WASHINGTON – The eighth time was the charm for Vernon A. Collins, who, after seven appeals, was finally granted resentencing for his 1987 conviction on drugs and weapons charges that gave him 35 years in prison.
A panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Thursday that the U.S. District Court in Baltimore erred when it sentenced Collins on two separate counts of weapons possession after the firearms were seized during a single incident.
Judge John R. Hargrove justified the 1987 double-charge conviction based on the Armed Career Criminal Act, which allows enhanced penalties for a defendant who has been three times previously convicted for “a violent felony or a serious drug offense, or both” on separate occasions.
Collins had a lawyer directly appeal his sentence to the 4th Circuit in 1988, but it was denied. He then got rid of his lawyer and went on to defend himself in six other unsuccessful appeals.
In 2002, Collins tried a different angle, arguing that his past sentence was illegal and that fact gave him the right to a new sentence.
He first told the court that one of the three previous convictions Hargrove used as a basis for invoking the Armed Career Criminal Act was bogus because he was a minor then and waived his right to be tried as a juvenile at a hearing where he had no counsel. He also said his sentence violated the double jeopardy clause, which prohibits a defendant from being doubly charged for like crimes during a single incident.
“Neither of Mr. Collins’ contentions has merit,” wrote U.S. District Judge Catherine Blake in the 2003 opinion denying Collins’ motion.
Blake said the arguments did not “permit Mr. Collins to delve into the matter now, 15 years after his sentence and over 35 years after the waiver proceedings in question.” She also added that the double jeopardy clause only protects defendants against multiple or successive prosecutions for the same offense, and that “sentences that run concurrently are not multiple punishments.”
But the 4th Circuit disagreed, announcing Thursday that Collins would finally be given a chance at resentencing because the District Court unjustly punished him twice for the same offense.
The 4th Circuit did affirm parts of the District Court’s decision, namely that Collins’ conviction when he was a minor counted under the Armed Career Criminal Act.
But the 4th Circuit did not address the double jeopardy claim because it said Collins’ double conviction already violated a precedent that “unlawful possession of more than one firearm at the same time supports only one conviction.”
Based on the precedent, the District Court would have to remove one of the charges and resentence Collins on one charge of firearms possession. – 30 – CNS-4-23-04