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Plain Error – Ineffective Assistance of Counsel

7th Circuit Court of Appeals

Case Name: Christopher Harris v. United States of America

Case No.: 19-3363

Officials: MANION, WOOD, and BRENNAN, Circuit Judges.

Focus: Plain Error – Ineffective Assistance of Counsel

Christopher Harris faced federal drug charges. Counsel advised him that his two prior Indiana cocaine convictions were predicate “felony drug offenses” and could result in a mandatory life sentence. So, Harris entered into a plea agreement and received an agreed-upon 20- year sentence. Harris now seeks federal habeas corpus relief under 28 U.S.C. § 2255. He argues his counsel was ineffective by not challenging whether those prior drug convictions were predicates, as Indiana law defined cocaine isomers more broadly than federal law. Such an argument, novel then, would succeed today.

Although Harris forfeited this theory of ineffectiveness in the district court, we conclude that it is subject to plain-error review. But because it was objectively reasonable for Harris’s counsel not to advise risking a mandatory life sentence to pursue the isomer argument, the district court did not plainly err in ruling that counsel’s performance was constitutionally adequate.


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Derek A Hawkins is Corporate Counsel, at Salesforce.

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