McGrath v. U.S.

Decision Date01 August 1995
Docket NumberD,No. 1371,1371
Citation60 F.3d 1005
PartiesJames McGRATH, Petitioner-Appellant, v. UNITED STATES of America, Respondent-Appellee. ocket 94-2011.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Second Circuit

Cynthia Feathers, Saratoga, NY, for petitioner-appellant.

Gregory L. Waples, Asst. U.S. Atty., Burlington, VT (Charles R. Tetzlaff and David V. Kirby, on the brief), for respondent-appellee.

Before: OAKES, McLAUGHLIN, and LEVAL, Circuit Judges.

LEVAL, Circuit Judge:

This case presents an issue of first impression in this circuit: Whether a person convicted of a felony but never stripped of his civil rights under state law is thereafter subject to prosecution under 18 U.S.C. Sec. 922(g)(1) as a felon in possession of a firearm. James McGrath appeals the dismissal of his habeas corpus petition by the District Court for the District of Vermont (Fred I. Parker, Chief Judge ), in which he sought reversal of his conviction. McGrath argues that he was wrongfully prosecuted as a "felon in possession" because he falls within a separately codified exemption for convicted persons who have had their civil rights "restored." We disagree and affirm the dismissal of his petition.


In 1961, McGrath was convicted in Vermont state court of larceny, a crime classified as a felony in that state. He was not sentenced to jail time, but was given a suspended sentence of three to five years imprisonment and placed on probation. Under Vermont law, one so convicted who is not sentenced to jail does not forfeit civil rights.

Some thirty years later, in 1992, McGrath was charged with, and pleaded guilty to, possession of a semi-automatic weapon in violation of 18 U.S.C. Sec. 922(g)(1), the federal law that criminalizes firearms possession by convicted felons. At the sentencing hearing, the government proved his 1961 felony conviction as the predicate offense. 1 The district court sentenced McGrath to 15 months of imprisonment and two years of supervised release.

McGrath did not appeal. Two months into his sentence, however, he filed a pro se habeas corpus petition under 28 U.S.C. Sec. 2255 to vacate his conviction, asserting that because Vermont law had not stripped him of any civil rights as a result of his 1961 conviction, he was not a person prohibited from carrying firearms under the federal statute. He claimed in an amended petition that his failure to raise this claim at his plea, sentencing, or on direct appeal should be excused because he received ineffective assistance of counsel.

The district court dismissed McGrath's petition. It adopted the conclusion of Magistrate Judge Jerome Niedermeier that McGrath's argument for exemption from Sec. 922(g)(1) was meritless, and that his counsel's failure to raise it was therefore not prejudicial. When this case initially came before us on appeal, we granted McGrath's request for appointment of counsel. The case was rebriefed and heard on oral argument.


The first question we face is whether we may consider on McGrath's habeas petition a question that he did not raise at any time in the criminal proceeding against which the habeas is directed. Ordinarily we will not review claims in a habeas petition that were not raised in the original proceeding, absent a showing of cause for the default and prejudice therefrom. Billy-Eko v. United States, 8 F.3d 111, 113-14 (2d Cir.1993); Campino v. United States, 968 F.2d 187, 190 (2d Cir.1992). McGrath argues he should not be deemed to have forfeited the claim as his failure to raise it was due to ineffective counsel. Murray v. Carrier, 477 U.S. 478, 488, 106 S.Ct. 2639, 2645, 91 L.Ed.2d 397 (1986) (ineffective assistance of counsel constitutes cause for default in habeas proceeding). We therefore need to consider the merits of his claim in order to decide whether McGrath's lawyer was unreasonably deficient in failing to raise it. Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 687, 691, 104 S.Ct. 2052, 2066-67, 80 L.Ed.2d 674 (1984) (defendant claiming ineffective counsel must show that attorney performance fell below objective standard of reasonableness and that deficiencies prejudiced the outcome).

Whether McGrath's 1961 conviction constitutes a qualifying predicate offense under the federal firearms statute is a question of pure statutory construction, which we review de novo. United States v. LaPorta, 46 F.3d 152, 156 (2d Cir.1994).

