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Fourth Circuit Announces New Savings Clause Test in United States v. Wheeler

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United States v. Wheeler, __F.3d__, 2018 WL 1514418 (4th Cir. 2018)

The Fourth Circuit recently handed down a very important and precedential decision on the applicability of the savings clause to the legality of a petitioner’s sentence.

Appellant Gerald Wheeler was charged in the United States District Court for the Western District of North Carolina of conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute cocaine, cocaine base, and marijuana, possession of a firearm during and in relation to a drug trafficking crime, and possession of a firearm by a convicted felon. Wheeler pled guilty pursuant to a plea agreement, which agreed to an enhanced penalty pursuant to 21 U.S.C. 851 for the drug count.

In 2008, the district court sentenced Wheeler to 120 months in prison on Count One based on the statutory mandatory minimum under 21 U.S.C. 841(b)(1)(B) and 851. The Fourth Circuit affirmed Wheeler’s sentence in 2009. United States v. Wheeler, 329 Fed. Appx. 481 (4th Cir. 2009).

In 2010, Wheeler filed a motion pursuant to 28 U.S.C. 2255 alleging his counsel was ineffective for, inter alia, failing to argue that Wheeler’s 1996 North Carolina conviction for possession of cocaine did not qualify to enhance his sentence under section 851. The district court dismissed Wheeler’s 2255 motion as foreclosed by the Fourth Circuit’s holdings in United States v. Harp, 406 F.3d 242 (4th Cir. 2005) and United States v. Simmons, 635 F.3d 140 (4th Cir. 2011). Those decisions held, “[T]o determine whether a conviction is for a crime punishable by a prison term exceeding one year [under North Carolina law], … we consider the maximum aggravated sentence that could be imposed for that crime upon a defendant with the worst possible criminal history.” Harp, 406 F.3d at 246; Simmons, 635 F.3d at 146. Pursuant to this reasoning, the district court found that Wheeler received a 6 to 8-month sentence for the 1996 conviction, thus, “his offense was punishable by imprisonment for more than a year” because it was a Class I felony which carried a maximum sentence of 15 months. Wheeler filed a notice of appeal and motion for COA with the Fourth Circuit on August 3, 2011.

While Wheeler’s motion for COA was pending, the Fourth Circuit overturned Simmons on rehearing en banc. The court determined that “in deciding whether a sentencing enhancement was appropriate under the Controlled Substances Act, a district court could no longer look to a hypothetical defendant with the worst possible criminal history…. [A] sentencing court may only consider the maximum possible sentence that the particular defendant could have received.” United States v. Kerr, 737 F.3d 33, 37 (4th Cir. 2013). Even so, the Fourth Circuit denied Wheeler’s motion for COA because it determined Simmons did not apply retroactively to cases on collateral review.

Wheeler subsequently submitted a request for authorization to file a second 2255 motion with an alternative petition pursuant to 28 U.S.C. 2241 seeking application of the savings clause (28 U.S.C. 2255(e)). The Fourth Circuit denied Wheeler’s request to file a second or successive 2255 but did not address his 2241 petition which was pending at the time before the district court.

The district court stayed the 2241 petition pending the resolution of United States v. Surratt, No. 14-6851. The majority panel in Surratt distinguished the court’s decision in In re Jones, which granted savings clause relief after setting forth a three-part test based on the legality of a petitioner’s conviction, but not his sentence. Following Surratt, the district court denied Wheeler’s 2241 petition because it did not challenge the legality of his conviction, only his sentence.

Wheeler once again appealed, and the Fourth Circuit subsequently granted rehearing en banc in Surratt, thus vacating the panel’s prior opinion. However, rehearing in Surratt was found to be moot after his sentence was commuted by President Obama. The Fourth Circuit lifted the stay pending rehearing and has finally addressed the merits of Wheeler’s 2241 claims.

First, the Fourth Circuit addressed the government’s “shifting position” on jurisdiction. The government initially conceded that Wheeler met the savings clause requirements before the district court. However, on appeal, the government did an “about-face,” and argued that the court was without jurisdiction because Wheeler had failed to satisfy the savings clause requirements. The Fourth Circuit concluded that “[b]ecause the savings clause requirements are jurisdictional, we must reject Appellant’s waiver argument. Though the Government’s change of position is a ‘distasteful occurrence[ ]’ and is ‘not to be encouraged, its about-face is irrelevant to our resolution of’ this appeal.”

The court then turned to whether Wheeler’s 2241 petition satisfied the savings clause requirements of the circuit. The Fourth Circuit’s seminal decision, In re Jones, held that a petitioner must satisfy three elements to meet the savings clause requirements:

[Section] 2255 is inadequate and ineffective to test the legality of a conviction when: (1) at the time of conviction, settled law of this circuit or the Supreme Court established the legality of the conviction; (2) subsequent to the prisoner’s direct appeal and first 2255 motion, the substantive law changed such that the conduct of which the prisoner was convicted is deemed not to be criminal; and (3) the prisoner cannot satisfy the gatekeeping provisions of 2255 because the new rule is not one of constitutional law.

The question now before the court was whether Jones applies to sentencing arguments. The Fourth Circuit held it does and announced a new savings clause test for erroneous sentences:

“[W]e conclude that 2255 is inadequate and ineffective to test the legality of a sentence when: (1) at the time of sentencing, settled law of this circuit or the Supreme Court established the legality of the sentence; 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 requirements 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.”

After applying the new savings clause test to Wheeler’s 2241 claims, the Fourth Circuit held that Wheeler did, in fact, show that 2255 is inadequate and ineffective to test the legality of his detention.

The Fourth Circuit VACATED and REMANDED to the district court to have his 2241 petition addressed on the merits.

The law firm of Jeremy Gordon has been practicing federal criminal appeals and post-conviction law since 2012. We have had successful outcomes in more than 60 cases in the past three years. Our entire staff is committed to providing excellent service to our clients and their families. We encourage you to contact our office today to visit with us on how we might be able to help you or your loved one get the representation they deserve.

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