The Fourth Circuit today issued a significant ruling that could help a large number of federal inmates who pleaded guilty to being a “felon in possession of a firearm,” in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 922(g).
The decision from the Fourth Circuit today stems from the Supreme Court’s decision last summer in Rehaif v. United States. In that case, the Supreme Court held that the Government must prove that a defendant charged under § 922(g) not only possessed a firearm, but that they were aware of their status as a person who was not allowed to possess a gun. In United States v. Gary, the Fourth Circuit held that the error to inform a defendant of that element of the charge during the guilty plea is a structural error that invalidates the conviction.
A defendant cannot knowingly and intelligently plead guilty to a crime without proper notice of all of the elements of the offense. When a court fails to inform a defendant of an element – in this case the Government’s burden to prove defendant’s knowledge of their status as a prohibited person – the guilty plea cannot be valid.
In Gary, a case originating in North Carolina, the Fourth Circuit rejected the Government’s argument that the evidence was “overwhelming” that the defendant knew he was a prohibited person. Significantly, the Court held that the evidence didn’t matter – and the defendant did not need to prove prejudice – because a person has a fundamental right to be informed of the charges against him, making the failure to do so structural. A structural error is one that affects a defendant’s substantial rights, thus broadening the implications of the error.
Even prior to the decision in Gary, the Supreme Court’s decision in Rehaif opened up potential avenues of relief to inmates. This decision strengthens those claims greatly. Any defendant who pleaded guilty to being a felon in possession could potentially be entitled to relief, which may include a possible vacatur of the § 922(g) conviction.
This is yet another sign that the Fourth Circuit has turned into a panel that takes the rights of criminal defendants very seriously. In a circuit where 96.4% of cases result in pleas, a ruling like this is impactful. It seems likely, however, that the Government will appeal the decision, potentially up to the Supreme Court.
If you or a someone you know pleaded guilty to a federal charge of being a felon in possession of a firearm, relief may be possible under Rehaif and, now, Gary. But be warned: there is a strict deadline for filing a motion for relief under 28 U.S.C § 2255, and the clock is already running. Please contact an attorney immediately.