Marijuana Legalization, Coram Nobis, and Federal Felonies

Legalized Pot

An interesting question arose for PCR Consultants the other day. With the growing trend the United States these days to legalize pot, what would happen if the federal government actually gave up the Weed branch of its War on Drugs.

Plenty of people believe that locking up citizens in the US for simple Marijuana possession, especially non-violent offenders, is a waste of taxpayer money. Federal felonies can lock up these offenders for decades, given a sufficiently long rap-sheets to justify large sentencing enhancements.

The landscape of Marijuana legalization has changed drastically over the last few years. In 2010, California nearly passed a ballot measure that would have decriminalized normal possession of consumable Cannabis. From SF Weekly writer Chris Roberts:

Buoyed by Oaksterdam University founder Richard Lee’s cash and energy, Proposition 19 — which would have legalized possession of up to an ounce of pot for adults 21 and over, and allowed cultivation of small gardens — lost in November 2010. It garnered a historic 4.6 million votes, or 46.2 percent of ballots cast. Following the loss, Lee declared on election night that legalization was inevitable, and that legalization would return in 2012 “stronger than ever” with a new ballot measure.1

What would happen, then, if pot was legalized? Would non-violent federal felonies for Marijuana crimes be erased, and the offenders relieved of their weed-based criminal record?

Maybe, but then again maybe not.

United States v. Skilling

To explore this issue further, we look at Honest Services Fraud and CEO-turned-convict Jeffrey Skilling. What, you may be wondering, does a high-profile-former-Enron-CEO have to do with weed?

Skilling took his federal felony to the US Supreme Court, who decided that some of what Skilling did was not actually a crime. This was a groundbreaking restriction on the application of Honest Services Fraud, and enough to call into question plenty of felonies that stood upon a broader definition of this type of fraud. In effect, many inmates were incarcerated for what may not be a crime any longer.

One of Illinois’ incarcerated former governors2 seized upon the Skilling decision to try and spring him from federal prison. Crime in the Suites reports on this (unsuccessful) attempt:

The Supreme Court’s June decision in United States v. Skilling doesn’t give former Illinois Gov. George Ryan a “get out of jail free” card, a U.S. district judge has ruled.

Last August, Ryan filed a petition under 28 U.S.C. 2255, which allows a federal prisoner to challenge his conviction and try to have it set aside if it was imposed in violation of law. His lawyers pointed out that Skilling made a substantial change in federal fraud law, rejecting the concept of “honest services” fraud in cases other than “paradigmatic cases of bribes and kickbacks.”

Judge Pallmeyer, in a detailed 59-page opinion, turned aside all of Ryan’s arguments. The “conduct for which [Ryan] was convicted – steering contracts, leases, and other governmental benefits in exchange for private gain – was well-recognized before his conviction as conduct that falls into the ‘solid core’ of honest services fraud,” the judge wrote, noting that this conduct was exactly what the Supreme Court said in Skilling was the “proper target” of the “honest services” law.

Coram Nobis

On the other hand, if what you did falls exactly under Skilling, you have a case. Nicholas Panarella was convicted of exactly the type of crime that the Skilling ruling said was no longer criminal. Matt Mangino reported on that case this way:

U.S. District Judge Mary A. McLaughlin ruled that Nicholas Panarella, Jr., convicted in a political corruption scheme, is entitled to a “writ of error coram nobis” to vacate his conviction based on an honest services wire fraud scheme, according to The Legal Intelligencer.

Judge McLaughlin ruled that Panarella’s conviction is no longer valid in light of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling in Skilling v. Untied States, which significantly narrowed the scope of the honest-services-fraud statute.

“Where a person is convicted and punished for conduct that is not a crime, such circumstances constitute the sort of fundamental error that may warrant coram nobis relief,” McLaughlin wrote.

McLaughlin said there was “no dispute that Panarella was charged solely with the undisclosed self-dealing theory that was invalidated by Skilling”, reported the Intelligencer. As a result, Panarella’s conviction “was predicated solely on conduct that is no longer a crime.”

What it all Means

In one case above, the underlying conduct of former Governor Ryan did not become lawful from the Skilling ruling. In the other, the Writ of Error Coram Nobis was used successfully when the underlying conduct of that person was declared “not illegal”.

So many federal felonies are out there for Marijuana that there is no one-size-fits-all answer to the question posed at the beginning of this article. If Marijuana is de-criminalized at the federal level, a great many federal prisoners could be eligible for having their convictions thrown out

  1. Marijuana Legalization Effort Fails in California, Thanks to Money and the Feds []
  2. and there are two: Ryan and Blagojevich []