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August 30, 2012

More wrongful federal gun convictions and sentences being remedied in North Carolina

As reported in this local piece, headlined "Judge rules five inmates wrongly sentenced on gun charges," a federal judge in North Carolina has ordered more relief for defendants wrongly charged as a felon for possessing firearms.   This action comes in the aftermath of the story blogged here and well covered by USA Today concerning many persons serving federal time for gun possession crimes that are no longer crimes in the wake of an important recent Fourth Circuit ruling.  Here are the details:

Civil libertarians and defense attorneys were heartened Wednesday when a federal judge vacated convictions of two men wrongly imprisoned on gun-related charges without any challenge from prosecutors. U.S. District Judge Terrence Boyle also reduced sentences for three other federal inmates seeking relief after a 2011 U.S. Court of Appeals case decision effectively changed the definition of who could be considered a felon.

Boyle’s rulings came several weeks after the U.S. Department of Justice told prosecutors to stop using procedural grounds to block legitimate appeals for relief....

For many years, the federal courts in North Carolina treated defendants as felons when their criminal records were not serious enough for that designation, according to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals case known as the United States vs. Simmons....

The American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of North Carolina Legal Foundation have been working in recent months to identify which prisoners are either wrongfully incarcerated or serving unnecessarily long sentences because of the quirk in North Carolina sentencing laws highlighted in the federal court of appeals ruling.

The federal government defines a felony as a crime punishable by death or imprisonment in excess of a year, and someone convicted of such a crime is a felon. But the federal courts in North Carolina were treating defendants as felons when their criminal records were not serious enough for that to be the case, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals found. As a result, a person with a less serious criminal record could be sentenced as if he had a lengthy one.

Though civil libertarians and defense attorneys would like more help from the federal government identifying hundreds of inmates caught in the ruling, they lauded the decisions on Wednesday. “It’s certainly encouraging the government is no longer standing in the way of folks who are already bringing appeals,” said Christopher Brook, legal director of the ACLU of North Carolina. “I would label this as a positive first step. There need to be a number of other steps before we get comprehensive justice.”

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