U.S. v. BURLESON, No. 15-6589

Decided: March 8, 2016

The Fourth Circuit reversed, vacated, and remanded the district court’s ruling.

Appellant Arnold Paul Burleson was convicted of several North Carolina felony offenses between 1964 and 1985 and, based on these convictions, pled guilty in 2013 to possession of a firearm by a convicted felon under 18 U.S.C. § 922(g) and as an armed career criminal under 924(e) which mandates a minimum sentence of fifteen years. Burleson now argues he is actually innocent of the 922(g) offense because the predicate felony conviction is excluded from 922(g).

This Court agrees. In order to be a felon under 922(g), a defendant must have an underlying felony conviction on his record, which is defined as “a crime punishable by imprisonment for a term exceeding one year”. Burleson plead guilty to the 922(g) offense because the presentence investigation report indicated that he had five such convictions on his record. The court therefore imposed the fifteen-year minimum sentence. Several months later, Burleson filed a 28 U.S.C §2255 motion asserting he was innocent of the 922(g) offense because his civil rights had been restored long before his 2012 arrest. The claim rests on 921(a)(20) which excludes from the definition of a felony conviction “any conviction for which a person has had civil rights restored, unless such restoration of civil rights expressly provides that a person may not ship, transport, possess, or receive firearms.” Burleson argues his civil rights were fully restored almost two decades before the 2012 arrest upon his unconditional discharge from parole and the expiration of a five-year waiting period. The government does not dispute this, but argues the “unless” clause is triggered by a 1995 statute that prohibits all people with felony convictions from possessing firearms.

This case turns on the interpretation of § 921(a)(20) and whether the “unless clause” requires looking to state firearm restrictions in effect at the time Burleson’s civil rights were restored or to those in effect when Burleson was arrested on the 922(g) charge. The district court adopted a magistrate judge’s recommendation that a court should consider state firearm restrictions in effect at the time of the 922(g) arrest. The Fourth Circuit disagrees by highlighting the key statutory phrase “unless such…restoration…expressly provides” for a firearm restriction. “Such restoration” plainly refers back to the restoration of civil rights discussed in the previous clause. Congress could have, but did not, utilize the clause “unless current state law expressly provides” for a firearm restriction. The Courts of Appeals for the Fifth, Eighth, Ninth, and Tenth Circuits have considered the same question and mirrored our conclusion that restrictions in effect at the time of restoration are to be used.

Because Burleson’s civil rights were restored from his previous offenses, and because the unless clause does not apply, Burleson legally and factually could not have committed a 922(g) offense because he did not, at the time of the purported offense, have a predicate felony conviction on his record.

Accordingly, the Court reversed, vacated, and remanded the district court’s ruling.

Full Opinion

Whitney Kamerzel

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