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Fourth Circuit: Magistrate’s Failure to Warn of ACCA Enhancement Was Plain Error

by Douglas Ankney

On rehearing en banc, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit vacated the conviction of Jesmene Lockhart because the magistrate judge’s failure to warn Lockhart that his guilty plea exposed him to sentencing enhancement under the Armed Career Criminal Act, 18 U.S.C. § 924(e) (“ACCA”), was plain error under the facts and circumstances of this case.

In September 2014, officers from the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department in North Carolina arrested Lockhart while he was in possession of a handgun. He pleaded guilty to possession of a firearm by a convicted felon in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1). During the Rule 11 plea colloquy, the Government stated that the maximum penalty faced by Lockhart was 120 months’ imprisonment. Neither the court nor the Government clarified that Lockhart’s criminal history qualified him for sentencing enhancement under the ACCA, exposing him to a possible life sentence with a 180-month mandatory-minimum term of imprisonment.

In the presentence report (“PSR”), the probation officer recommended that Lockhart be sentenced under the ACCA because he had committed three robberies in one week when he was 16 years old. The PSR highlighted the error in the plea colloquy, stating Lockhart “was informed his statutory penalties ... were not more than ten years[’] imprisonment,” but “based on [Lockhart’s] three prior convictions for violent felonies, [his] statutory penalties ... are not less than fifteen years imprisonment.”

At sentencing, defense counsel neither asserted Lockhart was previously unaware of his exposure to ACCA enhancement, nor did counsel seek to withdraw the guilty plea. The court imposed the 180-month mandatory term under the ACCA.

After the sentence was imposed, defense counsel informed the court that he had discussed the potential ACCA exposure with Lockhart. But the court did not confirm with Lockhart that he understood his potential sentence under the ACCA at the time he pleaded guilty.

Lockhart appealed, and a panel of the Fourth Circuit affirmed. Then upon Lockhart’s request, the panel’s opinion was vacated, and the Court ordered a rehearing en banc.

Lockhart argued that had he known he faced a 180-month mandatory minimum rather than a 120-month maximum penalty, he would not have pleaded guilty. Because of representations made by the court and the Government at the plea colloquy, Lockhart had every reason to believe he would be sentenced from zero to 120 months’ imprisonment with an advisory Guidelines range of between 63 and 78 months that was reduced to between 46 and 57 months for his acceptance of responsibility based on his guilty plea.

Further, it was reasonable for Lockhart to believe he would receive a sentence on the lower end of the Guidelines because his prior record contained only those offenses he committed as a juvenile. Conversely, due to the ACCA qualification, Lockhart’s minimum Guidelines-recommended sentence was 188 months, and his guilty plea resulted in a sentence that was only eight months lower. This was no incentive to plead guilty, give up his substantial rights, and relieve the Government of its burden to prove every element of the charged offense.

Because Lockhart did not move to withdraw his guilty plea, the Court reviewed for plain error, which required Lockhart to show: (1) an error (2) that was obvious occurred, (3) that affected his substantial rights, and (4) that seriously affected the fairness, integrity, or public reputation of the judicial proceedings. United States v. Olano, 507 U.S. 725 (1993).

The Court observed that the first two factors were obviously satisfied. The Supreme Court has explained: “If the judge told the defendant that the maximum possible sentence was 10 years and then imposed a sentence of 15 years based on ACCA, the defendant would have been sorely misled and would have a ground for moving to withdraw the plea.” United States v. Rodriguez, 553 U.S. 377 (2008). Such erroneous information given during a Rule 11 plea colloquy cannot be corrected by contrary information in a later-prepared PSR. United States v. Goins, 51 F.3d 400 (4th Cir. 1995).

As to the third factor, the Fourth Circuit was convinced that a review of the entire record of this case demonstrated that there was “a reasonable probability that, but for the error, [Lockhart] would not have entered the plea.” United States v. Dominguez Benitez, 542 U.S. 74 (2004). The Court further opined that Lockhart’s prejudice was magnified in light of Rehaif v. United States, 139 U.S. 2191 (2019), which was decided during the pendency of this appeal. Rehaif held that to obtain a conviction under § 922(g), the Government must prove both (1) the defendant knowingly possessed a firearm, and (2) the defendant knew he or she was a member of a class of persons prohibited from possessing a firearm. At the time Lockhart entered his plea, no one in the courtroom — including the judge, the prosecutor, Lockhart, or his counsel — knew the elements of § 922(g) offenses per Rehaif. And the requirement that a defendant understand the essential elements of the offense to which he pleads guilty is fundamental to due process. Bousley v. United States, 523 U.S. 614 (1998).

Because Lockhart lacked information to engage “in the calculus necessary to enter a plea” the Court concluded the errors “seriously affected the fairness, integrity, or public reputation of judicial proceedings.” The Court rejected the Government’s reliance on defense counsel’s post-sentencing statement that he had informed Lockhart of the consequences of a potential sentence under the ACCA prior to pleading.

Accordingly, the Court vacated Lockhart’s plea and remanded to the district court for further proceedings. See: United States v. Lockhart, 947 F.3d 187 (4th Cir. 2020). 

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United States v. Lockhart



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