Fourth Circuit: Coram Nobis Appropriate Remedy to Achieve Justice Where Petitioner Actually Innocent but Completed Sentence
by Douglas Ankney
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit held that coram nobis relief is the appropriate remedy to achieve justice where the petitioner had completed service of the sentence imposed on conviction of offense for which he was actually innocent.
In November 2011, Brooks Prentice Lesane completed his sentence imposed in 2003 by the U.S. District Court for Eastern North Carolina upon conviction for possessing a firearm after having been convicted of a crime punishable by imprisonment for a term exceeding one year (i.e., a felony), in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1). Lesane’s underlying predicate offenses triggering § 922(g)(1) were two convictions from North Carolina, each carrying a maximum sentence of ten months’ imprisonment. But at the time of Lesane’s 2003 firearm conviction, the holding of United States v. Harp, 406 F.3d 242 (4th Cir. 2005), was the law of the circuit. Harp held that a prior offense is a qualifying felony if any person convicted under the North Carolina statute could receive a sentence of more than one year.
But in August 2011, United States v. Simmons, 649 F.3d 237 (4th Cir. 2011), overruled Harp and adopted an individualized approach to assessing whether a North Carolina conviction is a qualifying felony under federal law. Simmons explained that a court’s determination of the issue must be based on whether the defendant himself could have “receive[d] a sentence exceeding one year’s imprisonment.” Id. Two years later, the Court held in Miller v. United States, 735 F.3d 141 (4th Cir. 2013), that Simmons applies retroactively.
In 2019, counsel representing Lesane on unrelated pending charges determined his 2003 firearm conviction was invalid under Simmons. In 2020, Lesane filed a coram nobis petition seeking to vacate the 2003 conviction.
The Government conceded that, per Simmons, neither of Lesane’s convictions from North Carolina qualified as felonies under federal law and Lesane was actually innocent of the offense for which he was convicted. Nevertheless, the Government opposed the coram nobis petition on two grounds: (1) Lesane failed to explain why he didn’t challenge the conviction sooner and (2) Lesane failed to show any adverse consequences flowing from the 2003 conviction to satisfy the U.S. Constitution’s Article III case or controversy requirement.
In denying Lesane’s petition, the District Court relied on the framework for determining whether coram nobis relief is applicable set forth in United States v. Akinsade, 686 F.3d 248 (4th Cir. 2012): “(1) a more usual remedy is not available; (2) valid reasons exist for not attacking the conviction earlier; (3) adverse consequences exist from the conviction sufficient to satisfy the case or controversy requirement of Article III; and (4) the error is of the most fundamental character.” The District Court’s order focused exclusively on factor (2), ruling that Lesane failed to explain why he had not challenged the 2003 firearm conviction as soon as Simmons was decided. Lesane appealed.
The Fourth Circuit observed “[t]he writ of coram nobis traces its origins to the King’s Bench and the Court of Common Pleas, and it dates to the Sixteenth Century.” United States v. Denedo, 556 U.S. 904 (2009). In England, the writ of coram nobis was used to appeal an alleged error of fact. United States v. Bush, 888 F.2d 1145 (7th Cir. 1989). Used in both civil and criminal cases in both state and federal courts, the writ of coram nobis isn’t mentioned or used much in the U.S. after the early nineteenth century. United States v. Morgan, 346 U.S. 502 (1954). With the adoption of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure in 1938, coram nobis was explicitly abolished in civil cases. F.R.CP. 60(e). But the availability of coram nobis in District Court to vacate a criminal conviction after the sentence has been served was made clear in the Morgan decision that held the All Writs section of the Judicial Code, 28 U.S.C. § 1651(a), empowers District Courts to issue such writs of coram nobis.
The Morgan Court explained the “[c]ontinuation of litigation after final judgment and exhaustion or waiver of any statutory right of review should be allowed through this extraordinary remedy only under circumstances compelling such action to achieve justice.” Additionally, coram nobis cannot issue when another remedy, e.g., habeas corpus, is available. Morgan. The rationale for limiting the use of coram nobis is, primarily, to preserve finality of judgments. “All collateral attacks significantly, and detrimentally, impact society’s interest in the finality of criminal convictions.” United States v. Mandel, 862 F.2d 1067 (4th Cir. 1988) (J. Hall, dissenting). A secondary concern is judicial economy as associated evidentiary hearings and retrials are costly and time consuming. Id.
However, in the present case, the Court stated: “But also of great importance are two other recognized values — justice itself, and accuracy. After all, not much can be said for a criminal justice system that finally, promptly, and cheaply — but erroneously — convicts innocent persons.” And while a collateral attack of an issue such as ineffective assistance of counsel may resemble relitigation, in a case of actual innocence relitigation is nonexistent, expenditure of judicial resources is minimal, and the interest in finality is nil, the Court stated and added: “In other words, there is very little good reason for maintaining an invalid criminal conviction on a person’s record.” The Court took issue with the Government’s opposition to Lesane’s petition since the prosecution’s interest “is not that it shall win a case, but that justice shall be done.” Berger v. United States, 295 U.S. 78 (1935).
The Court then applied the four-prong framework of Akinsade to the facts of the present case, which involves a petitioner who is actually innocent of the challenged conviction, unlike the petitioner in Akinsade. As for prong (1), Lesane’s time to appeal the 2003 conviction expired, and habeas corpus wasn’t available to him because he had served the entire sentence and was no longer in custody. As a result, more usual remedies were not available to Lesane, according to both the Government and the Court.
Regarding prong (2), because this was a case of actual innocence, a delay in seeking relief does not bar relief. See McQuiggin v. Perkins, 569 U.S. 383 (2013) (“actual innocence, if proved, serves as a gateway through which a petitioner may pass whether the impediment is a procedural bar … or, as in this case, expiration of the statute of limitations.”).
As for prong (3), the Court rejected the Government’s contention that because Lesane had other criminal convictions he didn’t suffer adverse consequences from the 2003 firearm conviction. The mere possibility that a conviction for a crime he did not commit could adversely affect any sentence he might receive on pending charges is sufficient to satisfy the case or controversy requirement of Article III, the Court stated. See Akinsade (third prong satisfied where invalid conviction resulted in threat of deportation); see also Bereano v. United States, 706 F.3d 568 (4th Cir. 2013) (third prong satisfied where challenged conviction resulted in disbarment).
Finally, with respect to prong (4), the Court declared that it is “difficult to imagine an error of more fundamental character than a conviction for an offense the person did not commit.”
Thus, the Court concluded that Lesane satisfied the requirements for coram nobis relief, and the District Court abused its discretion by denying the writ. The Court explained: “We emphasize that an essential purpose of the coram nobis remedy … is to ‘achieve justice.’ In order to achieve justice in this situation —where it is clear that the coram nobis petitioner is actually innocent, yet spent several years in custody for an offense he did not commit — we are obligated to set the record straight.”
Accordingly, the Court reversed the judgment of the District Court and remanded for an award of coram nobis relief. See: United States v. Lesane, 40 F.4th 191 (4th Cir. 2022).
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