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Retroactivity: Hotter Than Stolen Car Parts

By Robyn Hagan Cain | Last updated on

Retroactivity is a hot issue these days.

Next Tuesday, the Supreme Court will consider whether the Fair Sentencing Act should be applied retroactively to crack peddlers who committed crimes before the law's enactment. This week, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals considered whether the Supreme Court's United States v. Santos decision should be applied retroactively in a money laundering appeal.

In a bit of bad news for the defendant, the appellate court ruled that Santos applied retroactively, but it wasn't enough to reverse his conviction.

Jerry Lane Wooten operated "Beck's Wheels," a business that bought and sold car parts. Some of those were stolen car parts.

It seems that Wooten knew about the questionable origin of some of his inventory. In 2000, he was convicted on charges of conspiracy to transport stolen goods and conspiracy to launder money, interstate transportation of stolen goods, aiding and abetting, structuring financial transactions, and laundering more than $2 million. He was sentenced to 188 months' imprisonment.

Wooten filed a habeas petition, challenging his money laundering conviction. Both the district court and the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals rejected Wooten's challenge.

Wooten claimed on appeal to the Sixth Circuit that he was technically innocent of money laundering because Santos changed the definition of "proceeds."

The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals didn't buy his argument. The court agreed that Wooten failed to demonstrate "actual innocence" and was not entitled to a vacation of his conviction for money laundering. To prevail in his habeas petition, Wooten needed to prove actual or factual innocence, rather than legal insufficiency.

Wooten argued that his actual innocence was based on an intervening change in the law, so he was required to satisfy a four-part test, proving (1) a new interpretation of statutory law, (2) which was issued after he had a meaningful time to incorporate the new interpretation into his direct appeals or subsequent motions, (3) is retroactive, and (4) applies to the merits of the petition to make it more likely than not that no reasonable juror would have convicted him.

The Sixth Circuit agreed that the new definition of a key phrase in the money laundering statute is a substantive change of law and increases the government's burden of proof, so the court joined the Fourth, Fifth, and Eleventh Circuits in holding that Santos is retroactive.

The court nonetheless held that Wooten failed to demonstrate his actual innocence through Santos, because the definition of "proceeds," on which he bases his innocence, did not apply to the circumstances of his case.

Retroactivity may be a starting point to overturning a conviction, but it's by no means a guaranteed path to reversal.

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