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April 11, 2016
  United States v. Adams -- Fourth Circuit
Justice Goes Full-Term: Court Reviews Claim of Actual Innocence After Right to Review Was Waived

Areas of Law: Plea agreements, Waiver of federal habeas review

Issue Presented: Whether waiver of the right to federal habeas review bars such review when the basis for relief is claim of actual innocence.

Brief Summary: In a unanimous decision, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit held that waiver will not bar federal habeas review when the petitioner asserts a cognizable claim of actual innocence.

In 2008, Richard Adams pled guilty to robbery, possessing a firearm during a crime of violence, and being a felon in possession of a firearm. Under the terms of the plea agreement, the prosecution dropped several other charges and Adams waived his right to challenge his convictions through federal habeas review. Adams was sentenced to concurrent 120-month sentences for robbery and being a felon in possession. In addition, Adams was sentenced to a consecutive 120 months for possession of a handgun during a crime of violence. His total sentence was thus 240 months. Adams appealed but his sentence and conviction were affirmed by the Fourth Circuit.

In 2012, Adams filed a petition for federal habeas review. Adams' basis for relief was that he was actually innocent of the felon in possession conviction because he was not, in fact, convicted of a prior felony. Adams' claim relied on a prior Fourth Circuit decision, which changed how convictions under North Carolina's Structured Sentencing Act are classified. The court held that felonies are crimes for which a defendant must have actually faced the possibility of more than a year in prison. Hypothetical enhancements can not convert a crime into a felony if that crime is punishable by less than one year in prison. Therefore, argued Adams, because his prior conviction was not a felony as a matter of law, he was actually innocent of being a felon in possession.

The district court dismissed Adams' federal habeas petition. The court found he waived his right to such relief, and alternatively that no actual prejudice was suffered because a ruling in his favor would result in Adams serving the same amount of time.

The Fourth Circuit vacated the district court's decision. First, the court discussed the district court's finding that no actual prejudice was suffered. Although the prosecution abandoned that argument on appeal, the court noted that Adams' appeal is not barred. Convictions carry collateral consequences, therefore even convictions which carry concurrent sentences can be challenged on appeal.

Next, the court held that Adams' waiver was valid because he received the benefit of a colloquy during which he was fully apprised of his rights. Waiver, however, will not bar review if to do so would be a miscarriage of justice. In order to avoid a miscarriage of justice, the court found that Adams' cognizable claim of actual innocence was not waived.

Next, the court addressed the merits of Adams' habeas petition. The court found that Adams was innocent "in fact," not merely innocent by operation of law because Adams was, in fact, not a prior convicted felon. Further, the court found that because Adams' dropped charges were not related to his felon in possession charge, he did not need to prove factual innocence of the dropped charges.

Finally, the court reminded the prosecution that seeking to reinstate the dropped charges in retaliation for Adams' successful appeal would be a violation of Adams' due process rights. Adams is actually innocent of his felon in possession conviction, therefore the court entered judgment in favor of Adams and vacated the district courts' decision.

To read the full text of this opinion, please click here.

Panel: Motz, Floyd, Circuit Judges, and Gibney, sitting by designation

Argument Date: 12/9/2015

Date of Issued Opinion: 2/19/2016

Docket Number: 13-7107

Decided: Vacated by published opinion

Case Alert Author: Travis Bullock, Univ. of Maryland Carey School of Law

Counsel: Marianna F. Jackson, COVINGTON & BURLING, LLP, Washington, D.C., for Appellant. Christopher Michael Anderson, OFFICE OF THE UNITED STATES ATTORNEY, Raleigh, North Carolina, for Appellee. ON BRIEF: Robert A. Long, COVINGTON & BURLING, LLP, Washington, D.C., for Appellant. Thomas G. Walker, United States Attorney, Jennifer P. May-Parker, Seth M. Wood, Assistant United States Attorneys, OFFICE OF THE UNITED STATES ATTORNEY, Raleigh, North Carolina, for Appellee.

Author of Opinion:
Judge Floyd

Case Alert Circuit Supervisor: Professor Renée Hutchins

    Posted By: Renee Hutchins @ 04/11/2016 12:13 PM     4th Circuit  

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