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Fourth Circuit: 9-Year Increase in Guidelines Range Due to Misclassification as Career Offender Warrants § 2241 Petition to Be Heard on Merits When § 2255 Relief Unavailable

by David Reutter

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit ruled that where an erroneous career offender designation raises a defendant’s mandatory prison term, the resulting sentence is fundamentally defective. 

The Court further ruled that when a 28 U.S.C. § 2255 petition is inadequate and ineffective to test the legality of such a situation, a 28 U.S.C. § 2241 petition should be allowed to be heard on the merits.

Before the Court was the appeal of Stoney Lester, who pleaded guilty in 2004 to a federal offense of selling crack cocaine to a government informant. He was designated as a career offender under the then-mandatory Sentencing Guidelines and received a 22-year sentence. Later precedent changed the law, and Lester’s sentence would have been up to 11 years shorter under the change. He sought habeas relief, but the district court denied his petition.

On appeal, the Fourth Circuit noted that Lester was subjected to a career offender sentencing enhancement for a prior “crime of violence,” namely his 1990 Georgia conviction for a walkaway escape. It has since been held that such offense is not a crime of violence. United States v. Lee, 586 F.3d 859 (11th Cir. 2009). Additionally, the Supreme Court stripped the Sentencing Guidelines of legal force and made them purely advisory. United States v. Booker, 543 U.S. 220 (2005).

Because Lester could not bring a petition under § 2255 due to a previous unsuccessful attempt, he filed under § 2241, a catch-all habeas statute, arguing it was proper under § 2255’s “savings clause.” The Fourth Circuit agreed with that argument. Citing In Re Jones, 226 F.3d 328 (4th Cir. 2000), the Court explained the savings clause applies when “the substantive law changed such that conduct of which the prisoner was convicted is deemed not to be criminal.” The Fourth Circuit extended the savings clause in United Stated v. Wheeler, 886 F.3d 415 (4th Cir. 2018), to allow challenges to defective sentences.

Wheeler provides that a petitioner must meet four conditions: (1) at the time of sentencing, settled law of this circuit or the Supreme Court established the legality of the sentence; (2) subsequent to the prisoner’s direct appeal and first § 2255 motion, the aforementioned settled substantive law changed and was deemed to apply retroactively on collateral review; (3) the prisoner is unable to meet the gatekeeping provisions of § 2255(h)(2) for second or successive motions; and (4) due to this retroactive change, the sentence now presents an error sufficiently grave to be deemed a fundamental defect.

There was no dispute that Lester met the first three prongs. As to the fourth prong, the Court concluded that a miscalculation that increased the mandatory Guidelines range from a maximum of 151 to a minimum of 262 months satisfies the fourth prong of Wheeler. The Court agreed that Lester was subject to an erroneous increase to his mandatory sentencing range. His sentence was “more than nine years longer than the maximum sentence that the court rightfully had discretion to order,” wrote the Fourth Circuit. Under Wheeler, “this sentence is fundamentally defective,” concluded the Court.

Thus, the Court held that § 2255 “is inadequate and ineffective to test the legality of his detention and that his petition under 28 U.S.C. § 2241 should be heard on the merits.” Accordingly, the Court vacated the judgment of the district court and remanded the case for further proceedings consistent with its opinion. See: Lester v. Flournoy, 909 F.3d. 708 (4th Cir. 2018). 

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Related legal case

Lester v. Flournoy



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