District court ordered to reopen drug felon’s life sentence

A convicted drug felon whose previous New Mexico convictions were vacated has successfully appealed an Indiana district court’s decision not to reopen his federal life sentence, with the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling his sentencing challenge was based on the notion that his New Mexico convictions no longer exist.

After being convicted of conspiracy to distribute 1,000 kilograms or more of marijuana in 2006, Jesus Arreola-Castillo was sentenced to a mandatory life sentence based on two prior felony drug offenses in New Mexico in 1996. State courts in New Mexico overturned both convictions in 2014 and 2015, so Arreola-Castillo moved to reopen his federal sentence. The Indiana Southern District Court, however, found his claims were time-barred under 21 U.S.C. section 851(e) because the informations alleging the New Mexico convictions were filed in 2006, more than five years after his 1996 convictions.

Arreola-Castillo appealed in Jesus Arreola-Castillo v. United States of America, 17-1439, and the government argued for the first time on appeal that his petition was untimely because he did not “diligently pursue vacatur of his state convictions,” as required under 28 U.S.C. 2255(f)(4). The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals declined to exercise its discretion to address that untimely argument, with Judge Joel Flaum writing Thursday the instant case is not “exceptional.”

The circuit panel then reversed the denial of Arreola-Castillo’s motion to reopen his federal sentence, with Flaum writing section 851(e) does not bar his claims because he is not challenging the validity of his prior convictions, as considered by the statute. Instead, the panel determined he was challenging the existence of the New Mexico convictions based on their vacation.

“Where, as here, a state court has vacated the prior convictions, the petitioner is not launching a full-blown collateral attack in the federal court,” Flaum wrote for the unanimous panel. “Rather, he has already successfully challenged the validity of those convictions in state court and is simply asking the federal court to recognize the state court’s determination.”

“…Moreover, there is no concern about protecting the finality of state court judgments because New Mexico already deprived its own judgments of force and effect by vacating them,” Flaum continued. “In doing so, the New Mexico state court clearly determined that Arreola-Castillo’s claims did not run afoul of the state’s statutes of limitations and procedural barriers.”

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