Collateral Review of Career Offender Sentences: The Case for Coram Nobis

Occasionally, criminals correctly interpret the law while courts err. Litigation pursuant to the federal Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA) includes numerous examples. The ACCA imposes harsher sentences upon felons in possession of firearms with prior “violent felony” convictions. Over time, courts defined “violent” so contrary to its common meaning that it eventually came to encompass driving under the influence, unwanted touching, and the failure to report to correctional facilities. However, in a series of recent decisions, the Supreme Court has attempted to clarify the meaning of violent in the context of the ACCA and, in the process, excluded such offenses. The ultimate definition of violent and resulting litigation also implicate career offender sentences imposed under the Sentencing Guidelines, because of similarities in the language of the Guidelines and the ACCA. This Article is the first to examine the availability of collateral review of erroneously imposed career offender sentences resulting from the fluctuating definition of the term “violent.” The following offers an overview of the two traditional methods of collateral review available to federal prisoners, motions to vacate and habeas corpus petitions, and assesses the viability of each method. This Article argues for use of the relatively obscure writ of error coram nobis, a safety valve for those who are unable to obtain relief through a motion to vacate or a traditional habeas proceeding. This Article concludes that, despite the writ’s disfavored status, courts should dust off the 16th century remedy. This would alleviate both the injustice of telling prisoners who correctly interpreted the law that they were right, but are now without remedy, and the social waste associated with unnecessary incarceration.