Eleventh Circuit Denies Resentencing Without Armed Career Criminal Enhancement – Garcia v. Warden

December 11, 2013 by David S. Seltzer

“Tough on crime” sentence enhancements sound good to voters, which is why politicians often propose them. But in practice, they can turn a relatively minor crime into a crime for which the defendant can do years of time. That was true for Daniel Garcia, who was sentenced under the Armed Career Criminal Act to more than 27 years in prison for possession of a firearm after a felony. Garcia was sentenced in 1999, and brought unsuccessful post-conviction motions before the appeal in Garcia v. Warden, in which he asks the court to resentence him without the ACCA enhancement. The petition argues that the sentencing court incorrectly relied on police reports to establish the prior convictions supporting the ACCA enhancement, in violation of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2005 decision in Shepard v. United States. The Eleventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals denied relief.

Garcia was convicted of stealing a firearm and possession of a firearm by a convicted felon. The Eleventh Circuit did not review the details of his conviction, possibly because it had already affirmed the conviction and sentence on direct appeal. The 1999 conviction resulted in a sentence of 327 months in prison for the felon-in-possession conviction and a concurrent 120-month sentence for the stolen firearm. The conviction and sentence were affirmed in 2000, and Garcia then sought relief, arguing that his counsel had been ineffective by not arguing against the ACCA enhancement. The Eleventh circuit affirmed that denial in 2004. Then, without obtaining leave to file, Garcia petitioned for habeas corpus, arguing that the sentencing court had incorrectly relied on police reports to establish his three priors for the ACCA enhancement, in violation of Shepard. The district court dismissed for lack of jurisdiction, saying Garcia had not made the requisite showing to invoke the Savings Clause, which would permit the new petition after his ineffective assistance claim had been heard.

In his appeal, Garcia argued that he was eligible under the Savings Clause for the new hearing because of Shepard, decided after his ineffective assistance petition. He also argued that that case and another show that his ACCA enhancement was a conviction for a nonexistent offense. To decide whether Garcia should proceed, the Eleventh Circuit said, it must apply a three-part test laid down on Wofford v. Scott: the claim must be based on a Supreme Court decision that can be applied retroactively; the decision must show that he was convicted of a nonexistent offense; and circuit law must have foreclosed the claim at the time when he should have brought it. The Eleventh found that Garcia’s claim did not meet the first prong: Shepard does not apply retroactively. Neither the Supreme Court nor the Eleventh itself has said it does, and the general rule is that decisions don’t apply retroactively unless certain standards are met. They are not met here, the court said. Also, the court said, prior of its own cases show that the Savings Clause does not apply in this situation. It affirmed the district court.

I wish appeals courts would look more closely at the underlying problems with sentences like Garcia’s. He is serving 27 years for a possession crime, largely because he had a prior criminal record (apparently) allowing the court to apply the ACCA. That may be legal, but it’s worth questioning whether sentence enhancements like these serve society. Rather than attempting to rehabilitate defendants, our system has chosen to warehouse them in prisons instead, at great cost to them, their loved ones and of course, the U.S. taxpayers. That issue was not before the court in this case, unfortunately. For people who are facing new criminal charges, one important lesson is that it’s vital to avoid felony convictions, because any future conviction is likely to carry severe penalties. That’s why people charged with serious crimes should get help from a criminal defense attorney as early as possible.

If you’re accused of a serious crime in Florida, don’t hesitate to call Seltzer Law, P.A. for a free consultation. We answer the phone 24 hours a day, seven days a week, because we know police don’t stop making arrests after 5 p.m. To discuss your case and learn more, call us at 1-888-THE-DEFENSE (1-888-843-3333) or send us a message online.

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