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9th Circuit Reverses Denial of Motion to Vacate Conviction

USA v. Justin Werle Court: US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, Docket: 20-36005, Opinion Date: June 3, 2022. Defendant sought to vacate the conviction because he pled guilty without being informed of the mens rea element announced in Rehaif v. United States, 139 S. Ct. 2191 (2019). Defendant did not challenge the omission of this element in the district court or on direct appeal, his claim is procedurally defaulted, such that the district court may not consider the merits of the claim unless Defendant can overcome the default by showing (1) cause for not raising the error sooner; and (2) prejudice, which means a reasonable probability that Defendant would not have pled guilty had he been properly informed of the elements of the offense. The district court summarily denied the motion without supplementing the record, holding an evidentiary hearing, or making factual findings. The court held that the district court’s summary denial was erroneous. The court wrote that the district court erred by applying plain-error analysis. Rejecting the Government’s specific arguments, the court held (1) neither the fact that Defendant was sentenced to more than one year in prison nor his acknowledgment at his sentencing hearing that he had been “convicted of felonies,” is conclusive evidence that he would have pled guilty even if he were informed of all of the elements of the offense; and (2) the potential loss of an acceptance-of-responsibility reduction is not so great that it alone conclusively establishes that Defendant would have pled guilty to the felon-in-possession count even if he were properly informed of the elements of the offense.

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