Wednesday, July 31, 2019

2255 Relief for ACCA Sentence Based on Old GA Burglary, NC Drug Charges

US v. Cornette: Cornette was convicted of being a felon in possession of a firearm and sentenced under the provisions of the Armed Career Criminal Act. Among the prior convictions that provided a basis for his ACCA designation was a 1976 conviction in Georgia for burglary and a 1986 North Carolina conviction for possession with intent to deliver a controlled substance. Cornette was sentenced to 220 months. After Johnson, he filed a 2255 motion arguing that those two prior convictions no longer served as ACCA predicates. The district court denied the motion.

On appeal the Fourth Circuit reversed the denial of Cornette’s 2255 motion. To begin, it rejected the Government’s arguments on a pair of procedural issues. First, the court rejected the Government’s argument that Cornette couldn’t prove his ACCA designation came about because of the application of the now-unconstitutional residual clause, restating a holding from a prior case that if there’s any doubt as to whether the residual clause applied the benefit of the doubt went to the defendant. Second, the court held that the waiver Cornette agreed to as part of his guilty plea did not preclude his 2255 challenge because if he no longer qualified under ACCA the district court lacked the authority to impose a sentence greater than 120 months. Then the court examined each of the two priors and agreed with Cornette that they no longer qualified as ACCA predicates. As to the Georgia burglary, the court held that the statute was not divisible and was broader than the generic definition of burglary (even after Stitt), based largely on the fact that the Georgia Supreme Court didn’t narrow the definition of offense until just after Cornette was convicted. As to the North Carolina drug offense, the court held that under Simmons Cornette was not subject to a potential sentence of greater than 10 years in prison and therefore it could not be an ACCA predicate.

Congrats to the Defender office in WD NC on the win!

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