Thursday, December 30, 2010

Watson's New Rule Applies Retroactively

US v. Thomas: Thomas was convicted of methamphetamine possession and possession of a firearm in connection with a drug trafficking offense. He received a total sentence of 90 months in prison. He did not appeal. After Thomas was sentenced, the Supreme Court handed down the Watson decision, in which it held that a person doesn't "use" a firearm under the statute if he receives it in trade for drugs. Thomas filed a pro se 2255 motion seeking to vacate his sentence. Although it was filed after the normal 1-year statute of limitations had run, it was filed within one year of Watson being decided. The district court dismissed Thomas's motion, holding that Watson did not announce a new rule of constitutional law and, at any rate, was not retroactive.

On appeal, the Fourth Circuit disagreed and overruled the district court's decision. The Government conceded that Watson announced a new rule and was retroactive. However, it argued that Thomas defaulted on the issue by not raising it on direct appeal. Turning first to the impact of Watson, the court agreed with other circuits that it may determine retroactivity, rather than waiting for the Supreme Court to do so. It then concluded that Watson announced a new rule and that rule applied retroactively, thus obliterating the district court's basis for denying Thomas's motion. However, because that dismissal came before the Government responded to the motion, and due to some ambiguity in the motion itself, the court declined to decide the waiver issue raised by the Government and simply remanded the case to the district court for further proceedings.

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