WASHINGTON, D.C. – Standing on the steps outside the nation’s highest court, Spokane attorney Dan Johnson could finally breathe a sigh of relief.
“I think I’ll be able to sleep now,” he said.
On a windy Monday in the nation’s capital, in the first arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013, Johnson made the case that Matthew Descamps, a former Colville resident serving nearly 22 years in prison, is not an “armed career criminal.”
Descamps has a criminal record that stretches back to the 1970s and ends with a 2005 shooting in Stevens County. But not all of his record should have been considered when he was sentenced as a repeat violent offender by U.S. District Court Judge Fred Van Sickle, Johnson argued.
The appeal for a shorter sentence hinges on a California burglary conviction against Descamps more than 30 years ago and was one of the crimes the judge used to justify the longer sentence. Johnson argued the California definition of burglary doesn’t fit because it isn’t necessarily violent.
Assistant U.S. Solicitor General Benjamin Horwich countered that the 22-year sentence was justified. Descamps pleaded guilty to the burglary in 1978, he said, and trial judges need the ability to categorize crimes to “assure greater sentencing equity” across the country.
Appeals courts are too mired in distinctions of each state’s law, and should instead focus “on the conduct that was necessarily admitted,” Horwich added.
District courts differ on how much leeway a trial judge has to interpret previous convictions during sentencing, and a decision in Descamps’ case could settle that issue.
The opinion also could affect hundreds of inmates sentenced as armed career criminals under federal law. The United States Sentencing Commission said 529 inmates had that designation in 2010, the most recent year for statistics.
It could also have implications in deportation cases.
“It’s an interesting area of the law,” Johnson said.
In questioning Horwich, Justice Samuel Alito said the process of determining which state crimes qualify for federal sentencing enhancements had become “extremely complicated, and occasionally produces results that seem to make no sense whatsoever.”
But Justice Stephen Breyer challenged Johnson’s argument, saying the California law is designed to target crimes where the threat of violence is real.
Johnson said later it’s difficult to read anything into a justice’s comments. “You never know what they’re up to,” he said.
Monday’s arguments ended what he called a “whirlwind four months” after the Supreme Court scheduled the argument. He spent Friday at nearby Georgetown University Law Center practicing with professors and students, which he said helped organize his thoughts and keep his answers brief. Johnson and Descamps will now play the waiting game. A decision in the case will be handed down by the end of June.
For some attorneys, appearing before the U.S. Supreme Court represents the highlight of a career. But Johnson is hopeful he’ll stand at the podium again with a case involving mail fraud and illegal immigration that was decided by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in April. Said Johnson, “We’ll see if lightning hits twice.”