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August 2014: Precedent-Setting Pro Bono Victory

August 2014

In a precedent-setting pro bono victory, the firm was able to reduce Damon Penn’s prison sentence by over ten years and secure a result of time-served on resentencing. The Supreme Court’s decision in Descamps v. United States, 133 S. Ct. 2276 (2013), narrowed the class of convictions that served as qualifying predicates for the punitive Armed Career Criminal sentencing enhancement, which meant that many prisoners had erroneously been sentenced to a mandatory minimum prison term of fifteen years.

Damon Penn was one of these prisoners. While trying to earn money to buy his daughter a birthday present, he was pulled over for having a broken taillight. A search of his car revealed a handgun and he was subsequently convicted of illegal possession of a firearm. Based in part on a decade-old misdemeanor assault conviction, he was sentenced in 2010 to fifteen years in prison.

When the Supreme Court in Descamps held that convictions such as Mr. Penn’s assault conviction could not serve as a predicate for the Armed Career Criminal enhancement, he wrote his own pro se habeas petition, but Quinn Emanuel attorneys soon asked to intervene on his behalf, and he obliged. Working in conjunction with the Federal Public Defenders Office for the District of Maryland, Quinn Emanuel submitted a supplemental habeas petition on his behalf. The supplemental petition allowed Mr. Penn to clear the significant hurdles required to obtain habeas relief: (1) the establishment of a new rule of law by the Supreme Court, (2) the retroactive application of that new rule of law, and (3) the entitlement to relief despite having failed to preserve the sentencing error in 2010. Despite maintaining for months that it intended to contest Mr. Penn’s habeas petition, the Government soon conceded that Mr. Penn should be resentenced without the Armed Career Criminal enhancement.

At the resentencing, Quinn Emanuel argued for a time-served sentence for three reasons: that Descamps forbade the Court from considering the unproven and unadmitted allegations that Mr. Penn had brandished a handgun in connection with the simple assault conviction; Mr. Penn had been a model prisoner; and that even the Government’s recommended sentence was equivalent to the time Mr. Penn had already served. The judge ultimately agreed with Quinn Emanuel’s arguments that Descamps should be extended to prevent the court from using unproven circumstances of prior convictions to enhance sentences outside of the context of mandatory minimums. The judge specifically thanked the Quinn Emanuel attorneys for their thoughtful arguments. Mr. Penn received a sentence of time served, a reduction of over ten years, and walked free the next day to return home to his wife, five children, and ailing mother.

Quinn Emanuel’s work product was disseminated to Federal Public Defenders offices across the country, enabling them to seek the same relief for others that we achieved for Mr. Penn. In addition, Mr. Penn’s case was one of the first Descamps-related habeas cases to proceed to resentencing, so Quinn Emanuel’s efforts set favorable precedent for the multitude of cases that will follow.