Tuesday, July 26, 2011

E.D. Va. notes possibility of Fourth Circuit abrogation

James v. Stansberry, No. 3:10cv380, 2011 WL 2471034 (E.D. Va. June 20, 2011).

[For other blog posts dealing with South Carolina's blue-light law, click here.]

Procedural history.  In 2002, Petitioner was convicted for possession of a firearm by a felon.  Petitioner was sentenced under the Armed Career Criminal Act ("ACCA").  One of the predicate offenses the sentencing court used to sentence Petitioner under the ACCA was a 1995 South Carolina state conviction for failure to stop for a blue light.  South Carolina's blue-light law makes it unlawful for a driver to continue driving when signaled to stop by a law enforcement vehicle.

Petitioner appealed the Court's characterization of him as an armed career criminal because, he argued, a conviction for violating the blue-light law does not constitute a "violent felony."  The Fourth Circuit affirmed his conviction and determined that a violation of the blue-light law did constitute a "'violent felony'" because the law "generally proscribes conduct that poses the potential for serious injury to another."

Petitioner then filed a § 2255 motion on this ground.  The District of South Carolina denied the motion and the Fourth Circuit dismissed his appeal.

Petitioner then filed a petition pursuant to § 2241 for a writ of habeas corpus in the Eastern District of Virginia.  Petitioner raised the blue-light law issue once more.  This Court dismissed the petition for lack of jurisdiction because the petition was actually an unauthorized, successive motion pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2255.  The Fourth Circuit affirmed dismissal.

On February 25, 2010, the Fourth Circuit handed down its opinion in Rivers.  In Rivers, the Fourth Circuit applied the Supreme Court's reasoning in Chambers v. United States to determine that a violation of South Carolina's blue-light law could never constitute a violent felony under the ACCA.

Accordingly, Petitioner filed another § 2241 petition.

Current § 2241 petition.  Petitioner currently contends that he is entitled to relief under 28 U.S.C. § 2241 because he is "actually innocent" of his ACCA status. As Petitioner correctly asserts, he did not have the benefit of Rivers when he filed his previous petition in Virginia.  Nevertheless, at that time, the Court assumed arguendo that Petitioner was correct regarding whether a violation of the blue-light law constituted a violent felony.  Accordingly, the substantive change presented in Rivers does not alter the Court's previous analysis.

Even though the law changed, Petitioner cannot avail himself of it.   He must proceed under § 2255, but only if he can show that the conduct for which he was convicted is no longer illegal.  That is, actual innocence applies only where the challenge to eligibility stems from factual innocence of the predicate claims, and not from the legal classifcation of the predicate claims.  Petitioner cannot do so.

Possible Abrogation. In footnote four, the Court mentions Sykes v. United States.   This blog previously covered the possibility of Sykes abrogating Fourth Circuit precedent.  The Court declined to address this issue.

[UPDATE:  The Eighth Circuit in Sun Bear v. United States, --- F.3d ----, No. 09-2992, 2011 WL 2683183 (8th Cir. July 12, 2011) (six-to-five en banc opinion), determined that collateral attacks on an application of the career offender guidelines provisions are not cognizable under § 2255.]

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