Brooks Prentice Lesane was indicted in 2002 for possession of a firearm by a convicted felon based on his prior conviction for possession of cocaine and larceny under North Carolina law. Although he received just a 10-month sentence on each of those state charges, he pleaded guilty to the federal charge in 2004 based on his understanding that his prior convictions qualified for an enhanced sentence given the Fourth Circuit’s application of the categorical approach, under which almost all North Carolina felonies qualified. Almost a decade later, the Fourth Circuit overruled prior precedents in a pair of opinions holding that district courts must take an individualized approach to determining whether a defendant’s prior conviction qualifies and that this change in the law must be applied retroactively.
In 2020, Lesane filed a petition for a writ of coram nobis to vacate the 2003 firearm conviction, which the district court denied. On appeal, the government “commendably” conceded that Lesane was factually innocent of the firearm charge under the Fourth Circuit’s new caselaw. However, they opposed the petition because Lesane hadn’t attacked the conviction earlier and because he no longer suffered adverse consequences from the conviction to make out a case or controversy—the second and third prongs of coram nobis relief.
The Fourth Circuit reversed Lesane’s conviction and vacated his sentence. Regarding the court’s jurisdiction based on the purported lack of adverse consequences, the Fourth Circuit found that the possibility of an invalid sentence being used to enhance a sentence in the future created Article III standing. As to the delay in seeking relief, the Fourth Circuit noted that Lesane didn’t have a specific need to challenge the conviction until 2019, when he found himself in federal court again and the invalid conviction was used to enhance his sentence. In cases of actual innocence like this one, the Court held, a lack of timeliness should not be used to bar relief absent extraordinary circumstances.
Appeal from Eastern District of North Carolina
Opinion by King, joined by Wynn and Floyd
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