Lackawanna County District Attorney v. Coss

PETITIONER: Lackawanna County District Attorney
RESPONDENT: Coss
LOCATION: Office of Attorney General

DOCKET NO.: 99-1884
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit

CITATION: 532 US 394 (2001)
ARGUED: Feb 20, 2001
DECIDED: Apr 25, 2001

ADVOCATES:
William P. O'Malley - Scranton, Pennsylvania, argued the cause for the petitioners

Facts of the case

In 1986, after being convicted for simple assault, institutional vandalism, and criminal mischief, Edward R. Coss, Jr., filed a petition for relief, but the Pennsylvania courts never ruled on the petition. In 1990, after he had served the full sentences for his 1986 convictions, Coss was convicted of aggravated assault. Ultimately, the sentencing court did not consider Coss' 1986 convictions in determining his eligible sentencing range. In choosing a sentence within the applicable range, the court considered several factors including Coss' extensive criminal record, making reference to his 1986 convictions. Coss then filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus, claiming that his 1986 convictions were constitutionally invalid. The Federal District Court denied the petition reasoning that Coss had not been prejudiced by his 1986 counsel's ineffectiveness. The Court of Appeals found that Coss would not have been convicted in 1986 but for the ineffective assistance. The court remanded the case ordering a retrial or resentencing without consideration of the 1986 conviction.

Question

May a state prisoner use a federal habeas petition to challenge a current sentence on the ground that it was enhanced based on an unconstitutional prior conviction for which the sentence has fully expired?

Media for Lackawanna County District Attorney v. Coss

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - February 20, 2001 in Lackawanna County District Attorney v. Coss

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - April 25, 2001 in Lackawanna County District Attorney v. Coss

Sandra Day O'Connor:

Now the second case is Lackawanna County District Attorney versus Coss, and it comes on writ of certiorari to United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, and it has a resemblance to the case just announced.

This is the state analogue of the Daniel’s opinion which I just described.

In that case as I explained we delth with challenges to federal sentences enhanced by allegedly unconstitutional prior convictions.

In this Lackawanna case, we deal with challenges to state criminal sentences enhanced by allegedly unconstitutional prior state convictions.

In 1986 Mr. Coss was convicted in Pennsylvania State court of assault, vandalism, and criminal mischief.

He filed a petition for state postconviction relief alleging that those convictions were the product of ineffective assistance of counsel.

The Pennsylvania Courts never ruled on his petition and he served his full sentence on those offences.

In 1990, Coss was again convicted in State Court, this time of aggravated assault.

Taking under consideration his extensive criminal record of which his 1986 convictions are a small part, the State Court sentenced Coss to six to twelve years imprison.

Coss then filed a petition for writ of habeas corpus under 28 U.S.C Section 2254 in Federal Court, claiming that his 1986 convictions were the product of ineffective assistance of counsel and that he was in custody in violation of a Constitution of the United States.

The petitioner, the Lackawanna County District Attorney and the Court, understood Coss to be arguing that his sentence for that 1990 crime was adversely affected by his earlier 1986 state convictions.

The District Court held that it had jurisdiction but it denied the petition finding that Coss had not been prejudiced by his 1986 counsel’s ineffectiveness.

The Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit agreed the District court had jurisdiction but remanded upon finding that but for his counsel’s ineffectiveness he would not have been convicted in 1986.

In an opinion filed with the Clerk of the Court today we reverse the judgment of the Third Circuit.

Coss does satisfy the in custody requirement for habeas petitioners because he is challenging the sentence is currently serving for his 1990 conviction.

We have not previously determined the extent to which a prior conviction used to enhance a subsequent State Court sentence maybe subject to challenge in an attack on the enhanced sentence.

We extend our holding in Daniel’s which was announced this morning to the Section 2254 context and for the reasons stated in that opinion, we hold once a state conviction is no longer open to direct or collateral attack in its own right because the defendant failed to pursue those remedies when they were available or because he did so unsuccessfully, that conviction is conclusively valid.

If that conviction is then used to enhance a subsequence state sentence, the previous state conviction may not be collaterally attacked through a Secton 2254 petition directed at the enhanced sentence.

As in Daniel’s we recognized an exception to this general rule where the prior conviction was obtained for failure to appoint counsel.

Justice Scalia has joined all but parts 3B and 3C of the opinion; Justice Thomas has joined all but part 3B; Justice Souter has filed a dissenting opinion which Justice Stevens and Justice Ginsberg have joined; Justice Breyer has filed a dissenting opinion.