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Fourth Circuit Reverses District Court's Denial of Ancient Writ of Coram Nobis

The writ of coram nobis traces back to Sixteenth Century England and was used here to overturn a conviction.

United States v. Lesane, No. 20-7144 (4th Cir. 2022)

Lesane was convicted in 2003 for being a felon in possession of a firearm, in violation of 18 U.S.C. 922(g). Years later, Lesane filed a petition for writ of coram nobis in the Eastern District of North Carolina arguing that he was actually innocent of the conviction under the Fourth Circuit’s 2011 decision in United States v. Simmons. Although it was clear that Simmons rendered it undisputed that Lesane was actually innocent of the 922(g) offense, the district court denied the petition for Lesane’s failure to explain why he had not challenged the 2003 conviction in a more timely fashion. Lesane appealed that decision to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals.

The Fourth Circuit premised the question presented in Lesane’s appeal as a simple one: whether Lesane’s 2003 conviction for an offense he did not commit should be vacated. But before answering that question, the appellate court dove into the history of the ancient writ of coram nobis, a procedural vehicle that is rarely used today.

The writ of coram nobis traces back to Sixteenth Century England. The courts of old used two writs: the writ of error generally and the writ of error coram nobis. The writ of error generally was used where there was an alleged error of law, whereas the writ of error coram nobis was invoked when the error was of fact. Traditionally, coram nobis was permitted without a time limitations.

The writ of coram nobis became American common law, but was sparsely utilized after the early 1880s. With the creation of other legal mechanisms such as the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, the writ was explicitly abolished in civil actions. However, there was still uncertainty as to whether the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure prohibited the use of the writ. That is until 1954, when the Supreme Court explicitly held that federal district court possessed the authority to issue a writ of coram nobis under the All Writs section of the Judicial Code, 28 U.S.C. 1651. However, the Court did note that the scope of the writ was much more narrow than its common-law predecessor.

The Court’s 1954 decision in Morgan also made clear the writ’s requirements-exhaustion or waiver of any statutory right of review and extraordinary and compelling circumstances to achieve justice. Further, coram nobis may not issue when an alternative remedy, such as a habeas corpus petition, is available.

As recently as 2012, the Fourth Circuit discussed four prongs necessary to obtain a writ of coram nobis: (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.

In applying the four-prong test to Lesane’s case, the Fourth Circuit held that (1) there is no other remedy available to Lesane because he has fully served his sentence and can no longer pursue habeas relief; (2) a conviction for an offense a person did not commit is an error of the most fundamental character; (3) because this is a case of actual innocence, the delayed petition should not bar relief; and (4) Lesane’s 2003 conviction continued to cause adverse consequences because it impacted the sentence he received in his 2019 proceedings.

Finding that Lesane met the four prongs necessary for a writ of coram nobis to issue, the Fourth Circuit reversed the district court’s judgment and directed the lower court to award coram nobis relief.

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