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Lester v. J.V. Flournoy

United States Court of Appeals, Fourth Circuit

November 30, 2018

STONEY LESTER, Petitioner-Appellant,
v.
J.V. FLOURNOY, Warden of FCI Jesup, Respondent-Appellee.

          Argued: October 30, 2018

          Appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, at Alexandria. Liam O'Grady, District Judge. (1:12-cv-00681-LO-JFA)

         ARGUED:

          Bradley Nelson Garcia, O'MELVENY & MYERS LLP, Washington, D.C., for Appellant.

          Michael Alan Rotker, UNITED STATES DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE, Washington, D.C., for Appellee.

         ON BRIEF:

          Jonathan D. Hacker, Kathryn E. Tarbert, Rakesh Kilaru, O'MELVENY & MYERS LLP, Washington, D.C., for Appellant.

          Leslie R. Caldwell, Assistant Attorney General, Brian A. Benczkowski, Assistant Attorney General, David A. O'Neil, Acting Deputy Assistant Attorney General, Sung-Hee Suh, Deputy Assistant Attorney General, Matthew S. Miner, Deputy Assistant Attorney General, Appellate Section, Criminal Division, UNITED STATES DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE, Washington, D.C.; Dana J. Boente, Acting United States Attorney, OFFICE OF THE UNITED STATES ATTORNEY, Alexandria, Virginia, for Appellee.

          Before DUNCAN, KEENAN, and DIAZ, Circuit Judges.

          DIAZ, Circuit Judge.

         In 2004, after pleading guilty to selling crack cocaine to a government informant, Stoney Lester was sentenced to almost 22 years in prison. Lester received that sentence because he was designated a career offender under the then-mandatory Sentencing Guidelines. Later precedent, however, established that this designation was wrong and that, as a result, Lester's sentence should have been up to 11 years shorter. Lester sought relief through habeas corpus, but the district court denied his petition. Because our recent decision in United States v. Wheeler, 886 F.3d 415 (4th Cir. 2018), permits Lester's challenge, we vacate and remand.

         I.

         Lester pled guilty to a single count of possession with intent to distribute crack cocaine in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 841. Under the Sentencing Guidelines, which at that time were mandatory, Lester was deemed a career offender and subject to a sentencing enhancement. See U.S. Sentencing Guidelines Manual (U.S.S.G.) § 4B1.1 (2004). This enhancement depended on a past conviction for a "crime of violence," namely Lester's 1990 Georgia conviction for walkaway escape. With the enhancement, the guidelines range was 262-327 months in prison. Without the enhancement, however, Lester's Guidelines range would have been 121-151 months. The statutory maximum sentence was 40 years. See 21 U.S.C. § 841(b)(1)(B). Lester received a sentence of 262 months (a bit under 22 years), right at the bottom of the required Guidelines range.

         Lester appealed, unsuccessfully, and filed a motion to vacate his sentence under 28 U.S.C. § 2255, which was denied. In those proceedings Lester couldn't successfully challenge his classification as a career offender because, under then-controlling precedent, walkaway escape under Georgia law was a crime of violence. See United States v. Gay, 251 F.3d 950, 954-55 (11th Cir. 2001).[1] As the years passed by, however, the law changed in two important ways. First, the Supreme Court stripped the Sentencing Guidelines of legal force and made them purely advisory. United States v. Booker, 543 U.S. 220, 245 (2005). Second, it ruled that the generic crime of failing to report to a prison was not a crime of violence, Chambers v. United States, 555 U.S. 122, 127-28 (2009), which led courts to hold that the escape offense Lester committed was not a crime of violence either. See United States v. Clay, 627 F.3d 959, 969 (4th Cir. 2010) (collecting circuit cases); United States v. Lee, 586 F.3d 859, 874 (11th Cir. 2009).

         These new precedents in hand, Lester sought habeas relief in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia in 2012. In his petition, he contended that his escape offense was not a crime of violence, that he thus wasn't subject to the career offender enhancement, and that his 262-month sentence was therefore unlawful because it exceeded the then-mandatory Guidelines range of 121-151 months.

         Because Lester had already filed a petition under 28 U.S.C. § 2255, the ordinary recourse for federal prisoners seeking postconviction relief, he couldn't bring his challenge under that statute. Instead, he filed under 28 U.S.C. § 2241, a catchall habeas statute, arguing that such petitions are allowed, pursuant to § 2255's so-called "savings clause," when the latter statute is "inadequate or ineffective to test the legality of [one's] detention." See id. § 2255(e). But the district court rejected this argument, reasoning that the savings clause didn't allow challenges based on Sentencing Guidelines errors, at least when the petitioner's sentence, like Lester's, still fell below the statutory maximum.

         Lester appealed.

         II.

         That was in 2013. Since then, Lester's appeal has been held in abeyance while our court decided three potentially relevant cases: Whiteside v. United States, 775 F.3d 180 (4th Cir. 2014) (en banc), United States v. Surratt, 797 F.3d 240 (4th Cir. 2015), vacated & dismissed as moot, 855 F.3d 218 (4th Cir. 2017) (en banc), and Wheeler, 886 F.3d 415. But now, with Wheeler shining light on the issues before us, we consider whether Lester may challenge his sentence via the savings clause of ...


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