By: Michael Klotz
In United States v. Groves, the Fourth Circuit affirmed that a district court has the authority to vacate a conviction without altering a defendant’s criminal sentence or ordering a new sentencing hearing, even when the court fails to acknowledge its authority to require a new sentencing hearing in its order.
Facts and Procedural History
Mr. Groves was previously convicted of operating a continuing criminal enterprise (21 U.S.C. § 838), using a firearm during a drug trafficking crime (18 U.S.C. § 924(c)(1)), and trading food stamps for cocaine base (7 U.S.C. § 2024(b)). As a result of these convictions he was sentenced to life in prison plus sixty months. In 2007, the Supreme Court held in Watson v. United States, 552 U.S. 74 (2007) that a person does not “use” a firearm under 18 U.S.C. § 924(c)(1) when he receives the gun in exchange for drugs. As a result, Mr. Groves filed a petition to set aside his conviction under 18 U.S.C. § 924(c)(1). The district court reviewed this charge under Watson, and ultimately vacated this conviction. Despite this change in the judgment, the district court imposed the same sentence of life in prison. On appeal, Mr. Groves contended that the district court acted erroneously by leaving intact a sentence that was imposed on the basis of a now unconstitutional mandatory sentencing scheme, and by failing to order a new sentencing hearing or to acknowledge its authority to do so.
In United States v. Hillary, 106 F.3d 1170 (4th Cir. 1997), the Fourth Circuit made clear that a district court has “broad and flexible power to fashion an appropriate remedy in granting relief” including issuing a “new” sentence that is “the same as the original sentence.” Because Mr. Groves’s sentence under § 924(c)(1) ran concurrently with his other charges, the district court was permitted to vacate his conviction without altering the sentence. Further, the court rejected his contention that the court did not recognize it had the authority to order a new sentencing hearing. Finally, the Fourth Circuit held that there was no evidence that the failure to alter the sentence or to order a new sentencing hearing was reversible error. Although an appellate court must reverse a criminal sentence if it is not clear beyond a reasonable doubt that the court would have imposed the same sentence in the absence of a constitutional error, in this case there were “no non-speculative grounds” for concluding that under the discretionary sentencing scheme the court would have imposed a different sentence.