By Paige Topper

On February 19, 2016, in the criminal case of United States v. Adams, a published opinion, the Fourth Circuit vacated the conviction of defendant, Richard Adams, for being a felon in possession of a firearm because, at the time of the offense, Adams was not a convicted felon.

Adams’ Plea Agreement Relating to a Series of Armed Robberies 

A grand jury indicted Adams for committing a series of armed robberies of convenience stores. Adams entered into a written plea agreement in which he pled guilty to three of eight criminal counts: (1) robbery, (2) using and carrying a firearm during a crime of violence, and (3) being a felon in possession of a firearm. By entering into the plea agreement, Adams waived his right to challenge his conviction or sentence. Adams’ total sentence for the three crimes was 240 months imprisonment.

On August 28, 2012, Adams filed a motion pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2255 to vacate his conviction for being a felon in possession of a firearm (§ 922(g)). Adams argued that his prior convictions were not felonies after the decision in United States v. Simmons. In Simmons the Fourth Circuit held that for an offense to be a prior felony a defendant must have actually faced the possibility of more than one year in prison. Therefore, Adams argued he was innocent of being a felon in possession of a firearm (his prior charges were not discussed in the opinion). The district court determined that Adams’ claim was barred by the waiver in his plea agreement. The Fourth Circuit granted Adams a certificate of appealability to determine whether Adams’ waiver barred consideration of his claim that Simmons rendered him innocent of being a felon in possession of a firearm.

Adams Was Not Barred from Bringing Simmons Claim

In order to determine whether Adams was innocent, the Fourth Circuit first examined whether Adams’ Simmons-based claim was within the scope of the valid waiver of his plea agreement. The Fourth Circuit had previously reasoned in case law that it would refuse to enforce an otherwise valid waiver if doing so would result in a “miscarriage of justice.” Specifically, the Fourth Circuit found that a proper showing of actual innocence would constitute a miscarriage of justice should a plea agreement waiver be upheld in light of such innocence. Thus, if the Court determined that Adams made a cognizable claim of actual innocence then his motion falls outside the scope of his waiver.

Adams Properly Alleged his Actual Innocence

The Fourth Circuit then concluded that Adams made a valid claim of actual innocence based on prior case law. The Court turned to Miller v. United States to determine that for defendants convicted of being a felon in possession of a firearm, where the predicate convictions were North Carolina felony offenses for which the defendant could not have received sentences of more than one year in prison, Simmons made clear that such convictions do not qualify as predicate felonies for federal law and that the defendants are thus innocent of the offense.

The Court found the government’s argument that Adams only showed legal innocence as opposed to factual innocence to have no merit. Specifically, the Fourth Circuit determined that Adams did show factual innocence because, by showing that he was not a convicted felon at the time at issue, Adams made it impossible for the government to prove one of the required elements of the crime for possession of a firearm by a convicted felon: that the defendant was a convicted felon at the time of the offense.

Furthermore, the Fourth Circuit found the government’s second argument that Adams had to show that he was also actually innocent of the conduct alleged in the five dismissed counts unpersuasive. The Court explained that a defendant making a claim of actual innocence after a plea deal has to show only that he is factually innocent of the underlying criminal conduct. Thus, Adams did have to prove actual innocence to the five dismissed charges because they related to different criminal conduct.

Fourth Circuit Vacated Conviction

The Fourth Circuit concluded that Adams made the requisite showing of actual innocence for the crime of being a felon in possession of a firearm. Subsequently, the Court vacated Adams’ § 922(g) conviction.