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Court Extends McQuiggin Actual Innocence Exception to Defaulted Legal Claim, Vacates § 924(c) Conviction

by Dale Chappell

The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California held in a collateral proceeding on January 2, 2019, that McQuiggin’s actual innocence exception applies to a legal claim that was procedurally defaulted, vacating a conviction under 18 U.S.C. § 924(c) that carries a mandatory 30-year consecutive sentence.

David Garcia was convicted of using explosives to damage property under 18 U.S.C. § 844(i) and also convicted of possession of explosives in furtherance of a crime of violence under 18 U.S.C. § 924(c). The judge instructed the jury that § 844(i) was a “crime of violence” for purposes of § 924(c). Garcia was sentenced to five years in prison for the property damage convictions, plus a mandatory consecutive 30-year sentence for the § 924(c) conviction.

When Garcia appealed, his lawyer challenged only the interstate commerce element of § 844(i) and never mentioned that § 924(c) requires the use of violent force against the “property of another,” which could not have applied since Garcia blew up his own property.

Garcia’s conviction was affirmed by the Court of Appeals.

In a motion to vacate his § 924(c) conviction under 28 U.S.C. § 2255, Garcia argued that § 924(c) requires the use of violence against someone else’s property, and because he damaged his own property with explosives, he could not have been properly convicted under § 924(c).

The magistrate judge, in her Report and Recommendation (“R&R”), agreed with Garcia that he could not have been convicted under § 924(c), but she wrote that he “procedurally defaulted” the claim because he could have and should have raised it on appeal. The magistrate recommended the Court deny Garcia’s motion.

In his objections to the R&R, Garcia argued that because he was “actually innocent” of the § 924(c) conviction, he should be excused from the procedural default doctrine. The district judge agreed with Garcia and granted his motion, vacating his § 924(c) conviction.

Typically, claims that could’ve been raised on appeal can’t be raised under § 2255. This is because § 2255 “may not do service for an appeal.” United States v. Grady, 456 U.S. 152 (1982). This is called the “procedural default doctrine.” An exception to this rule is when a prisoner shows “cause” for not bringing the claim on appeal, and “prejudice” would result if the claim were not heard.

In McQuiggin v. Perkins, 569 U.S. 383 (2013), the Supreme Court reiterated that actual innocence of a crime is the perfect example of “cause and prejudice” to allow the claim to be heard on collateral review, avoiding procedural default.

The district judge in Garcia’s case took a unique position and applied McQuiggin’s actual innocence exception to a legal claim that could have been raised on appeal but was simply ignored. McQuiggin involves allowing a later actual innocence claim “in light of new evidence.” However, Garcia did not have new evidence of his innocence. In fact, his claim existed throughout the entire criminal proceedings: the judge’s erroneous jury instruction that § 844(i) was a crime of violence for purposes of § 924(c).

The judge’s focus, though, was on Garcia’s actual innocence in granting his motion. And the fact that his claim could have been raised earlier was excused based on the reasoning in McQuiggin.

Accordingly, the Court granted Garcia’s § 2255 motion and vacated his § 924(c) conviction and consecutive 30-year sentence. See: United States v. Garcia, 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 1207 (E.D. Cal. 2019).

Writer’s note: While this case is a district court decision that does not bind any other judge or court, it is encouraging and persuasive that actual innocence should carry more weight than the judicially-created procedural default doctrine. An appeal is still likely, however. The Government did move to stay the judgment to allow for it to appeal, but the district court criticized the Government for not objecting earlier and denied the Government’s motion. Now, the Government must wait until the new judgment is entered and then appeal from that. See: Haynes v. United States, 873 F.3d 954 (7th Cir. 2017) (§ 2255 not “final” for appeal by any party until relief granted and new judgment entered) (collecting cases). This will be a case to watch. 

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