Monday, February 03, 2020

Plain Error Requiring Reversal of Conviction Where Defendant Not Informed of ACCA at Plea Hearing

US v. Lockhart: Lockhart was charged with being a felon in possession of a firearm and pleaded guilty. During the Rule 11 colloquy, the magistrate judge informed Lockhart that the maximum sentence he faced was ten years in prison. There was no mention of a possible 15-year mandatory minimum sentence under the Armed Career Criminal Act. Sure enough, Lockhart qualified for sentencing under ACCA. Although the probation officer took note of the oversight in the PSR and Lockhart objected to the ACCA classification, he did not object to the failure to be informed of the ACCA statutory changes during his plea or seek to withdraw his plea. After being sentenced to the required 15-year term, Lockhart’s counsel explained that he “went over [ACCA] beforehand” and Lockhart was “fully aware of that.”

On appeal, a panel of the Fourth Circuit reluctantly affirmed Lockhart’s conviction and sentence based on binding Circuit precedent, but Chief Judge Gregory and Judge Floyd both concurred, arguing for that precedent to be reconsidered. The court granted review en banc and changed course, vacating Lockhart’s conviction.

Reviewing for plain error, the court observed that in order to show prejudice Lockhart had to show “a reasonable probability that, but for the error, he would not have entered the plea.” Although Lockhart never objected to the failure of the court to inform him of ACCA and did not move to withdraw his plea, the error “was an obvious and significant mistake” that “undermines the very purpose of Rule 11 that a defendant be informed of the charges against him and the consequences of his guilty plea.” ACCA “completely changed the sentencing calculus” and restricted any potential benefit Lockhart would have gotten from his guilty plea. The court also pointed out that Lockhart’s counsel had represented on appeal that Lockhart would go to trial if his guilty plea was set aside. In addition, while not directly ruling on Lockhart’s challenge under Rehaif, the court held that his “contention of prejudice is strengthened further” by that decision.

Judge Wilkinson concurred in the decision, arguing that the “unusual circumstances here persuade me that the proper remedy is to vacate Lockhart’s guilty plea,” explaining in conclusion that “[i]n short, too much went wrong here.” Judge Wynn also concurred, arguing that the court should have address the issue of how to review Rehaif claims (but not offering any mechanism for doing so). Judge Rushing, joined by Judges Niemeyer, Agee, and Quattlebuam, dissented, arguing that Lockhart had “not satisfied his burden to show that the Rule 11 error or the Rehaif error, separately or combined, affected his substantial rights.”

Congrats to the Defender Office in Western NC on the win!

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