Custis v. United States

Citation511 U.S. 485
Decision Date23 May 1994
Docket NumberNo. 93-5209.,93-5209.
CourtUnited States Supreme Court


Rehnquist, C. J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which O'Connor, Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas, and Ginsburg, JJ., joined. Souter, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which Blackmun and Stevens, JJ., joined, post, p. 498.

Mary M. French argued the cause for petitioner. With her on the briefs were James K. Bredar and Beth M. Farber.

Deputy Solicitor General Bryson argued the cause for the United States. With him on the brief were Solicitor General Days, Assistant Attorney General Harris, John F. Manning, and Joseph C. Wyderko.*

Chief Justice Rehnquist delivered the opinion of the Court.

The Armed Career Criminal Act of 1984, 18 U. S. C. § 924(e) (ACCA), raises the penalty for possession of a firearm by a felon from a maximum of 10 years in prison to a mandatory minimum sentence of 15 years and a maximum of life in prison without parole if the defendant "has three previous convictions .. . for a violent felony or a serious drug offense." We granted certiorari to determine whether a defendant in a federal sentencing proceeding may collaterally attack the validity of previous state convictions that are used to enhance his sentence under the ACCA. We hold that a defendant has no such right (with the sole exception of convictions obtained in violation of the right to counsel) to collaterally attack prior convictions.

Baltimore City Police arrested petitioner Darren J. Custis on July 1, 1991. A federal grand jury indicted him on three counts: (1) possession of cocaine with intent to distribute in violation of 21 U. S. C. § 841(a)(1); (2) use of a firearm in connection with a drug trafficking offense in violation of 18 U. S. C. § 924(c); and (3) possession of a firearm by a convicted felon in violation of 18 U. S. C. § 922(g)(1). Before trial in the United States District Court for the District of Maryland, the Government notified Custis that it would seek an enhanced penalty for the § 922(g)(1) offense under § 924(e)(1). The notice charged that he had three prior felony convictions: (1) a 1985 Pennsylvania state-court conviction for robbery; (2) a 1985 Maryland state-court conviction for burglary; and (3) a 1989 Maryland state-court conviction for attempted burglary.

The jury found Custis not guilty of possession with intent to distribute and not guilty of use of a firearm during a drug offense, but convicted him of possession of a firearm and simple cocaine possession, a lesser included offense in the charge of possession with intent to distribute cocaine. At the sentencing hearing, the Government moved to have Custis' sentence enhanced under § 924(e)(1), based on the prior convictions included in the notice of sentence enhancement.

Custis challenged the use of the two Maryland convictions for sentence enhancement. He argued that his lawyer for his 1985 burglary conviction rendered unconstitutionally ineffective assistance and that his guilty plea was not knowing and intelligent as required by Boykin v. Alabama, 395 U. S. 238 (1969). He claimed that his attorney had failed to advise him of the defense of voluntary intoxication, and that he would have gone to trial, rather than pleaded guilty, had he been aware of that defense. He challenged his 1989 conviction on the ground that it had been based upon a "stipulated facts" trial. He claimed that such a "stipulated facts" trial was tantamount to a guilty plea and that his conviction was fundamentally unfair because he had not been adequately advised of his rights. Custis further asserts that he had been denied effective assistance of counsel in that case because the stipulated facts established only attempted breaking and entering rather than attempted burglary under state law.

The District Court initially rejected Custis' collateral attacks on his two Maryland state-court convictions. The District Court's letter ruling determined that the performance of Custis' attorney in the 1985 case did not fall below the standard of professional competence required under Strickland v. Washington, 466 U. S. 668 (1984). Order in No. S 91-0334 (D. Md., Feb. 27, 1992), p. 1. It found that counsel's recommendation of a guilty plea was not unreasonable under the circumstances. Id., at 2. The District Court also rejected Custis' claim that the 1989 "stipulated facts" trial was the functional equivalent of a guilty plea. Id., at 2-3.

