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A Weekly Summary of Snippets of Justice From the Federal Courts

Vol. 8, No. 15              Covering Cases Published in the Advance Sheets through April 9, 2001

Highlights of this Issue:

Supreme Court Decisions:

Apprendi Watch:

The Ever-Expanding Coverage of the Money Laundering Statutes:

Dont forget to visit the Apprendi  Watch section of our Web site each week - the most current and comprehensive site on the entire Internet for all the latest developments involving that watershed decision. That section now contains summaries of more than 200 Apprendi decisions, links to numerous Apprendi articles and more than 100 Apprendi briefs and motions, and a listing of the 48 cases that the Supreme Court has vacated to date based on Apprendi.

Daniels v. United States, No. 99-9136 (U.S. Sup. Ct. 4/25/2001) (Justice OConnor)

In 1994, the Supreme Court addressed, in Custis v. U.S., 511 U.S. 485 (1994), whether a defendant, facing an enhanced sentence under the Armed Career Criminal Act (18 U.S.C. 924(e)) (ACCA), could collaterally attack the validity of the previous state convictions used to enhance his federal sentence. The Court held that, with the sole exception of convictions obtained in violation of the right to counsel, a Federal defendant has no right to bring such a challenge in his Federal sentencing proceeding. Custis was one of those decisions that seemed to create as much confusion as it resolved. Not only did it leave open a number of issues that have since divided the courts, many courts have commented that Custis is difficult to interpret. (See, e.g., U.S. v. Clark, 203 F.3d 358, 366-67 (5th Cir. 2000)).

In Daniels, and in its companion case, Lackawanna County Dist. Atty. v. Coss (see below), the Court considered whether Federal and State inmates who face additional prison time as repeat offenders may use the Federal courts as a forum to challenge the validity of the earlier convictions that gave rise to the enhanced sentences.

Writing for a slim 5-to-4 majority in both cases, Justice OConnor wrote that the "ease of administration and the interest of promoting the finality of judgments" argued against letting inmates make "an end run around statutes of limitations and other procedural barriers" to reopening judgments that had become final years earlier." (The dissenting Justices were Justices Souter, Stevens, Ginsburg and Breyer.)

In the instant case, the defendant, Earthy Daniels, was convicted of being a felon in possession of a firearm in violation of 18 U.S.C. 922(g)(1). The district court sentenced Daniels as an armed career criminal, under the provisions of the ACCA, which imposes a mandatory minimum sentence of 15 years on anyone who violates 922(g)(1) and who has three previous convictions for a violent felony or a serious drug offense. After his conviction and sentence were affirmed on direct appeal, Daniels filed a motion to vacate, set aside or correct his sentence pursuant to 18 U.S.C. 2255 - arguing that two of the prior convictions used to enhance his sentence were unconstitutional because they were based on guilty pleas that were not knowing and voluntary, and because one of them was also the product of ineffective assistance of counsel.

The district court denied the motion; and the Ninth Circuit affirmed, in a decision reported at 195 F.3d 501 (1999). Daniels appealed to the Supreme Court, which granted certiorari "because the Courts of Appeal are divided as to whether Custis bars relief under 2255 as well as in federal sentencing proceedings."

The specific question addressed by the Court was "whether, after the sentencing proceeding has concluded, the individual who was sentenced may challenge his federal sentence through a motion under 28 U.S.C. 2255 . . . on the grounds that his prior convictions were unconstitutionally obtained."

In affirming the Ninth Circuits decision, the majority held that "[t]hese vehicles for review . . . are not available indefinitely and without limitation." The majority reasoned that "a defendant generally has ample opportunity to obtain constitutional review of a state conviction. . . . But once the door to such review has been closed, . . . the conviction becomes final and the defendant is not entitled to another bite at the apple simply because that conviction is later used to enhance another sentence."

In response, Justice Souter, who wrote one of the dissenting opinions, criticized the majoritys decision as unfair because it created a "one-way street." "Why," he pointedly asked, "should a prisoner like Daniels suddenly be barred from returning to challenge the validity of a conviction, when the Government is free to reach back to it to impose extended imprisonment under a sentence enhancement law unheard of at the time of the earlier convictions (1978 and 1981 in this case)? Daniels could not have been expected in 1978 to anticipate the federal enhancement statute enacted in 1984; and even if he had been blessed with statutory clairvoyance, the practice in 1978 would have told him he could challenge the convictions when and if the Government sought to rely on them under the future enhancement statute."

He concluded by stating that the majoritys decision was "devoid of support in either statutory language or congressional intention." Justice Breyer, dissenting separately, bluntly called upon the Court to reconsider its decision in Custis.

