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Webster v. Streeval

United States District Court, E.D. Kentucky, Northern Division, Ashland

November 7, 2019

JASON STREEVAL, Warden, Respondent.

          OPINION & ORDER


         Federal inmate Timothy Webster has filed a pro se petition for a writ of habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2241 to challenge the validity of his conviction in light of the Supreme Court's recent decision in Rehaif v. United States, 139 S.Ct. 2191 (2019). [D. E. No. 1] The Court must review the petition before proceeding further. 28 U.S.C. § 2243; Alexander v. Northern Bureau of Prisons, 419 Fed.Appx. 544, 545 (6th Cir. 2011).[1]

         In February 2009 Webster was indicted in Greensboro, North Carolina for possession with intent to distribute crack cocaine, possession of two firearms in furtherance of a drug trafficking crime, and two counts of being a felon in possession of a firearm. Webster was also charged as an armed career criminal in light of two prior North Carolina convictions for felony breaking and entering and larceny, as well as North Carolina convictions for robbery with a dangerous weapon, conspiracy, and possession of a firearm by a felon. One month later Webster reached an agreement with the government to plead guilty to one count of being a felon in possession of a firearm in exchange for the dismissal of the other charges. As part of the plea agreement, Webster expressly waived his right to appeal save upon four enumerated grounds, and further "waive[d] any right to contest the conviction or the sentence in any post-conviction proceeding ..."

         Prior to sentencing Webster argued that his two breaking and entering convictions were not valid predicate offenses because North Carolina had restored his right to possess firearms with respect to them, but he acknowledged that his argument was foreclosed by Fourth Circuit precedent.[2] In August 2009 the trial court found that Webster qualified for an enhanced sentence under the Armed Career Criminal Act, 18 U.S.C. § 924(e), and imposed a 200-month sentence. United States v. Webster, No. 1: 09-CR-48-1 (M.D. N.C. 2009).

         On direct appeal Webster's counsel filed a brief pursuant to Anders v. California, 386 U.S. 738 (1967), but again presented Webster's argument challenging the ACCA enhancement.[3] The Fourth Circuit affirmed in light of Clark. United States v. Webster, 372 Fed.Appx. 392 (4th Cir.), cert, denied, 562 U.S. 927 (2010). The trial court denied Webster's initial motion under 28 U.S.C. § 2255 to vacate his conviction in 2015, and the Fourth Circuit denied a certificate of appealability. In May 2019, Webster filed a § 2244 motion seeking permission from the Fourth Circuit to assert his claim under Rehaif in a successive § 2255 motion, but that request was denied. In re: Timothy Webster, No. 19-326 (4th Cir. 2019).

         Webster's current § 2241 petition presents essentially the same claim that he sought to assert by way of § 2255. Webster contends that in 2009 he thought that he had the right to possess firearms because (he believed) that right had been restored by North Carolina law. Webster argues that because he did not know that he could not possess firearms, under Rehaif he cannot be guilty under 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1). [D. E.No. 1 at6-10][4]

         Having thoroughly reviewed the petition, the Court concludes that it must be denied. Generally a federal prisoner must challenge the legality of his conviction or sentence by filing a motion under Section 2255 with the trial court. Capaldi v. Pontesso, 135 F.3d 1122, 1123 (6th Cir. 2003). A narrow exception to this rule, set forth in Section 2255(e), permits a petitioner to challenge his conviction in a Section 2241 petition, but only if he can demonstrate that he is "actually innocent" of committing the underlying criminal offense. He can make this showing where, after his conviction became final, the Supreme Court re-interprets the substantive terms of the criminal statute under which he was convicted in a manner that establishes that his conduct did not violate the statute. Wooten v. Cauley, 677 F.3d 303, 307-08 (6th Cir. 2012).

         For purposes of discussion, the Court assumes without deciding that a claim under Rehaif could be asserted in a § 2241 petition. But that decision does not assist Webster for two reasons. First, Webster knowingly and voluntarily waived his right to collaterally attack his conviction or sentence. Such waivers are enforceable and apply to proceedings under § 2241. Slusser v. United States, 895 F.3d 437, 439 (6th Cir. 2018) ("It is well-settled that a knowing and voluntary waiver of a collateral attack is enforceable.") (citing Watson v. United States, 165 F.3d 486, 489 (6th Cir. 1999)), cert, denied, 139 S.Ct. 1291 (2019). In his plea agreement, Webster bargained for and received a substantial reduction in the sentence he faced in exchange for his agreement to plead guilty and to waive his right to challenge his conviction or sentence on direct appeal (on most grounds) or by collateral attack. Webster is therefore barred from challenging his conviction or sentence in this proceeding. Moser v. Quintana, No. CV 5: 17-386-DCR, 2017 WL 5194507, at *2 (E.D. Ky. Nov. 9, 2017), aff'd, No. 17-6421 (6th Cir. June 21, 2018); Rivera v. Warden, FCI, Elkton, 27 Fed.Appx. 511, 515 (6th Cir. 2001).[5]

         Second, contrary to Webster's argument Rehaif does not hold that the government was required to prove that he knew that he was prohibited from possessing a firearm to sustain a conviction under Section 922(g)(1). As a preliminary matter, the government was not required to prove anything because Webster admitted all of the facts essential to sustain his conviction when he agreed to plead guilty. United States v. Broce, 488 U.S. 563, 569 (1989) ("A plea of guilty and the ensuing conviction comprehend all of the factual and legal elements necessary to sustain a binding, final judgment of guilt and a lawful sentence."); see also Boykin v. Alabama, 395 U.S. 238, 242 (1969).

         At bottom, Webster's claim is based upon a misunderstanding of Rehaif. As the Supreme Court explained,

The question here concerns the scope of the word "knowingly." Does it mean that the Government must prove that a defendant knew both that he engaged in the relevant conduct (that he possessed a firearm) and also that he fell within the relevant status (that he was a felon, an alien unlawfully in this country, or the like)? We hold that the word "knowingly" applies both to the defendant's conduct and to the defendant's status. To convict a defendant, the Government therefore must show that the defendant knew he possessed a firearm and also that he knew he had the relevant status when he possessed it.

Rehaif, 139 S.Ct. at 2194. Thus, the government's burden includes proof that the defendant was aware of his "relevant status," meaning that he knew that he was "a felon, an alien unlawfully in this country, or the like." Id. at 2195-96.

         The federal courts of appeal are uniform in reading Rehaif m this fashion. Cf. United States v. Bowens,938 F.3d 790, 797 (6th Cir. 2019) (under Rehaif "the Government would have to prove that [defendants] both knew they possessed firearms and knew that they were unlawful users of a controlled substance" under § 922(g)(3)); United States v. Burghardt, 939 F.3d 397, 401, 403 (1st Cir. 2019) ("The indictment did not assert that Burghardt knew that he had been convicted of a crime punishable by imprisonment for a term exceeding one year (the "scienter-of- status element"). ... the government would have had [no] difficulty at all in ...

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