McGrath was charged with violating Section 922(g)(1) of the criminal code. 18 U.S.C. Sec. 922(g)(1). This statute, passed as part of the Gun Control Act of 1968, Pub.L. No. 90-618, 82 Stat. 1213, criminalizes the shipping, transport or possession of a firearm connected with interstate commerce by any person "who has been convicted in any court of, a crime punishable by imprisonment for a term exceeding one year." 18 U.S.C. Sec. 922(g)(1). Eighteen years later, in 1986, Congress passed an amendment which exempted from prosecution felons who, under the law of the jurisdiction of their predicate conviction, had received a pardon, expungement, or restoration of civil rights. 18 U.S.C. Sec. 921(a)(20) ("Firearms Owners' Protection Act") ("FOPA"). This subsection provides:

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, unless such pardon, expungement, or restoration of civil rights expressly provides that the person may not ship, transport, possess, or receive firearms.

Id. (emphasis added). McGrath argues that the exemption for felons who have "had civil rights restored" should extend to felons whose civil rights were never taken away.

The parties agree that the pertinent civil rights in question are those which most states extend by virtue of citizenship within their borders: (i) the right to vote; (ii) the right to hold elective office; and (iii) the right to sit on a jury. See, e.g., United States v. Cassidy, 899 F.2d 543, 549 (6th Cir.1990). The parties also agree that under Vermont law felons who were convicted but never incarcerated do not suffer the suspension of any of these rights. 2 Nor does Vermont law forbid such felons from possessing firearms. McGrath, therefore, never suffered a deprivation of civil rights by reason of his predicate felony conviction.

McGrath argues that to have not suffered loss of civil rights upon conviction is the functional equivalent of having had civil rights "restored" for purposes of the exemption granted by Sec. 921(a)(20). The argument is unavailing. The word "restore" means "to give back (as something lost or taken away)." Webster's Third New International Dictionary 1936 (1976). The "restoration" of a thing never lost or diminished is a definitional impossibility. McGrath simply does not come within the terms of the statute.

McGrath makes several arguments of varying persuasiveness to escape the plain language of the statute. He first argues that it is anomalous for the federal government to treat those who never lost their civil rights more harshly than those who temporarily did so. As long as both classes of felons share the operative status of full citizenship, he contends, the government should treat them similarly in applying the federal gun possession statute. This argument has some appeal. But it ignores the apparent intention of the 1986 amendment. Prior to its passage, the felon-in-possession statute applied to all convicted felons, regardless whether the predicate conviction entailed deprivation of civil rights. Thus, from the first, the Gun Control Act failed to distinguish between those whose felony convictions resulted in loss of civil rights, and those who retained those rights notwithstanding the conviction. The FOPA amendment then exempted felons to whom the convicting jurisdiction extended a subsequent gesture of forgiveness, or partial forgiveness, by means of pardon, expungement, or restoration of civil rights. The theory was no doubt that such a subsequent forgiveness should be credited as an acknowledgement of rehabilitation or an affirmative gesture of goodwill that merited exemption from the firearms bar.

We agree substantially with the analysis of the First Circuit, the only court of appeals to have confronted this precise question. In United States v. Ramos, 961 F.2d 1003 (1st Cir.), cert. denied, --- U.S. ----, 113 S.Ct. 364, 121 L.Ed.2d 277 (1992), the defendant's predicate offenses did not cause him to forfeit any civil rights under Massachusetts law. At the time of these convictions, Ramos possessed a Massachusetts firearms license, and continued to do so thereafter in full accord with state law. Ramos argued, as does McGrath, that the retention of his civil rights precluded his prosecution for firearms possession under Sec. 921(a)(20). The panel disagreed, finding as we do that the ordinary meaning of "restore" could not encompass a person whose rights were never disabled. Id. at 1008.

Ramos addressed the anomaly of distinguishing between persons enjoying the same civil status in part by reasoning that Congress must have wished to exempt from FOPA only those exceptional individuals whom a state has individually and affirmatively deemed worthy of entrustment with civil rights:

By the affirmative act of pardon, expungement or restoration, the state has declared its renewed trust in that person. This rationale does not apply with equal force, however, where the legislature of the state has simply failed to provide that those found guilty of misdemeanors will lose any civil rights as a collateral consequence of their convictions. There is no individualized official judgment, as in a pardon or expungement, that the particular person in question has demonstrated some reason to be singled out from Congress's overall judgment that persons convicted of serious crimes not be allowed to carry weapons.

Id. at 1009 (emphasis added).

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