Friday, April 08, 2011

Court Emphasizes the Strict Standard of Relief under Writ of Error Coram Nobis.

Following his conviction for possession with intent to distribute 50 grams of cocaine base, Petitioner Gary Rhines continued to challenge his conviction and life sentence. After his conviction and sentence were affirmed by the Third Circuit, his writ of certiorari was denied by the Supreme Court, his motion under 28 U.S.C. §2255 was denied, and his application to file a second and successive §2255 motion were rejected, Rhine filed a writ of error coram nobis. In the writ he claimed that the arresting officers fabricated evidence and gave false testimony at trial. The basis for his claim was the 2007 indictment of the officers on charges that included tampering with records and perjury. Rhines additionally argued ineffective assistance of counsel for failure to discover the indictments against the officers. The district court dismissed the petition. In United States v. Rhines, 10-4077, the Third Circuit summarily affirmed the district court’s decision because the appeal did not present a substantial question.

In affirming the district court’s dismissal, the Third Circuit noted that relief under coram nobis is an “extraordinary remedy,” traditionally reserved for petitioners that are no longer in federal custody. When another avenue of relief is available, a court will not issue a writ of error coram nobis. Moreover, in order to obtain relief there must exist a fundamental error that essentially renders the trial invalid.

Specific to Rhines’ case, he did not qualify for coram nobis relief because he was still incarcerated when he filed the writ. Additionally, his petition did not present a fundamental error that would make his trial invalid. Rhines’ position that he was unable to impeach the officers at trial was unavailing. The officers in question were indicted five years after his conviction and there was no evidence suggesting that the tampered records related to Rhines’ case. In short, pure speculation is insufficient to carry the burden for relief. Finally, the Third Circuit noted that Rhines raised the same issues in his second §2255 motion, and that the Court had rejected his application for certificate of appealability. Failure to meet the standard for a second §2255 motion does not entitle a defendant to bring a writ of error coram nobis.

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The District Court's indication of the sentence it would impose before the defendant allocuted was not reversible plain error.

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