Lackawanna County Dist. Atty. v. Coss, No. 99-1884 (U.S. Sup. Ct. 4/25/2001) (Justice OConnor)

This is the companion case to Daniels v. U.S. (see above). In both cases, the Court was faced with the question of whether Federal postconviction relief is available when a prisoner challenges a current sentence on the ground that it was improperly enhanced based on an allegedly unconstitutional prior conviction for which the petitioner is no longer in custody. While Daniels dealt with the right of Federal inmates to collaterally attack the validity of their prior convictions pursuant to motions filed under 28 U.S.C. 2255, the instant case dealt with the right of State prisoners to seek similar relief under 28 U.S.C. 2254.

As a starting point in both cases, the Court looked to its decision in Custis v. U.S., 511 U.S. 485 (1994), where it held that, with the sole exception of convictions obtained in violation of the right to counsel, a defendant has no right to challenge, in his Federal sentencing proceeding, the validity of prior convictions used to enhance his current sentence. Custis left open whether such challenges may be brought after the sentencing proceeding has concluded; and, since Custis was decided, at least eight Circuits have held that pursuant to a Federal habeas corpus proceeding, a district court may reopen and reduce a federal sentence, once a defendant has, in state court, successfully attacked a prior state conviction that was previously used in enhancing his Federal sentence. See U.S. v. Pettiford, 101 F.3d 199, 201 (1st Cir. 1996); Young v. Vaughn, 83 F.3d 72 (3rd Cir. 1996); U.S. v. Bacon, 94 F.3d 158, 162 n. 3 (4th Cir. 1996); U.S. v. Nichols, 30 F.3d 35, 36 (5th Cir. 1994) and U.S. v. Clark, 203 F.3d 358 (5th Cir. 2000); U.S. v. Rogers, 45 F.3d 1141, 1143 (7th Cir. 1995); Clawson v. U.S., 52 F.3d 806, 807 (9th Cir. 1995); U.S. v. Cox, 83 F.3d 336, 339 (10th Cir. 1996); and U.S. v. Walker, 198 F.3d 811, 814 (11th Cir. 1999).

In the instant case, the respondent, Edward Coss, was convicted in 1990 in a Pennsylvania state court of aggravated assault. At his sentencing, he challenged two assault entries on his criminal record for which he had been convicted in 1986. Although he did not challenge those two related convictions on direct appeal, he did challenge them in 1987 under the Pennsylvania Post Conviction Relief Act, arguing that his trial attorney had been constitutionally ineffective. The State court appointed counsel for Coss; and the district attorney filed an answer to his petition - but 14 years later the court still had not rendered a decision on the merits of his petition.

In 1994, Coss filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus under 28 U.S.C. 2254 in the district court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania, arguing that his current sentence (for his 1990 conviction) had been improperly enhanced because the state court judge had considered his allegedly unconstitutional 1986 convictions. Over the objections of the State, the district court concluded that it had jurisdiction under 2254 to hear the case, although it ultimately concluded that Coss had not been prejudiced by his counsels ineffectiveness. On appeal, the Third Circuit, sitting en banc, reversed. It found that Coss had received ineffective assistance of counsel during his 1986 trial, and that there was "a reasonable probability" that but for the ineffective assistance, Coss "would not have been found guilty of assault." Coss v. Lackawanna County Dist. Atty., 204 F.3d 453, 462 (3rd Cir. 2000) (En Banc). The Third Circuit then directed the State to either retry Coss for the 1986 assault or to resentence him for the 1990 assault without consideration of the 1986 convictions.

The Supreme Court granted certiorari "to consider the threshold question that [both] the District Court and the Court of Appeals resolved in Coss favor: whether 2254 provides a remedy where a current sentence was enhanced on the basis of an allegedly unconstitutional prior conviction for which the sentence has fully expired."

Reiterating the message it sent in Daniels that habeas review vehicles "are not available indefinitely and without limitation," the Court held in the instant case that "once a state conviction is no longer open to direct or collateral attack in its own right because the defendant failed to pursue those remedies while they were available (or because the defendant did so unsuccessfully), the conviction may be regarded as conclusively valid. If that conviction is later used to enhance a criminal sentence, the defendant generally may not challenge the enhanced sentence through a petition under 2254 on the ground that the prior conviction was unconstitutionally obtained."

Once again Justices Souter, Stevens, Ginsburg and Breyer dissented - for the same reasons that they dissented in Daniels - but for an additional reason that related to the particular facts of the instant case. Addressing Justice OConnors premise (set forth in Daniels - but not repeated in the instant case) that defendants generally have "ample opportunity to obtain constitutional review of a state conviction," Justice Souter wrote that "[a]lthough state law theoretically provided a procedure for respondent Coss to challenge his 1986 convictions, the provision has proven to be a mirage; Cosss challenge was filed and answered by the District Attorney, only to disappear in the state court system for almost 14 years, so far."

Both of these rulings take on added significance since the repeat-offender laws have become an increasingly popular means of enhancing sentences. As Justice Souter noted in his dissent in Daniels, the real problem is that many defendants may have chosen not to attack the validity of prior convictions at the time they were imposed because "the practice" in effect at that time would have told them that they could always "challenge the convictions when and if the Government sought to rely on them under [some] future enhancement statute."

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