Decided: February 19, 2016
The Fourth Circuit vacated the district court’s ruling and entered judgment in the defendant’s favor.
In 2008, defendant, Richard Adams was indicted on an eight-count indictment alleging that he committed a series of armed robberies. In May of 2009, Adams pleaded guilty pursuant to a written plea agreement to three of the eight counts: (1) robbery in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1951 (Count 2); (2) using and carrying a firearm during a crime of violence in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 924(c) (Count 3); and (3) being a felon in possession of a firearm in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 922(g) (Count 8). The plea agreement contained a statement stating that Adams waived his right to challenge the conviction or sentence under 28 U.S.C. § 2255 unless it was for ineffective assistance of counsel or prosecutorial misconduct. Based on his previous criminal history and total offense level, Adams received a total of 240 months. Adams appealed his conviction and the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed his conviction and sentence in 2011. In August 2012, Adams filed a motion to vacate his 922(g) conviction as a felon in possession of a firearm pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2255. Adams asserted that he was innocent of being a felon in possession of a firearm because none of his prior convictions were felonies after the decision in United States v. Simmons and that his attorneys were ineffective for failing to anticipate the ruling in Simmons. In Simmons, the Fourth Circuit held that “for an offense to be a prior felony under North Carolina’s Structured Sentencing Act as then written, a defendant must have actually faced the possibility of more than a year in prison.” In July 2013, the district court dismissed Adam’s § 2255 motion, determining that Adams waived his Simmons claims in the plea agreement.
The Fourth Circuit concluded that Adam’s claim of actual innocence was outside the scope of the waiver and that Adams was actually innocent of being a felon in possession of a firearm. The Court stated that generally a waiver remains valid in light of subsequent changes in the law. However, if a valid waiver results in the miscarriage of justice then a court will refuse to enforce it. Adams’s showing of actual innocence was sufficient to satisfy the miscarriage of justice requirement so the Court determined that the § 2255 motion fell outside the scope of his waiver. The Court relied on Miller v. United States when determining that Adams’s 922(g) conviction should be vacated. In Miller, a defendant’s § 2255 motion was granted based on his predicate North Carolina convictions no longer being characterized as felonies. The Court concluded in Miller that under Simmons, the felony convictions were no longer felonies and that those defendants were actually innocent of the 922(g) offense.
After determining that Adams’s actual innocence claim was outside the scope of his appeal waiver, the Court reached his § 2255 motion. The Court concluded that Adams failed to meet the three required elements of a 922(g) conviction because he was not a felon at the time of the offense. In Bousley v. United States, the Supreme Court added an additional requirement stating, “in cases where the Government has forgone more serious charges in the course of plea bargaining, petitioner’s showing of actual innocence must also extend to those charges.” However, the Court concluded that Adams did not have to prove actual innocence of all the charges that he was charged with before entering into a plea agreement because the dismissed counts related to different criminal conduct. Finally, the Court refused to reinstate the dismissed charges of the indictment. Since Adams was not a convicted felon at the time of the charged offense, it was not illegal for him to possess a firearm.
Accordingly, the Court vacated the judgment of the district court.
Alicia E. Morris