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Eleventh Circuit Reverses 2255 Based on Rehaif Claim:  Seabrooks

The Eleventh Circuit Reversed a denial of a 2255 based on a Rehaif Claim made by a person in their first, in-time 2255.

Facts:  In-time, first 2255 claimant alleges aiding and abetting instruction improper on 922(g) claim

Seabrooks was charged with and found guilty of aiding and abetting a 922(g) claim, otherwise known as felon in possession of a weapon.  The testimony at trial indicated that a codendant broke into a car, stole objects and placed them into the car that Seabrooks was inside. Seabrooks never left the vehicle.
When they were caught later that day, the car that Seabrooks was in was searched and firearms were found.  Seabrooks made statements that indicated that he touched the gun but he didn’t want guns around so he put it in a pouch in the car.  The prosecutor read a stipulation that both Seabrooks AND THE CODEFENDANT (this is important) had been previously been convicted of a felony and as such were not legally allowed to possess a firearm or ammunition.
At the charge conference (which is when the parties meet with the judge and determine/argue about what instructions about the law the jury should get when they argue), the prosecutors asked for and got an “aiding and abetting” charge.  They got the charge, which means that the jury could convict Seabrooks on either felon in possession of a firearm or aiding and abetting the offense of felon in possession of a firearm.
The Following paragraphs were placed in the jury charge:
A defendant aids and abets another person if the defendant intentionally joins with a person to commit a crime.
A defendant is criminally responsible for the acts of another person if the defendant aids and abets the other person.
Further the prosecutor explained the concept and argued for the jury to convict based on aiding and abetting.  The jury deliberated and asked if receipt, touch and physical inspection of an item was the same as possession.  The judge sent language favorable to Seabrooks about actual, constructive, joint and sole possession.   The jury came back and found him guilty on the 922g count but did not explain whether it was based on a theory of actual possession or aiding and abetting.
Seabrooks filed a motion to vacate.  While the motion was pending the Supreme Court decided Rehaif, which stated that “the government must prove that the defendant ‘knew he belonged to the relevant category of persons barred from possessing a firearm’ in a prosecution under 18 U.S.C.  922(g) and 924(a)(2).”  Seabrooks let the district court know about this new law.
The Magistrate filed a report and recommendation that stated that despite Rehaif, the claim was procedurally barred because the issue had been decided on direct appeal and “Seabrooks had not shown either that Rehaif constituted an intervening change in controlling law or a miscarriage of justice. In analyzing this issue, the magistrate judge concluded that Rehaif ’s rule is not a new rule of constitutional law and that the Supreme Court had not applied Rehaif retroactively [this is the standard for a second or successive 2255].”  The magistrate’s report and recommendation were accepted.
Seabrooks appealed this decision.

Rehaif applies retroactively to the 2255 motion.

The government agreed that the district court did not use the right standard for a FIRST 2255 motion.
The court stated that because Seabrooks conviction was final (as in the appeal was denied already), he could only rely on a “new rule” that applied retroactively when challenging his conviction.  The court noted that new substantive rules, which “narrow the scope of a criminal statute by interpreting its terms, as well as constitutional determinations that place particular conduct or persons covered by the statute beyond the [government's] power to punish[,]” apply retroactively.
Further, the court stated that any procedural bar had to be excused because Rehaif caused an intervening change in the law:
"In Rehaif, the Supreme Court held that the government must prove the defendant knew both that he possessed a firearm and that he belonged to a class of persons prohibited from possessing a firearm to sustain a  922(g) (felon-in-possession) conviction…Before Rehaif, courts routinely held that the government did not have to prove that the defendant knew he belonged to a prohibited class…Consequently, Rehaif ’s “new rule” alters the range of conduct or the class of persons  922(g) and 924(a)(2) are understood to punish… As the Rehaif rule narrows the scope of  922(g) and 924(a)(2) by interpreting the statutes’ terms and modifying the elements of the felon-in-possession offense, we find that Rehaif announced a new rule of substantive law that applies retroactively to Seabrooks's initial  2255 motion."

The District Court’s Error was not harmless

The court also analyzed whether the error was harmless.  In evaluating a jury charge for harmless error the eleventh circuit has said that there must be  “grave doubt about whether a trial error of federal law had substantial and injurious effect or influence in determining the jury's verdict…Specifically, there ‘must be more than a reasonable possibility’ that the error was harmful…In other words, we may only order relief if the error ‘resulted in actual prejudice.’”   See Granda v. United States, 990 F.3d 1272, 1292 (11th Cir. 2021).
The court noted that the principal liability evidence (meaning, that Seabrooks actually possessed the firearms) was weak.  The court noted that was why the government offered the aiding and abetting charge:
After the district court gave the aiding and abetting instruction over Seabrooks's objection, the government directed the jury's attention to “the value” of the instruction, emphasizing that the instruction was available to the jury if it had “a question” about Seabrooks's actual possession.
The court noted that the jury more than likely did exactly what the prosecutors asked them to do:
“The record suggests that the jury followed the government's guidance precisely. After two and a half hours of deliberations, the jury asked a question related to Seabrooks's principal liability; specifically, whether certain actions—receipt of item, touch of item, physical inspection of item—constitute possession. In response, the district court informed the jury that mere inspection, standing alone, is not sufficient to establish possession. Thirty-five minutes later, the jury reached a guilty verdict on both counts.”
Because of this the court found that the jury more than likely made a decision that Seabrooks could not be convicted under the “principal liability” and opted for the aiding and abetting instruction:
“It is likely that the jury listened to the government's guidance, asked a question about Seabrooks's principal liability, received an answer suggesting Seabrooks could not be convicted under that theory, opted for the aiding and abetting instruction, and convicted Seabrooks based on that theory of liability.”

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