Miller v. United States, No. 13-6254

Decided: August 21, 2013

The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the dismissal of defendant’s 28 U.S.C. § 2255 motion to vacate his conviction for violating 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1) – possession of a firearm by a convicted felon.

In 2008, Gordon Lee Miller (“Miller”) was convicted for a single count of possession of a firearm by a convicted felon, violating 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1). He was charged with possessing a firearm after having been previously convicted of one or more crimes punishable by imprisonment for a term exceeding one year. His previous convictions included felony possession of cocaine and threatening a court officer, both of which had sentences of six to eight months in prison. At the time of trial, under then valid precedent, Miller’s convictions were considered to be “punishable by imprisonment for a term exceeding one year.” In 2012, Miller filed a motion to vacate his conviction, arguing that in light of new precedent, his previous convictions did not constitute crimes “punishable by imprisonment for a term exceeding one year” and, therefore, he did not have any qualifying predicate convictions for the firearm offense.

The Fourth Circuit first explained the line of precedent on which Miller relied. In 2010, the Supreme Court in Carachuri held that an “aggravated felony” must be determined by looking at the defendant’s actual conviction and not the offense for which he could have possibly been convicted based on his conduct. Prior to Carachuri, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals considered the maximum aggravated sentence that could be imposed for that crime upon a defendant with the worst possible criminal history. After Carachuri, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals reconsidered its decision in Simmons. The court vacated Simmon’s sentence in light of Carachuri. It held that a prior conviction under North Carolina law is punishable by more than one year of imprisonment only if the defendant’s conviction, based on his individual characteristics and criminal history, allowed for such a sentence. Thus, Simmons announced a new rule affecting 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1). Prior to Simmons, the individual defendant’s actual criminal record did not matter; the conviction was based on a hypothetical defendant. After Simmons, the defendant’s actual criminal record became the only basis for a firearms possession conviction.  However, in this case, the court declined to vacate the defendant’s conviction. The court found that Carachuri announced a procedural rule that was not retroactive on collateral view. Therefore, the issue in the case was whether Simmons announced a new rule that applied retroactively and thereby entitled Miller to relief.

In Simmons, the Fourth Circuit applied Carachuri to create a new substantive rule. This did not mean that Carachuri itself announced a new rule of substantive criminal law. However, the court applied Carachuri in such a way as to announce a new substantive rule that is retroactively applicable. In Powell, the Fourth Circuit court determined that Carachuri announced a procedural rule that was not retroactively applicable on collateral review. However, the retroactivity of Simmons was irrelevant to Powell because Powell’s § 2255 petition could be sustained only by a retroactive Supreme Court decision. The court had to determine whether Carachuri was retroactive to decide if the motion filed by Powell was timely. In that context, Carachuri looks only at whether a certain procedure was followed in obtaining a prior conviction. Therefore, Powell does not necessarily mean that Simmons did not announce a substantive rule.  In sum, even though Powell determined that Carachuri is a procedural rule that is not retroactive, this does not mean that Simmons, in applying Carachuri, did not announce a substantive rule that is retroactive. Because Simmons did announce a new substantive rule that applies retroactively, the court vacated Miller’s conviction.

Full Opinion

– Sarah Bishop

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