Monday, June 07, 2010

Vacation of Some ACCA Priors Does Not Guarantee Resentencing

US v. Pettiford: This is an appeal from the district court's granting of Pettiford's 2255 motion, vacating his sentence under the ACCA. At his original sentencing, Pettiford stipulated (as part of the plea agreement) that the ACCA applied to him. A Government notice had identified five prior qualifying convictions. After sentencing, a state court vacated two of those prior convictions. Afterwards, Pettiford filed a 2255 motion seeking to vacate his sentence, arguing that he no longer fell under the ACCA, both because of the vacation of two of the prior convictions and because a third should not be counted as a predicate offense applying the Supreme Court's decision in Shepard (decided after Pettiford was initially sentenced). He thus has only two prior qualifying convictions. The district court granted relief, identifying a fourth prior conviction that now should not qualify as an ACCA predicate following a review "akin to what would occur at a re-sentencing proceeding."

The Government appealed the district court's order and the Fourth Circuit reversed. First, the court concluded that Pettiford could not meet the threshold inquiry for 2255 relief because he could not show that his sentence was "unlawful," as even after two of the priors were vacated by the state court, he still had three prior ACCA predicate convictions. The court rejected the district court's "assumption" that the vacation of any prior offenses entitled Pettiford to relief without further analysis. The district court erred by proceeding on to an analysis of any of the other prior offenses without first holding that the vacation of the two convictions in state court rendered Pettiford's sentence unlawful. Second, the court concluded that any challenges to Pettiford's other prior convictions were waived by failing to raise them at sentencing or on direct appeal. The court found no cause to justify the failure to challenge those convictions, holding that the futility of raising challenges at that time does not constitute cause. Finally, the court held that actual innocence with regards to a sentencing enhancement applies to excuse procedural default only when the defendant is actually innocent of the predicate offense itself, not that it's legal effect has changed due to a change in the law since sentencing.

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