Gilbert v. U.S.

Decision Date19 May 2011
Docket NumberNo. 09–12513.,09–12513.
Citation22 Fla. L. Weekly Fed. C 2070,640 F.3d 1293,79 Fed.R.Serv.3d 986
PartiesEzell GILBERT, Petitioner–Appellant,v.UNITED STATES of America, Respondent–Appellee.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Eleventh Circuit


George Allen Couture, Stephen J. Langs, Rosemary T. Cakmis, Fed. Pub. Defenders, Orlando, FL, for Gilbert.Michael A. Rotker, U.S. Dept. of Justice, Crim. Div., Washington, DC, David Paul Rhodes, U.S. Atty., Linda Julin McNamara, Asst. U.S. Atty., Tampa, FL, for U.S.Appeal from the United States District Court for the Middle District of Florida.Before DUBINA, Chief Judge, and TJOFLAT, EDMONDSON, CARNES, BARKETT, HULL, MARCUS, PRYOR, MARTIN, HILL and BLACK, Circuit Judges.*CARNES, Circuit Judge:

Ezell Gilbert, a federal prisoner, wants to have an error of law in the calculation of his sentence corrected based upon a Supreme Court decision interpreting the sentencing guidelines, even though that decision was issued eleven years after he was sentenced. Gilbert insists that prisoners have a right to have errors in the calculation of their sentences corrected no matter how long it has been since the sentences were imposed. His insistence calls to mind Justice Holmes' observation that “All rights tend to declare themselves absolute to their logical extreme.” Hudson Cnty. Water Co. v. McCarter, 209 U.S. 349, 355, 28 S.Ct. 529, 531, 52 L.Ed. 828 (1908). But as Holmes also explained in the same thought, “Yet all [rights] in fact are limited by the neighborhood of principles of policy which are other than those on which the particular right is founded, and which become strong enough to hold their own when a certain point is reached.” Id.

The principles of policy that limit the right to be resentenced in accord with the latest guidelines decisions are those regarding finality of judgment and the important interests that finality promotes. For reasons we will discuss, the statutory provisions and the decisions furthering finality of judgment are strong enough to hold their own against Gilbert's claimed right to have a long-ago error in calculating his sentence corrected.

In more technical terms, we granted rehearing en banc in this case to decide whether the savings clause contained in 28 U.S.C. § 2255(e) permits a federal prisoner to challenge his sentence in a 28 U.S.C. § 2241 petition when he cannot raise that challenge in a § 2255 motion because of the § 2255(h) bar against second and successive motions. The primary question, in plainer English, is whether a federal prisoner can use a habeas corpus petition to challenge his sentence. Our answer is “no,” at least where the sentence the prisoner is attacking does not exceed the statutory maximum.


The facts underlying the sentence in this case, and the procedural history, illuminate the issue and the competing considerations that we consider in deciding it.

A. Gilbert's Crime and Criminal History

On October 11, 1995, Ezell Gilbert set off for a day of work, plying his trade near the Cottage Hills Housing Project, a high crime area of Tampa, Florida. That day Gilbert was working out of his car, a four-door 1985 Chevrolet Celebrity. He was a drug dealer, and two officers of the Tampa Police Department, who were hidden from view, were conducting surveillance of illegal activity in the area.

Around 9:30 a.m. the officers spotted Gilbert as he stopped his car and allowed a man to enter it. Once inside, the man appeared to give money to Gilbert in exchange for some rocks of crack cocaine. The officers then saw the man exit the car as he counted the rocks he had bought. A short time later, the officers saw another man enter Gilbert's car and engage in another drug deal with him. At that point, the officers conducting surveillance notified a patrol car that was a few blocks away and provided the car's license plate number. The officers in the patrol car discovered through a computer check that the plate number was assigned to a different make and model car. By this time Gilbert was on the move, driving in the direction of the patrol car, which was at a nearby intersection. The officers in the patrol car trailed Gilbert's vehicle for about a block before it turned into the parking lot of a convenience store. When the officers approached Gilbert's car, he tried to flee on foot but they stopped him.

The officers discovered that Gilbert had not been alone in the car. In a drug dealer's version of “Bring Your Daughter to Work Day,” Gilbert had brought his five-year-old daughter, Keidra, along with him as he plied his trade. She had been seated in the back seat of the small car the whole time. She was there as two drug addicts climbed into the car to buy drugs from Gilbert, and he left her there as he attempted to run away from the approaching officer.

