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11th Circuit finds plea deal bars challenge to bank robbery sentence

Despite accepting a plea deal for a light punishment, a Georgia man convicted of a firearm-related conspiracy charge appealed his sentence after the U.S. Supreme Court found the federal statute unconstitutionally vague.

ATLANTA (CN) — The 11th Circuit on Thursday upheld the denial of a convicted armed bank robber’s request to bring a habeas challenge to the sentence he was given under a plea deal.

In August 2012, Deandre King and two others entered a PNC bank in Dunwoody, Georgia, where they brandished their guns at the tellers to force them into the vault and hand over $71,000.

The following month, the same men canvassed another bank in Austell, another Atlanta suburb, forming a plan to carry out another robbery. Before they were able to execute their plans, police officers who were on the lookout noticed their car and stopped them.

The men were arrested and King was indicted by a federal grand jury in the Northern District of Georgia on three counts of a seven-count indictment.

Under a plea deal, King’s charges were eventually dropped to two counts – conspiracy to commit armed back robbery in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 371, and using and carrying a firearm during a crime of violence in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 924(c). He was sentenced to a prison term of 135 months, or just over 11 years, while his original charges could have landed him in prison for life.

In 2020, King appealed the second count of his conviction based on the 2019 U.S. Supreme Court decision in United States v. Davis.

In that case, the justices vacated the 18 U.S.C. § 924(c) count against a man found guilty of a similar crime, finding that the residual clause of the statute – which defines an offense as a crime of violence if it, “by its nature, involves a substantial risk that physical force against the person or property of another may be used in the course of committing the offense” – was unconstitutionally vague.

The 11th Circuit and other appeals courts soon after held that conspiracy to commit Hobbs Act robbery – the taking of property by means of actual or threatened force – does not qualify as a "crime of violence" in regards to the 924(c) statue, of which the second count of King's conviction had relied on.

Senior U.S. District Judge Orinda Evans, a Jimmy Carter appointee, denied King's request to challenge his conviction, ruling that he waived his right to bring forth a habeas challenge in his plea agreement.

A three-judge panel of the 11th Circuit agreed in Thursday's ruling.

"A criminal defendant who wishes to plead guilty can waive the right to challenge his conviction and sentence in exchange for a better plea deal," wrote U.S. Circuit Judge Britt Grant, a Donald Trump appointee. "None of the narrow exceptions that permit a court to look past an appeal waiver apply here."

Senior U.S. Circuit Judge Lanier Anderson, a Jimmy Carter appointee, and U.S. Circuit Judge Robert Luck, another Trump appointee, joined Grant in the unanimous opinion.

According to the panel, a defendant who signs an appeal wavier as part of a plea deal gives up even “the right to appeal blatant error” because the waiver would be “nearly meaningless if it included only those appeals that border on the frivolous.”

Their ruling also warned that stepping away from contract-based appeal waivers could backfire for both the prosecutor and the defendant.

"So even when a new constitutional rule might provide a strong basis for collateral attack, we enforce an appeal waiver according to its terms," wrote Judge Grant.

There are very few exceptions that allow review under the appeal waiver, such as if an imposed sentence exceeds the maximum penalty provided by statute.

King argued that in light of the Davis decision, his sentence exceeds the statutory maximum of five years in prison for the conspiracy charge he pleaded guilty to.

“Mr. King’s § 924(c) conviction is unlawful after Davis and he is now serving an additional seven years in prison for a phantom crime,” King’s attorney Matthew Dodge wrote in his brief.

The Atlanta-based appeals court ruled that King's argument misinterprets this exception to the appeal waiver and that his punishment follows the maximum statutory penalty in effect at the time of sentencing.

"The statutory maximum for King’s § 924(c) charge at the time of his conviction was life in prison. He managed to negotiate a far lower limit; his plea agreement preserved the right to challenge 'any sentence over 84 months with respect to' that charge. The district court respected that limit. Because King received a lesser sentence—one within the 84-month limit he had negotiated—the statutory-maximum exception...does not come into play," Grant wrote.

The Sixth and Seventh Circuits have also held that appeal waivers block habeas challenges based on Davis.

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