Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Fives Reaffirm Limits On Collaterally Attacking Prior Convictions

United States v. Longstreet, No. 09-60051 (5th Cir. Apr. 7, 2010) (Garwood, Smith, Clement)

As you're well aware, the number and nature of prior convictions can have a large effect on a defendant's sentencing exposure, due to a variety of statutory and Guidelines enhancements. Anything you can do to challenge the validity of such priors? Very little, as the court reminds us in Longstreet:

Application note 6 to U.S.S.G. § 4A1.2 states that “this guideline and commentary do not confer upon the defendant any right to attack collaterally a prior conviction or sentence beyond any rights otherwise recognized in law.” . . . Furthermore, in Custis [v. United States], the Court held that the Constitution requires collateral review of a defendant’s prior conviction used to enhance a federal sentence only when the defendant alleges that the conviction was obtained in violation of her Sixth Amendment right to counsel. [cites].

In a number of unpublished decisions following Custis, this court has refused to entertain collateral attacks on prior state convictions made during federal sentencing proceedings when, as here, the defendant does not allege that the prior conviction was uncounseled. [cites]. Our sister circuits have adopted the same rule.

We therefore hold that, absent an allegation that the defendant was denied counsel in the prior proceeding, a district court sentencing a defendant may not entertain a collateral attack on a prior conviction used to enhance the sentence unless such an attack is otherwise recognized by law.

(emphasis added). Note that the burden appears to be on the defendant to affirmatively allege—and perhaps prove—a denial of counsel, so arguments based on a lack of information regarding counsel in the record of the prior conviction may not fly.

What was the failed challenge in this case, you ask? Longstreet got a criminal history point for a conviction for contributing to the delinquency of a minor.
When Longstreet appeared for trial, the state court agreed to dismiss the charge upon Longstreet’s payment of seventy dollars in court costs. Longstreet failed to pay the costs, and, on this basis, the state court found her guilty. On appeal, Longstreet argues that there was never an “adjudication of guilt, whether by guilty plea, trial, or plea of nolo contendere,” by the state court, as required to constitute a “prior sentence” for criminal history purposes. See U.S.S.G. § 4A1.2(a)(1).

The court construed Longstreet's argument as a collateral attack on the validity of the conviciton (even though she hadn't framed it as such), and rejected it because Longstreet did not allege a violation of her right to counsel.

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