Second Circuit Criminal Law Blog

Second Circuit Rejects “Miscarriage of Justice” Challenge to Sentence Based on Vacated Underlying Conviction, but Declines to Establish Categorical Rule

In United States v. Hoskins, the Court (Hall, Jacobs, Raggi) rejected a collateral challenge to a sentence where an underlying predicate offense was vacated based on procedural error. 

Background

In the District of Vermont, Brian Hoskins pled guilty in 2012 to one count of knowingly and intentionally distributing cocaine base (i.e., crack cocaine).  The Presentence Report provided, and the parties agreed, that Hoskins was a career offender under the Sentencing Guidelines because he had two predicate felony offenses, including a Vermont drug conviction.  As a result, his Guidelines range was increased from 100-125 months to 151-188 months.  Rather than proceed to trial, Hoskins and the Government entered into a Rule 11(c)(1)(C) plea agreement providing for a sentence of 112 months.  The district court found that Hoskins was a career offender and sentenced him to a below-Guidelines term of 112 months based on the plea agreement and the factors under 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a). 

The following year, Hoskins brought a collateral challenge to his underlying Vermont drug conviction because the trial court had relied on his lawyer’s representation that there was a factual basis for the plea, rather than eliciting the facts directly from Hoskins as required by the Vermont Rules of Criminal Procedure.  The state court granted the motion and vacated the conviction. 

In 2015, Hoskins filed the instant motion pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 2255, seeking to reduce his sentence because one of the predicate offenses for his career-offender status had now been vacated.  The magistrate judge granted the motion, reasoning that the now-vacated state conviction had clearly informed the parties’ and the Court’s Guidelines calculations and thus affected his sentence.  The district court adopted the magistrate’s report and recommendation and sentenced Hoskins to 86 months based on the new Guidelines range of 100-125 months.  At the time of his appeal, Hoskins had completed his sentence and was on supervised release.

Decision

Writing for the Court, Judge Hall reversed.  He reasoned that Section 2255 permits vacatur of a sentence “imposed in violation of the Constitution,” 18 U.S.C. § 2255(a)(1), but to preserve finality in sentencing, this provision has been narrowly construed to require a “fundamental defect which inherently results in a complete miscarriage of justice.”  On the “unique facts of this case,” Op. 13, Hoskins failed to meet his heavy burden for three principal reasons.

First, by pleading guilty, Hoskins had obtained a below-Guidelines sentence and avoided a superseding indictment that would have added charges and exposed him to a mandatory ten-year minimum sentence upon conviction.  Thus, “Hoskins left the bargaining table with a deal that secured him a real benefit, hardly indicating a miscarriage of justice.”  Id.

Second, while the district court was required to consider the Guidelines calculation, the Guidelines were still ultimately advisory; indeed, Hoskins’s sentence was not even within the Guidelines range.  The Court noted that several other Circuits “have concluded that sentences imposed pursuant to advisory Guidelines based on an erroneous or later invalidated career offender determination did not result in a complete miscarriage of justice sufficient to warrant collateral relief.”  Op. 14 n.7. 

Third, even without the career offender enhancement, Hoskins’s original sentence fell within the revised Guidelines range of 100-125 months, and “within-Guidelines sentences will rarely be unreasonable,” particularly given the finality interests that are at stake on collateral review.  Op. 15.

The Court rejected Hoskins’s reliance on the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Hughes v. United States, 138 S. Ct. 1765 (2018), which held that a defendant sentenced pursuant to a Rule 11(c)(1)(C) plea agreement may seek a sentence modification under 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(2) if the underlying Guidelines range is subsequently lowered by amendment.  “Although Hoskins like Hughes pled guilty pursuant to a Rule 11(c)(1)(C) agreement, the similarities end there,” Op. at 18, the Court explained, because § 3582(c)(2) is concerned with sentencing uniformity, whereas the central concern of § 2255 is finality.

Analysis

Under the exacting “miscarriage of justice” standard, it is difficult to disagree with the Court’s decision.  A procedural error of the type Hoskins identified—standing alone—hardly seems like the sort of fundamental defect that comes to mind when one thinks of a miscarriage of justice.  As the Court explained in a footnote, the circumstances were far different from those where “a defendant was actually innocent of the crime of conviction, the conduct at issue was no longer criminal, or there was reason to question the reliability of inculpatory evidence.”  Op. 5 n.3.  A conviction was vacated because the Vermont trial court messed up the plea colloquy. 

At the same time, it is somewhat difficult to justify the application of such an exacting standard under the circumstances.  The panel emphasized the importance of finality and the advisory role of the Guidelines.  Just last term, however, the Supreme Court held that a mere Guidelines error that affects a sentence “will in the ordinary case” warrant plain-error review, because the Guidelines “serve an important role in” the sentencing framework, such an error will usually “seriously affect[] the fairness, integrity or public reputation of the judicial proceedings,” and the error is relatively easy to fix through resentencing.  Rosales-Mireles v. United States, 138 S. Ct. 1897 (2018).  To be sure, plain-error review arises on direct appeal, not in a collateral challenge.  But the error in Hoskins—a vacated conviction that affected the sentence—is surely more weighty than the Guidelines calculation error in Rosales-Mireles.  The fairness implications are arguably just as powerful; indeed, the Vermont state judicial system thought the error important enough to vacate the underlying conviction in its entirety.  And the fix appears to be just as simple:  hold a new sentencing hearing based on the revised range.  Unlike a new trial, a new sentencing requires a modest expenditure of judicial resources.

The Court may have had similar concerns in mind when it limited its decision to the “unique facts of this case” and parted ways with several other Circuits in declining to establish a “categorical” rule that “sentences imposed pursuant to advisory Guidelines based on an erroneous or later invalidated career offender determination did not result in a complete miscarriage of justice to warrant collateral relief.”  Op. 14 n.7.  A decades-old procedural error did not trump the interest of finality in sentencing when Hoskins’s sentence was below the range for a career offender, within the revised range, far lower than what he could have faced at trial, and, as the Court noted in passing, Hoskins had already served his time.  In different circumstances, however, it might. 

-By Brandon Trice and Harry Sandick