In a rare reversal, the Eleventh Circuit reversed a district court’s denial of Isaac Seabrooks’ motion to vacate his sentence under 28 USC 2255. Seabrooks had challenged his conviction for felon-in-possession of a firearm and possession of stolen gun based on the district court’s erroneous jury instructions for aiding and abetting where the government had failed to prove Seabrooks knew his co-defendant was a convicted felon. Seabrooks had also argued at trial that he did not actually “possess” the firearms since he had only briefly handled the firearms after his co-defendant handed them to him. The verdict sheet did not specify whether the jury found him guilty for actual possession or aiding and abetting.
The Court considered whether the aiding and abetting instruction was warranted under Rosemond v. United States, where SCOTUS held that “an aiding and abetting conviction requires not just an act facilitating one or another element, but also a state of mind extending to the entire crime.” Here, under Rehaif, that means aiding and abetting the possession of a firearm by a prohibited person requires a defendant’s knowledge that the possessor belongs to a prohibited class.
The Court concluded that the aiding and abetting instruction was unwarranted because the government had not presented any evidence that Seabrooks knew of his co-defendant’s prohibited status. In doing so, the Eleventh Circuit held that Rehaif was retroactive to cases on collateral review.
The Court further held that the error was not harmless, since the jury did not specify which theory of guilt their verdict was based on, the government’s theory of actual possession was weak (since mere inspection is not possession), the government heavily relied on the aiding and abetting instruction in closing, and the jury’s questions reflected their reliance on that instruction to convict Seabrooks.
Appeal from the Southern District of Florida
Per Curiam Opinion