Supreme Court Blocks Challenges to Prior Convictions

    On April 25, in a pair of little-noticed decisions, the United States Suprerme Court dramatically narrowed the ability of repeat offenders to challenge the validity of their prior convictions.  Seven years ago, in Custis v. United States, 511 U.S. 485 (1994), the Court held that federal criminal defendants could not attack the validity of their prior convictions during sentencing on any grounds except complete denial of counsel in violation of Gideon v. Wainwright, 372 U.S. 335 (1963).  Unresolved until now was the question of whether the priors could be challenged in a subsequent collateral attack on the resulting enhanced sentence.

    In Daniels v. United States, No. 99-9136, the Court held that a federal prisoner cannot attack a fully expired prior conviction through a motion to vacate the enhanced sentence under 28 U.S.C. § 2255.  The Court noted that he could have attacked the priors while he was in custody for them.  "Our system affords a defendant convicted in state court many opportunities to challenge the constitutionality of his conviction."  They include appeal, state habeas, and federal habeas.  "These vehicles for review, however, are not available indefinitely and without limitation."  In most cases, the end of custody (including parole) under a conviction will terminate the defendant's ability to challenge the validity of that conviction in federal court.  A plurality of the Court went on to note a possible exception for "rare cases in which no channel of review was actually available to a defendant ... due to no fault of his own."

    The Daniels holding was applied to a state prisoner petitioning for habeas corpus under 28 U.S.C. § 2254 in Lackawanna County District Attorney v. Coss, No. 99-1884.  As in Daniels, a plurality of the Court noted a possible exception for cases where there was no realistic opportunity to make a timely challenge to the prior.  Coss claimed this exception, because he had filed a timely state-court challenge to the prior conviction, but the state court simply sat on it without ruling until he was no longer in custody under that conviction.  The plurality did not decide whether an exception would be made for this situation, because it decided that this prior had not actually affected Coss's sentence in the present case.

    Both opinions were written by Justice O'Connor and joined in full by Chief Justice Rehnquist and Justices Kennedy and Thomas.  Justice Scalia joined all but the exception portion.  Justice Souter wrote a dissent in each case, joined by Justices Stevens and Ginsburg.  Justice Breyer also dissented.


Opinion in Daniels:    HTML (Cornell site); PDF (Court site)
Opinion in Coss:        HTML (Cornell site); PDF (Court site)
Solicitor General's Brief in Daniels
Amicus Curiae Brief of Criminal Justice Legal Foundation in Daniels


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