Custis v. United States, 511 U.S. 485 (1994)

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certiorari to the united states court of appeals for the fourth circuit

No. 93-5209. Argued February 28, 1994—Decided May 23, 1994

After the jury convicted petitioner Custis of possession of a firearm by a felon and another federal crime, the Government relied on his prior state-court convictions for robbery in Pennsylvania and for burglary and attempted burglary in Maryland to support a motion under the Armed Career Criminal Act of 1984, 18 U. S. C. 924(e) (ACCA), which provides for enhancement of the sentence of a convicted firearms possessor who "has three previous convictions . . . for a violent felony or a serious drug offense." Custis challenged the use for this purpose of the two Maryland convictions on the ground, among others, of ineffective assistance of counsel during the state prosecutions, but the District Court held that 924(e)(1) provides no statutory right to challenge such convictions and that the Constitution bars the use of a prior conviction for enhancement only when there was a complete denial of counsel in the prior proceeding. Custis was sentenced to an enhanced term of 235 months in prison, and the Court of Appeals affirmed.

Held: 1. With the sole exception of convictions obtained in violation of the right to counsel, a defendant in a federal sentencing proceeding has no right to collaterally attack the validity of previous state convictions that are used to enhance his sentence under the ACCA. Pp. 490-497. (a) Congress did not intend to permit collateral attacks on prior convictions under 924(e). The statute's language—which applies to a defendant who has "three previous convictions" of the type specified— focuses on the fact of the conviction, and nothing therein suggests that the prior final conviction may be subject to attack for potential constitutional errors before it may be counted. That there is no implied right of collateral attack under 924(e) is strongly supported by 921(a)(20), which provides that a court may not count a conviction "which has been . . . set aside" by the jurisdiction in which the proceedings were held, and thereby creates a clear negative implication that courts may count a conviction that has not been so set aside; by the contrast between 924(e) and other related statutes that expressly permit repeat offenders to challenge prior convictions that are used for enhancement purposes, see, e. g., 21 U. S. C. 851(c); and by Lewis v. United States, 445 U. S. 55, in which this Court held that one of the predecessors to the


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