES ATTORNEY'S OFFICE, for plaintiff.

          Robert H. Meyers, OFFICE OF THE FEDERAL DEFENDER, for defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          Patrick J. Schiltz United States District Judge

         In September 2016, the Court sentenced defendant Charles Lynch Pettis to 120 months' imprisonment for being a felon in possession of a firearm. ECF No. 117. At sentencing, the Court rejected the government's argument that Pettis's three prior convictions for simple robbery under Minn. Stat. § 609.24 and two prior convictions for first-degree aggravated robbery under Minn. Stat. § 609.245, subd. 1 were “violent felonies” for the purposes of the Armed Career Criminal Act (“ACCA”), 18 U.S.C. § 924(e)(1). See United States v. Pettis, No. 15-CR-0233 (PJS/FLN), 2016 WL 5107035, at *2-6 (D. Minn. Sept. 19, 2016).[1] On appeal, the Eighth Circuit held that Pettis's convictions were predicate offenses under the ACCA, vacated his sentence, and remanded the case for resentencing. United States v. Pettis, 888 F.3d 962 (8th Cir. 2018).

         A revised presentence report (“PSR”) was prepared and, reflecting the Eighth Circuit's decision, the PSR identified all five convictions as violent felonies for purposes of the ACCA. Pettis objected, arguing that-notwithstanding the Eighth Circuit's holding to the contrary-none of these convictions qualify as predicates under the ACCA. On May 17, 2019, the Court rejected Pettis's argument, found that he was an armed career criminal, and sentenced him to 188 months' imprisonment. Because Pettis's argument regarding the ACCA is likely to be raised by other defendants in this District, the Court issues this memorandum to explain the basis for its ruling.

         A crime is a violent felony under the “force” (or “elements”) clause of the ACCA if the crime “has as an element the use, attempted use, or threatened use of physical force against the person of another.” 18 U.S.C. § 924(e)(2)(B)(i). In Curtis Johnson v. United States, the Supreme Court held that “physical force” means “force capable of causing physical pain or injury to another person.” 559 U.S. 133, 140 (2010).

         In Minnesota, a defendant commits simple robbery if he “takes personal property from the person or in the presence of another and uses or threatens the imminent use of force against any person to overcome the person's resistance or powers of resistance to, or to compel acquiescence in, the taking or carrying away of the property . . . .” Minn. Stat. § 609.24. In other words, it is impossible for anyone to be convicted of simple robbery in Minnesota unless he uses or threatens to use “force.”

         The Eighth Circuit has thoroughly reviewed Minnesota law and held on multiple occasions-including in this very case-that the type of “force” required by the Minnesota simple-robbery statute is (in the words of Curtis Johnson) “force capable of causing physical pain or injury to another person.” Thus, according to the Eighth Circuit, anyone convicted of simple robbery in Minnesota has committed a violent felony under the force clause of the ACCA (or a “crime of violence” under the identical force clause of the United States Sentencing Guidelines, U.S.S.G. § 4B1.2(a)(1)). See, e.g., United States v. Henderson, 744 Fed.Appx. 329, 330 (8th Cir. 2018); United States v. Bjerke, 744 Fed.Appx. 319, 322 (8th Cir. 2018); United States v. Pettis, 888 F.3d 962 (8th Cir. 2018); United States v. Libby, 880 F.3d 1011 (8th Cir. 2018).

         That would seem to be the end of the matter. Pettis argues, however, that the recent decision of the United States Supreme Court in Stokeling v. United States, 139 S.Ct. 544 (2019), “adds new principles into the legal firmament” (ECF No. 152 at 3)- and that, under these “new principles, ” simple robbery in Minnesota is not a violent felony under the ACCA.

         In Stokeling, the Supreme Court considered a Florida robbery statute that (much like the Minnesota simple-robbery statute) has as an element the use of force sufficient to overcome a victim's resistance. The question presented was whether robbery in Florida categorically qualifies as a violent felony under the ACCA. The Supreme Court held that it did because “robbery that must overpower a victim's will-even a feeble or weak-willed victim-necessarily involves a physical confrontation and struggle.” Stokeling, 139 S.Ct. at 553.

         At first glance, then, Pettis's argument that Stokeling helps him seems implausible. The only real impact that Stokeling had on the law was to clarify-and (at least arguably) to lower-the type of force that qualifies as “physical force” under the ACCA. (The dissenting justices accused the majority of holding that “no more than minimal force” is necessary. Id. at 565 (Sotomayor, J., dissenting)). It seems hard to believe that a Supreme Court opinion that lowered the threshold for what qualifies as “physical force” under the ACCA would somehow cause the Eighth Circuit to revisit its holdings that the type of force required by the Minnesota simple-robbery statute is sufficient to qualify as “physical force” under the ACCA.

         Pettis, however, points to a couple of sentences that appear at the end of Stokeling, where the Supreme Court describes the Florida robbery statute. In those sentences, the Supreme Court explains that no one can be convicted of robbery in Florida unless he has used force that is sufficient to overcome resistance by a victim. To “illustrate” this principal, the Supreme Court describes a couple of Florida cases. In one, a Florida state court held that “a defendant who grabs the victim's fingers and peels them back to steal money commits robbery in Florida.” Id. at 555 (majority opinion). In the other, a Florida state court held that “a defendant who merely snatches money from the victim's hand and runs away has not committed robbery.” Id.

         Pettis asserts that Stokeling thereby “introduced an as-yet unexplored notion” in the law-the notion being that “sudden snatch-and-flee robbery would fail to qualify under the ACCA force clause.” ECF No. 154 at 2. But there is nothing new or novel about this notion. In order to commit robbery in Florida, the defendant must not just use any kind of force, but force sufficient to overcome the victim's resistance. Snatching money out of the victim's hand and running away does not involve the use of such force, so it is not robbery.

         More importantly, this notion does not help Pettis. Just as someone who merely snatches property and flees cannot be convicted of robbery in Florida, such a person also cannot be convicted of robbery in Minnesota. Again, committing simple robbery under Minnesota law requires that a defendant “use” or “threaten[] the imminent use” of force to “overcome the person's resistance” or “to compel [his or her] acquiescence[.]” See Minn. Stat. § 609.24. Thus, as the commentary to the simple- robbery statute explains, a defendant who “snatches a purse from the hand of a lady” commits larceny. But if the lady “hangs on and he uses force to overcome her resistance, it is robbery.” The Minnesota Supreme Court likewise distinguishes between robbery and lesser offenses by focusing on the force involved in ...


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