Tenth Circuit Holds District Court’s Erroneous Dismissal of Habeas Motion Based on Collateral Attack Waiver was Plain Error Requiring Remand

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit held on February 17, 2023, that a district court’s misinterpretation of a collateral attack waiver, which led to the dismissal of a motion for relief under 28 U.S.C. § 2255, amounted to plain error that required remand to the district court to determine the merits of the motion.

When Joseph Chatwin pled guilty to bank fraud and carrying a firearm in furtherance of a crime of violence in 2013, the binding plea agreement contained a collateral attack waiver that stated:

I also knowingly, voluntarily, and expressly waive my right to challenge my sentence, except [where the court imposes a sentence above the maximum penalty], in any collateral review motion, writ or other procedure, including but not limited to a motion brought under 28 U.S.C. § 2255, except on the issue of counsel’s ineffective assistance in negotiating or entering this plea or this waiver as set forth in United States v. Cockerham, 237 F.3d 1179, 1187 (10th Cir. 2001).

Abiding by the agreement’s waiver, Chatwin did not challenge his sentence in a § 2255 motion. However, when the Supreme Court declared the so-called residual clause unconstitutional in a pair of cases, Johnson v. United States, 576 U.S. 591 (2015), and United States v. Davis, 139 S. Ct. 2319 (2019), Chatwin filed a § 2255 motion to challenge the § 924(c) conviction, claiming it was based on the residual clause. The government raised the collateral attack waiver in Chatwin’s plea agreement, and the district court dismissed his motion based on the waiver. Chatwin appealed.

It’s common practice for federal prosecutors to include in a plea agreement that a defendant must waive their right to appeal or challenge their conviction and sentence by way of a collateral attack through federal habeas corpus or other similar proceedings. But these waivers are narrowly construed and every word matters, the courts say. See Allen v. Thomas, 161 F.3d 667 (11th Cir. 1998). Thus, when the waiver bars any challenge to a sentence, this does not also include the conviction.

Applying this long-held rule to Chatwin’s case, the Court of Appeals determined that the district court’s dismissal of the motion based on the waiver barring a challenge to Chatwin’s sentence, was erroneous because he was challenging his § 924(c) conviction, the Court said, and not his sentence. This, however, was already the rule in the Tenth Circuit (as in every other court), but the question in Chatwin’s case was whether the error was grave enough to require a remand.

Chatwin had failed to raise the error in the district court and only raised it for the first time on appeal. The Court said that he had to meet the harsh “plain error” standard of review on appeal. To show plain error, the Court said Chatwin must show: “(1)error that is (2) plain, (3) affects substantial rights, and (4) seriously affects the fairness, integrity, or public reputation of judicial proceedings.” An error is “plain” if it is clear or obvious. United States v. Olano, 507 U.S. 725 (1993).

There was not an argument made that Chatwin did not meet the first two prongs for the plain error standard, but the last two prongs were contested. In the end, the Court found Chatwin met all four prongs, but analyzed each prong in turn to explain why.

The third prong was met, the Court said, because Chatwin showed he was prejudiced or that it affected the outcome of the proceeding. The Court was clear that Chatwin did not have to show that the outcome of the entire § 2255 proceeding was affected, but only the proceeding involving the dismissal of his motion:

We conclude that Chatwin has shown substantial prejudice based on the dismissal of his § 2255 motion. He has shown that the outcome of “the proceeding” would have been different in that the district court could not have dismissed on the issue of the collateral-attack waiver’s scope. Absent plainly erring on the waiver’s scope, the district court could not have dismissed on that ground.

As for the fourth prong, the Court simply found that Chatwin was “entitled to proper resolution of his Davis claim.” This was enough to show that the district court’s erroneous dismissal “seriously affected the fairness, integrity or public reputation of the judicial proceedings,” the Court said.

The Court reiterated that the merits of Chatwin’s claim that his § 924(c) conviction was unconstitutional was not at issue before the Court of Appeals because the district court failed to reach the merits of this claim before it dismissed his motion. The “proper place for these matters is in the district court,” the Court said.

Accordingly, the Court reversed the dismissal of Chatwin’s § 2255 motion and remanded for further proceedings with instructions that the district court decide his motion on the merits. See United States v. Chatwin, No. 21-4003, — F.4th —, 2023 U.S. App. LEXIS 3889 (10th Cir. Feb. 17, 2023).

Dale’s take on this case: It’s implied in this case that the district court’s dismissal denied Chatwin the right to collaterally attack his conviction under § 2255, which was why the Court of Appeals said the projected outcome of his motion was not the proper measuring stick for prejudice under plain error. I think focusing on the denial of the proceeding itself, rather than on the strength of the claims, when a habeas case is dismissed by the district court for procedural reasons would lead to a better outcome of an appeal.

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