The District Court later reversed field and determined that it could not entertain Custis' challenges to his prior convictions at all. It noted that "unlike the statutory scheme for enhancement of sentences in drug cases, § 924(e)(1) provides no statutory right to challenge prior convictions relied upon by the Government for enhancement." 786 F. Supp. 533, 535-536 (Md. 1992). The District Court went on to state that the Constitution bars the use of a prior conviction for sentence enhancement only when there was a complete denial of counsel in the prior proceeding. Id., at 536, citing Gideon v. Wainwright, 372 U. S. 335 (1963); United States v. Tucker, 404 U. S. 443 (1972); and Burgett v. Texas, 389 U. S. 109 (1967). Based on Custis' offense level of 33 and his criminal history category of VI, the District Court imposed a sentence of 235 months in prison.

The Court of Appeals affirmed. 988 F. 2d 1355 (CA4 1993). It recognized the right of a defendant who had been completely deprived of counsel to assert a collateral attack on his prior convictions since such a defendant "has lost his ability to assert all his other constitutional rights." Id., at 1360, citing Johnson v. Zerbst, 304 U. S. 458, 465 (1938). Citing the "substantial burden" on prosecutors and the district courts, the Court of Appeals dismissed all of Custis' challenges to his prior convictions as the "fact-intensive" type that pose a risk of unduly delaying and protracting the entire sentencing process. 988 F. 2d, at 1361. The prospect of such fact-intensive inquiries led it to express great reluctance at forcing district courts to overcome the "`inadequacy or unavailability of state court records and witnesses' " in trying to determine the validity of prior sentences. Ibid., quoting United States v. Jones, 977 F. 2d 105, 109 (CA4 1992). In addition to the practical hurdles, the Court of Appeals specified concerns over comity and federalism as other factors weighing against permitting collateral attacks. "`Federal courts are not forums in which to relitigate state trials.' " 988 F. 2d, at 1361, quoting Barefoot v. Estelle, 463 U. S. 880, 887 (1983). We granted certiorari, 510 U. S. 913 (1993), because the Court of Appeals' decision conflicted with recent decisions from other Courts of Appeals that permitted defendants to challenge prior convictions that are used in sentencing under § 924(e)(1).1

Custis argues that the ACCA should be read to permit defendants to challenge the constitutionality of convictions used for sentencing purposes. Looking to the language of the statute, we do not believe § 924(e) authorizes such collateral attacks. The ACCA provides an enhanced sentence for any person who unlawfully possesses a firearm in violation of 18 U. S. C. § 922(g)2 and "has three previous convictions by any court referred to in section 922(g)(1) of this title for a violent felony or a serious drug offense . .. ." Section 924(e) applies whenever a defendant is found to have suffered "three previous convictions" of the type specified. The statute focuses on the fact of the conviction and nothing suggests that the prior final conviction may be subject to collateral attack for potential constitutional errors before it may be counted.

Absent specific statutory authorization, Custis contends that an implied right to challenge the constitutionality of prior convictions exists under § 924(e). Again we disagree. The Gun Control Act of 1968, of which § 924(e) is a part, strongly indicates that unchallenged prior convictions may be used for purposes of § 924(e). At least for prior violent felonies, § 921(a)(20) describes the circumstances in which a prior conviction may be counted for sentencing purposes under § 924(e):

"What constitutes a conviction of . . . a crime shall be determined in accordance with the law of the jurisdiction in which the proceedings were held. Any conviction which has been expunged, or set aside or for which a person has been pardoned or has had civil rights restored shall not be considered a conviction for purposes of this chapter 18 U. S. C. §§ 921-930."

The provision that a court may not count a conviction "which has been . . . set aside" creates a clear negative implication that courts may count a conviction that has not been set aside.

Congress' passage of other related statutes that expressly permit repeat offenders to challenge prior convictions that are used for enhancement purposes supports this negative implication. For example, 21 U. S. C. § 851(c), which Congress enacted as part of the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1970, sets forth specific procedures allowing a defendant to challenge the validity of a prior conviction used to enhance the sentence for a federal drug offense. Section 851(c)(1) states that "if the person denies any allegation of the information of prior conviction, or claims that any conviction alleged is invalid, he shall file a written response to the information." Section 851(c)(2) goes on to provide:

"A person claiming that a conviction alleged in the information was obtained in violation of the Constitution of the United States shall set forth his claim, and the factual basis therefor, with particularity in his response to the information. The person shall have the burden of proof by a preponderance of the evidence on any issue of fact raised by the response. Any challenge to a prior conviction, not raised

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