Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Failure to Recogzie Justification Defense to 922(g) Charge is Ineffective Assistance of Counsel

US v. Mooney: Mooney was a convicted felon. One night, after returning home from work at a nearby bar in Huntington, West Virginia Mooney found himself in a room with his ex-wife (with whom he shared the home), who was putting a gun to his head. Mooney's ex had (as the court put it) "a propensity to brandish and shoot guns at the men in her life," having previously shot another husband, shot at a boyfriend, and brandished a gun at Mooney on a prior occasion. Mooney took the gun away from his ex and called his boss at the bar to let him know he was bringing the gun to the bar in order to turn it in to the police. Mooney then tried twice to call 911, but his ex disconnected the calls. As he left the house, she ripped his shirt off and yelled at him that he was going to jail. Mooney escaped and made it to the bar. The police arrived shortly thereafter. Mooney turned the gun over to the police and was arrested.

Mooney was charged with being a felon in possession of a firearm. He pleaded guilty, after his attorney told him that there was no defense to his possession of the gun, even though he "did the right thing." At sentencing, Mooney moved to withdraw his plea, but the district court denied his motion after his attorney asserted (and the court agreed) that there was no justification defense available. Mooney was sentenced to 180 months in prison. His conviction and sentence were affirmed on appeal. Mooney they filed a habeas petition alleging ineffective assistance of counsel. The district court denied that petition, holding that Mooney could not claim justification for the offense once he carried the gun outside the home.

On appeal, the Fourth Circuit reversed. In doing so, it recognized a fact pattern that would support a justification defense for a felon-in-possession charge. The court held that Mooney's counsel was ineffective because the Fourth Circuit law at the time of Mooney's plea was clear that justification was, in theory, available as a defense in such cases and had been specifically recognized by other courts. The court also held that Mooney was prejudiced by counsel's deficient performance, noting that it was clear Mooney would not have pleaded guilty had he been properly informed of the law and that, as presented in the habeas proceeding, Mooney would be entitled to present the justification defense to a jury.

Mooney's conviction was vacated, and the case remanded to allow Mooney to withdraw his guilty plea.

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