When police demanded to see the car's registration, Gilbert reluctantly opened the glove compartment. A clear plastic bag containing what appeared to be crack cocaine fell out into his hand and into plain view. Shoving it back in the compartment, Gilbert told police that “nothing” was in the bag. At that point the police placed him under arrest and started to search the car. As the officers did so, Gilbert exclaimed, [T]he car ain't mine; I don't know what's in that car.”

What was in that car, in addition to Gilbert's young daughter, was the bag that had fallen from the glove compartment. It contained 67 grams of crack cocaine, and there was a smaller bag containing 2 grams of powder cocaine in the glove compartment. And there were also 40 “ring baggies” containing a total of 111 grams of marijuana stashed under the car's front seat.

The record does not reveal whether that day was the first time that Gilbert had taken his five-year-old daughter into harm's way with him as he committed crimes, but it does reveal that this was not the first time he had committed crimes. Gilbert's known criminal history began in 1989, when he was only 19 years old. In March of 1989 he was arrested on state charges for possession of cocaine and possession of alcohol by a minor, but those charges were dropped. Two arrests followed in May 1989 for possession of alcohol by a minor, but the State evidently did not pursue the charges.

Gilbert soon graduated to more serious crimes. In September 1989, while still 19 years old, he was arrested for striking a police officer who had been attempting to detain him for battery on a female. It appears from the record that Gilbert was later convicted for battery and obstructing or opposing officers without violence in connection with that incident, and he was sentenced to an unspecified amount of time served. Also in September of 1989, Gilbert was arrested and charged with two state felonies: possession of cocaine with intent to sell or distribute and carrying a concealed firearm (a shotgun was found under the car seat). In January of 1990, at age 20, he was sentenced to three years probation on both counts, with formal adjudication withheld pending his successful completion of probation.

Instead of successfully completing probation, however, Gilbert chose to commit more crimes. As a result, a probation violation notice was filed on March 2, 1990, and a few days later Gilbert was arrested and charged with more state crimes, including possession of cocaine. He was convicted of the new cocaine charge on March 29, 1990, and on that date received a sentence of 2 years of community control.

Seventeen days later, on April 16, 1990, state authorities filed yet another notice that Gilbert had violated the terms of the probation that had been imposed on him just three months earlier. On June 6, 1990, he was found to have violated his probation and as a result was adjudicated guilty on the January 1990 crimes of possession of cocaine with intent to sell or distribute and carrying a concealed firearm. He was sentenced to 30 months imprisonment for those two crimes. On or about that same date, Gilbert also received the same sentence on the March 7, 1990 charge of possession of cocaine. Those sentences were imposed when Gilbert was 20.

How much time Gilbert actually served is unclear, but it certainly was not 30 months. By October 24, 1991, only 17 months after he had been sentenced, the 21–year–old Gilbert was free again, a fact we know because he was arrested on that date for possession of marijuana. Gilbert was convicted of that marijuana charge and on January 28, 1992, at age 22, he received yet another sentence of probation, this time for one year. Less than two months later, yet another probation violation notice had been filed, and in August of 1993, when Gilbert was 23, he was arrested yet again, this time on two counts of possession of marijuana with intent to sell or distribute. The State filed an “order of release” as to both those charges on September 8, 1993, but in what may have been a related action, on September 14 Gilbert was sentenced to one year imprisonment on the 1991 marijuana charge. He was then 23 years old.

Gilbert once again did not serve his full time in prison; instead, he was released on January 8, 1994, just four months into his one-year term. And once again, it was not long before Gilbert was caught committing another crime. That September, an officer who had stopped him for a traffic violation spotted a handgun next to Gilbert's right leg, and a search of his car revealed 22.3 grams of crack cocaine. For some reason Gilbert, then age 24, was charged only with carrying a concealed firearm and being a felon in possession of a firearm. On December 19, 1994, shortly after he had turned 25, Gilbert was sentenced to three years probation for each crime. And true to form, Gilbert did not successfully complete his probationary period. Instead, he violated it when he committed the drug crimes involved in this case on October 11, 1995, about a month before he turned 26. This time he would not be treated leniently.

The State of Florida charged...

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