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Arreola-Castillo v. United States

United States Court of Appeals, Seventh Circuit

May 3, 2018

Jesus Arreola-Castillo, Petitioner-Appellant,
United States of America, Respondent-Appellee.

          Argued April 10, 2018

          Appeal from the United States District Court for the Southern District of Indiana, Indianapolis Division. No. 14-cv-2118 - Larry J. McKinney, Judge.

          Before Wood, Chief Judge, and Flaum and Kanne, Circuit Judges.

          Flaum, Circuit Judge.

         Petitioner Jesus Arreola-Castillo was convicted of a federal drug crime. Because he had at least two prior felony drug convictions in New Mexico, he was subject to the recidivism provisions of 21 U.S.C. § 841. Pursuant to that statute, he received a mandatory minimum sentence of life in prison. He subsequently challenged the underlying felony drug convictions in New Mexico state court, which the state court ultimately vacated. Now, he moves to reopen his federal sentence under 28 U.S.C. § 2255, arguing that he is no longer subject to the recidivism enhancement because the prior state convictions have been vacated. The district court denied his § 2255 petition on the ground that it was time-barred. It relied on 21 U.S.C. § 851(e), which prohibits an individual from challenging the validity of a prior conviction that is more than five years old at the time the government seeks the recidivism enhancement. Because Arreola-Castillo is not challenging the validity of his prior convictions, but rather their very existence, we reverse.

         I. Background

         In 2006, a jury found Arreola-Castillo guilty of conspiracy to distribute 1, 000 kilograms or more of marijuana in violation of 21 U.S.C. §§ 841(a)(1) and 846. The government filed two informations under 21 U.S.C. § 851 alleging that Arreola-Castillo had previously been convicted of two felony drug offenses in New Mexico in 1996. Because he had two or more prior felony drug convictions, the district court was required to impose a mandatory life sentence under the recidivism provisions of 21 U.S.C. § 841(b)(1)(A). Had it not been for the mandatory life sentence, Arreola-Castillo's Guidelines sentencing range would have been 188-235 months in prison. We affirmed Arreola-Castillo's sentence on direct appeal in 2008. See United States v. Arreola-Castillo, 539 F.3d 700 (7th Cir. 2008).

         Arreola-Castillo subsequently challenged both underlying state convictions in New Mexico state courts. He moved to withdraw the guilty pleas in those convictions on the ground that he received ineffective assistance of counsel. Specifically, Arreola-Castillo claimed that his attorney did not inquire into his immigration status or sufficiently advise him of the immigration consequences of pleading guilty. The New Mexico state courts agreed and accordingly vacated the convictions on November 19, 2014 and June 29, 2015.

         In December 2014, after his first conviction was vacated, Arreola-Castillo moved to reopen his federal sentence under § 2255. The government initially moved to dismiss the petition as an unauthorized second or successive petition under 28 U.S.C. §§ 2244 and 2255(h). The court denied that motion, ruling that Arreola-Castillo's petition was based on a claim that did not become ripe until his state convictions were vacated.

         Next, the government argued that Arreola-Castillo's claim was "meritless" in light of 21 U.S.C. § 851(e). That provision bars an individual from "challeng[ing] the validity of any prior conviction alleged under this section which occurred more than five years before the date of the information alleging such prior conviction." 21 U.S.C. § 851(e). The government argued that § 851(e) precludes Arreola-Castillo's claim because the informations alleging the prior convictions were filed in 2006-more than five years after his (now vacated) convictions occurred in 1996. In response, Arreola-Castillo argued that § 851(e), which assumes the existence of a prior conviction and addresses its validity, does not apply because his convictions have been vacated.

         In January 2017, the district court held that § 851(e) bars Arreola-Castillo's claims, and accordingly denied his petition for relief under § 2255. We subsequently granted Arreola-Castillo's request for a certificate of appealability. Although the parties had not addressed the issue below, we instructed them to brief the timeliness of Arreola-Castillo's claim under § 2255(f)(4).

         II. Discussion

         "On an appeal from the denial of a § 2255 motion, we review the district court's legal conclusions de novo and its factual findings for clear error." Keller v. United States, 657 F.3d 675, 679 (7th Cir. 2011). "A § 2255 motion must be granted when a defendant's 'sentence was imposed in violation of the Constitution or laws of the United States.'" Fountain v. United States, 211 F.3d 429, 433 (7th Cir. 2000) (quoting 28 U.S.C. § 2255)).

