Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Failure to Inform Defendant of Possible ACCA Impact Requires Vacation of Guilty Plea

US v. Hairston: Hairston was charged with 31 separate offenses, including 14 felon-in-possession charges and 8 924(c) charges. He entered into a plea agreement by which he pleaded guilty to two of the 924(c) charges, with the other six dismissed, and all the other offenses. The parties agreed that with the application of the 924(c) mandatory sentences, he was subject to a term of at least 30 years in prison. However, prior to sentencing it was discovered that Hairston qualified as an Armed Career Criminal, which subjected him to a term of at least 45 years in prison (30 years on the 924(c) charges plus 15 for any of the felon-in-possession charges). At sentencing, the Government admitted that the parties "overlooked" the possibility of the ACCA applying. Hairston himself objected to a 45-year sentence and asked to withdraw his plea. The district court denied the motion, noting that Hairston was never promised he would only receive a 30-year sentence and that his Guideline range on the various offenses, without taking the ACCA into account, was 168-210 months. Therefore, any confusion about the potential sentence was "not significant."

On appeal, the Fourth Circuit vacated and remanded. Hairston argued that the district court failed in not notifying him at the plea hearing that he could be subject to a 15-year term on the felon-in-possession charges. The Government conceded the error. The Fourth Circuit agreed, noting that while Rule 11 does not require courts to inform defendants of what Guideline range they might face, it does require notification of any applicable statutory ranges. Furthermore, the error was not harmless. Without the ACCA enhancement, the district court could have imposed a minimal non-Guideline sentence on the counts without mandatory minimum sentences, effectively sentencing Hairston to only(!) 30 years in prison. For a remedy, the Fourth Circuit vacated Hairston's guilty plea with respect to all counts, not just the felon-in-possession counts, as requested by the Government.

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