Unconstitutional Prior Convictions

In Johnson v. Mississippi, 486 U.S. 578 (1988), the United States Supreme Court held that Johnson's death sentence, which was based in part on a prior conviction vacated after his Mississippi capital trial, violated the Eighth Amendment's prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. Mr. Johnson was sentenced to death after a jury found three aggravating circumstances outweighed the mitigating factors. One of the aggravators (that Johnson had been previously convicted of a felony involving the use or threat of violence to another person) was supported solely by a 1963 New York conviction of second degree assault with intent to commit first degree rape, the only evidence of which was an authenticated copy of Johnson's commitment to Elmira Reception Center.

After his Mississippi conviction, Johnson successfully challenged the 1963 assault conviction. Prior to the assault trial in New York, the police obtained an incriminating statement from Johnson. Despite his objection that it had been coerced, the confession was admitted into evidence without an evidentiary hearing. Moreover, after he was convicted, he was not informed of his right to appeal though he attempted to do so three times without the benefit of counsel. Each attempt was rejected as untimely. Johnson's attorneys were able to convince the Monroe County Court in New York that Johnson had been unconstitutionally deprived of his right to appeal. The county court entered a new sentencing order from which Johnson was able to take a direct appeal. In that proceeding, the New York Court of Appeals reversed his conviction. People v. Johnson, 506 N.E.2d 1177 (1987).

Johnson then sought post conviction relief from the Mississippi Supreme Court which was denied. Subsequently, the United States Supreme Court granted certiorari to determine whether the reversal of the 1963 conviction affected the validity of the death sentence. The Supreme Court's holding was grounded in its concern for heightened reliability in capital cases. Because the 1963 conviction was ultimately reversed, evidence regarding it was entirely irrelevant to the Mississippi jury's sentencing decision. Therefore, the jury "was allowed to consider evidence that has been revealed to be materially inaccurate." 486 U.S. at 590. Johnson's death sentence was vacated.

Since Johnson, the Supreme Court has decided three other cases, all noncapital, concerning how and when challenges to the unconstitutionality of prior convictions used to enhance a sentence can be brought.

In the first case, Custis v. United States, 511 U.S. 485 (1994), the defendant attacked the validity of two prior state convictions the government sought to use to enhance his federal sentence under the Armed Career Criminal Act ("ACCA"), a federal recidivist statute. Custis argued that the prior convictions were unconstitutional as a result of ineffective assistance of counsel and an involuntary guilty plea. 511 U.S. at 480. Relying on the wording of the ACCA which did not expressly provide for a collateral attack of priors on constitutional grounds at the time of sentencing, and the interest in ease of administration and promoting finality, the Supreme Court concluded that, except where a defendant was claiming a violation of the right to appointed counsel, a defendant cannot collaterally attack a state conviction at the time of his federal sentencing. 511 U.S. at 496-97. The defendant could, however, seek to have his prior convictions voided in state court or by a federal habeas corpus proceeding, and if successful, could apply to reopen his federal enhanced sentence. 511 U.S. at 497.

In Daniels v. United States, 532 U.S. 374 (2001), and Lackawanna County District Attorney v. Coss, 532 U.S. 394 (2001), the Supreme Court answered the question left unanswered by Custis: whether the constitutionality of prior convictions used to enhance a federal or state sentence may be challenged through a motion pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2255 (the post-conviction remedy for federal prisoners), or a habeas corpus petition pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §2254 (the federal post-conviction remedy for state prisoners). In both cases, the answer was no, with several important exceptions.

In Daniels v. United States, the defendant filed a §2255 motion challenging the constitutionality of his state convictions used to enhance his federal sentence under the ACCA. He argued that his prior state convictions were unconstitutional because they were based on involuntary guilty pleas and resulted from ineffective assistance of counsel. 121 S.Ct. at 1581. Extending Custis (and its reliance on the interests of "finality" and "ease of administration") to prohibit such challenges in §2255 motions except where the defendant was denied his right to counsel, the Supreme Court noted that a defendant "generally has ample opportunity to obtain constitutional review of a state conviction." If the defendant did not pursue those avenues, or the pursuit was unsuccessful, §2255 cannot be used to collaterally attack those convictions. 121 S.Ct. at 1584-85. The Court recognized, however, that in "rare cases" where "no channel of review was actually available" to challenge the prior conviction "due to no fault of his own,"a §2255 motion may be appropriate. Id. The examples the Court cited for such circumstances included newly discovered evidence of innocence and the impediment to timely challenging the prior conviction was the fault of governmental actors. Id.

In Lackawanna County District Attorney v. Coss, the Court reached the same result when the habeas petitioner sought to challenge the constitutionality of prior state convictions used to enhance his state sentence. Unlike Daniels, Coss had challenged the constitutionality of his prior convictions in a state postconviction petition that was still pending some 14 years later. 532 U.S. at 397-98. After extending Daniels and its rationale to §2254 habeas petitions, the Court concluded that "even assuming the existence of a limited exception to the general rule" barring review of expired convictions, Coss was not harmed because "it is clear" that any consideration the state judge gave to the unconstitutional prior convictions "did not actually affect that sentence." 532 U.S. at 406. The Court reiterated the exceptions described in Daniels, adding that a state court's "refus[al' to rule on a constitutional claim properly that has been properly presented to it"constitutes such an exception. 532 U.S. at 405.

Although neither Daniels nor Coss address the separate concerns of the Eighth Amendment's "special `need for reliability in the determination that death is the appropriate punishment'" in a capital case, Johnson, 486 U.S. at 584, counsel should timely challenge the constitutionality of any prior conviction used to support a death sentence in the forum where the prior conviction occurred, in addition to challenging those convictions under Johnson at the capital sentencing and post-conviction proceedings.

Successful Johnson v. Mississippi Cases.pdf (updated September 2017)