By Taylor Ey

On March 8, 2016, the Fourth Circuit issued its published opinion in the criminal case of United States v. Burleson, reversing the district court’s decision.  At the trial court, in 2013, Defendant Arnold Burleson pled guilty to the crime of possession of a firearm by a convicted felon under 18 U.S.C. § 922(g).  Because Defendant Burleson had at least three prior felony offenses on his record, and the district court classified those offenses as predicate offenses that triggered automatic mandatory minimum sentencing for the felon-in-possession charge, Defendant Burleson was sentenced to fifteen years in prison after he pled guilty.

Defendant Burleson filed a pro se motion under 28 U.S.C. § 2255 with the trial court, asserting that he pled guilty to a crime he could not commit, and he should not have to complete his prison sentence.  Ultimately, the district court denied Defendant Burleson’s motion.  On appeal, the Fourth Circuit agreed with Defendant Burleson, vacating his conviction and prison sentence, and remanding to the district court with instructions to grant his 28 U.S.C. § 2255 motion.

A Question of Statutory Interpretation

Prior to being charged with this possession of a firearm offense, Defendant Burleson was convicted of North Carolina felony offenses, the last time in 1985.  He was discharged on parole in 1988, and his civil rights were fully restored by operation of state law in 1993.  Two years later, in 1995, North Carolina enacted a law that prohibited all people with felony convictions from possessing firearms, regardless of their conviction date.  See N.C. Gen. Stat. § 14-415.1(a) (1995).  For purposes of sentencing, 18 U.S.C. § 924(e) states that if a person charged has been convicted of at least three “crimes punishable by imprisonment for a term exceeding one year” then the person charged is subject to a mandatory minimum sentence.

Thus, this case required the Fourth Circuit to interpret 18 U.S.C. § 921(a)(20) to determine the time point for looking at a state’s statutes.  This statute defines “crime punishable by imprisonment for a term exceeding one year.”  It states, in pertinent part, that “[w]hat constitutes a conviction of such a crime shall be determined in accordance with the law of the jurisdiction in which the proceedings were held.  Any conviction . . . for which a person . . . has had civil rights restored shall not be considered a conviction for purposes of this chapter, unless such . . . restoration of civil rights expressly provides that the person may not ship, transport, possess, or receive firearms.”  18 U.S.C. § 921(a)(20) (emphasis added).

Defendant Burleson urged the court to conclude that those statutes in effect at the time civil rights are restored should control.  In contrast, the government argued that those statutes in effect at the time of the subsequent § 922(g) arrest should control.  Based on the plain text of the statute, the Fourth Circuit decided that the answer is to look to the statutes in effect at the time civil rights are restored.

Fourth Circuit Precedent & the Statute’s Plain Meaning

The Fourth Circuit found decisions from other circuits persuasive, however, the Fourth Circuit also had its own published precedent upon which it could rely.  According to the Fourth Circuit, the district court improperly relied on unpublished decisions in reaching its decision, and thus gave too much weight to the 1995 North Carolina statute.  Even though North Carolina enacted a law in 1995, nothing at the time Defendant Burleson’s civil rights were restored indicated that he could not possess a firearm or otherwise, which is what is required by 18 U.S.C. § 921(a)(20).  The plain meaning of 18 U.S.C. § 921(a)(20) does not indicate that a state retroactive statute should be included in the evaluation.  Instead, the statute requires just the opposite.  It states “such restoration” which plainly refers back to the time of restoration and does not state “unless current state law expressly provides.”

Reverse, Vacate, and Remand

The Fourth Circuit decided that Defendant Burleson was actually innocent of the crime to which he pled guilty because it was not illegal for him to possess at firearm under 18 U.S.C. § 922(g) at the time he was charged.  Thus, the court reversed the judgment, vacated his conviction and sentence, and remanded to the district court.

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