         A. We Decline to Address the Government's Forfeited Timeliness Argument Under § 2255(f)(4)

         There is a one-year statute of limitations for filing habeas petitions. 28 U.S.C. § 2255(f). In relevant part, the limitation period runs from "the date on which the facts supporting the claim or claims presented could have been discovered through the exercise of due diligence." Id. § 2255(f)(4). In Johnson v. United States, the Supreme Court held that vacatur of a prior state conviction used to enhance a federal sentence is a "matter of fact" that could trigger this one-year limitation period. 544 U.S. 295, 302 (2005). "[T]he period begins when a petitioner receives notice of the order vacating the prior conviction, provided that he has sought it with due diligence in state court, after entry of judgment in the federal case with the enhanced sentence." Id. at 298.

         On appeal, the government argues for the first time that Arreola-Castillo's petition is untimely under § 2255(f)(4) be- cause he did not diligently pursue vacatur of his state convictions.[1] Despite two years of litigation below, the government never made this timeliness argument in the district court. Instead, it moved to dismiss Arreola-Castillo's petition on the ground that it was an unauthorized successive motion under §§ 2244 and 2255(h). When that failed, the government argued that § 851(e) barred Arreola-Castillo's challenge.

         We are not required to address the government's belated timeliness argument. The statute of limitations in § 2255(f)(4) is not a jurisdictional requirement, but rather an affirmative defense. Estremera v. United States, 724 F.3d 773, 775 (7th Cir. 2013). As a general rule, a defendant must raise a statute of limitations defense in their answer. Day v. McDonough, 547 U.S. 198, 207-08 (2006) (citing Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(c), 12(b), 15(a)). Failure to do so results in forfeiture. Id. Accordingly, "courts are under no obligation to raise the time bar sua sponte." Id. at 205.

         Nevertheless, we have discretion to examine the timeliness of a habeas petition "when extraordinary circumstances so warrant." Wood v. Milyard, 566 U.S. 463, 471, 473 (2012) (citing Day, 547 U.S. at 201). "[L]eeway" is appropriate in this context because the statute of limitations "implicat[es] values beyond the concerns of the parties." Id. at 472 (second alteration in original) (quoting Day, 547 U.S. at 205). It "promotes judicial efficiency and conservation of judicial resources, safeguards the accuracy of state court judgments by requiring resolution of constitutional questions while the record is fresh, and lends finality to state court judgments within a reasonable time." Id. (quoting Day, 547 U.S. at 205-06). Although Day and Wood involved state prisoners' habeas petitions under 28 U.S.C. § 2244, we have assumed that those cases apply equally to federal prisoners' habeas petitions under § 2255. See, e.g., Ryan v. United States, 688 F.3d 845, 848 (7th Cir. 2012).

         This discretion is limited in several important respects. First and foremost, "a federal court does not have carte blanche to depart from the principle of party presentation basic to our adversary system." Wood, 566 U.S. at 472. Thus, although we may consider a timeliness argument that was inadvertently forfeited, "[i]t would be 'an abuse of discretion … to override a State's deliberate waiver of a limitations defense.'" Id. at 472-73 (quoting Day, 547 U.S. at 202). In other words, "a court of appeals is entitled to deny collateral relief on a procedural ground that the prosecutor has forfeited by overlooking it, but not on a ground that the prosecutor has waived." Ryan, 688 F.3d at 848.

         Second, even if the government accidentally forfeits a timeliness argument, our "power to decide an appeal on a forfeited ground should be used only in exceptional cases." Id. We have "good reason" to "abstain from entertaining issues that have not been raised and preserved in the court of first instance." Wood, 566 U.S. at 473. "That restraint is all the more appropriate when the appellate court itself spots an issue the parties did not air below." Id. In addition, we must give "[d]ue regard for the trial court's processes and time investment." Id. After all, "[i]t typically takes a district court more time to decide a habeas case on the merits, than it does to resolve a petition on threshold procedural grounds." Id. When a court of appeals belatedly interjects a procedural impediment after resolution on the merits, "the district court's labor is discounted." Id. at 474. Perhaps even more troubling, "the appellate court acts not as a court of review but as one of first view." Id.

         Here, the government argues that its failure to pursue a timeliness argument under § 2255(f)(4) was an unintentional "misstep." Accordingly, it contends that it merely forfeited the argument. Arreola-Castillo, on the other hand, argues for waiver. In the event we find forfeiture, Arreola-Castillo ...

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