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!

No Right to Jury Trial in VA Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court, So Nothing to Waive

US v. Locke: Locke was charged with possession of a firearm after having been convicted of a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence (“MCDV”). There was no dispute that he possessed a gun or that he did so after having been convicted in Virginia of assault and battery against a household member. However, Locke argued that conviction could not count as a MCDV because of a provision that exempted convictions where the defendant had been “entitled to a jury trial” and did not “knowingly and intelligently waive” that right. Locke argued that he made no such waiver. The district court rejected Locke’s argument and he was convicted at trial.

A divided Fourth Circuit affirmed Locke’s conviction. The court explained that in the Virginia Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court (“JDR”) where Locke was prosecuted he did not have a right to a trial by jury. Since there was no such right, there was nothing for Locke to waive and he couldn’t take advantage of the exemption to the MCDV definition. While Locke would have had such a right had he taken an appeal from his conviction to the circuit court, since he did not he never had such a right. The court went on to hold, applying the “presumption of regularity” of guilty pleas that Locke could not demonstrate any infirmity in his state conviction anyway.

Judge Berger (sitting by designation from SDWV) dissented. She argued that Virginia generally provided a right to a jury trial for persons like Locke who were charged with a Class A misdemeanor and that state courts had upheld the JDR system against constitutionally challenges only because the appeal to the circuit court maintained the defendant’s right to trial. Thus, Locke did have a right to a jury trial that he never waived.