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The United States Supreme Court has held that a defendant may not generally challenge the constitutionality of his prior state court conviction by objecting at a federal sentencing hearing to the use of that prior conviction as part of a sentencing enhancement. However, an exception to this general rule is that challenges to the constitutionality of a conviction based upon a violation of the right to counsel are permitted in sentencing proceedings, even though the defendant is attacking the prior state conviction collaterally in federal court.
Robert Bryant, a utility employee, entered into a sideyard of defendants Kurt Donald Cousins and Bukola Tolase-Cousins’ house to cut the power to the souse. Bryant observed marijuana plants growing in the backyard. Bryant told the police, who entered the sideyard and looked through a hole in a fence to see the plants. A short time thereafter, the officer was able to obtain a search warrant to execute a search of the premises; the search revealed that there were 505 marijuana plants of various sizes in the backyard. The district court denied a motion to suppress filed by the defendants. Bukola pled guilty to maintaining a place to manufacture and distribute marijuana, in violation of 21 U.S.C.S. § 856(a)(1). The district court accepted the plea and sentenced Bukola to five months’ imprisonment and three years’ supervised release, in accordance with the recommendations made in her presentence report (“PSR”). Kurt also pled guilty to conspiring to manufacture more than 100 marijuana plants, in violation of 21 U.S.C.S. § 846. The probation office then prepared a PSR and recommended a level II criminal history category for Kurt and an offense level of 18. Based on these recommendations, Kurt would have been eligible under the sentencing guidelines for a sentence of between 30 and 37 months. However, the crime for which Kurt was convicted carried a five-year mandatory minimum sentence. Therefore, at sentencing, Kurt objected to the PSR's criminal history recommendation. He argued that one of the two criminal history points accorded to him was due to a 1996 South Carolina misdemeanor conviction during which Kurt alleged he was deprived the right to counsel. Without this criminal history point, Kurt would have been eligible for the safety valve reduction and therefore for the lower sentencing guidelines range. After holding a hearing, the district court overruled Kurt's objection, adopted the findings of the PSR, and sentenced Kurt to the statutory mandatory minimum, five years' imprisonment. Defendants each filed appeals regarding the district court’s denial of their motion to suppress, arguing that the officers violated the Fourth Amendment by entering upon the curtilage of their house without a warrant. In addition, Kurt filed an appeal challenging the legality of his sentence.
The appellate court affirmed the district court’s decision to deny defendants’ motion to suppress, determining that the sideyard did not fall within the curtilage of the house, because, although the sideyard was immediately adjacent to the house, the sideyard was partially, though not completely, enclosed. Moreover, the court held that the presence of the electric meter and paved walkway belied any claim that the sideyard was intended as a private space for gardening, and the defendants knew the area was frequented by a meter reader. Anent the second issue, the appellate court determined that remand for resentencing Kurt was necessary because it was error to use a prior South Carolina conviction in calculating his criminal history category for the safety valve exception under 18 U.S.C.S. § 3553(f) since South Carolina violated his Sixth Amendment rights by depriving him of the benefit of counsel.