Can a Defendant Collaterally Attack the Validity of Previous State Convictions on Constitutional Grounds ?

In Custis v. United States (511 US 485 [1994]), the Court faced the question of whether a defendant could collaterally attack the validity of previous State convictions on constitutional grounds at the time of a Federal sentencing proceeding under the Armed Career Criminal Act, a Federal recidivist statute. Custis sought to challenge his two prior State convictions on ineffective assistance and involuntary plea claims to avoid an enhanced sentence. The Court pointed out that the wording of the Act itself did not expressly provide for a collateral attack on constitutional grounds at the time of sentencing, as some other Federal statutes do (and as our own State's predicate statute provides). Custis concluded that except where a defendant was claiming a violation of the right to counsel, he could not collaterally attack a State conviction at the time of his Federal sentencing proceeding. The Court recognized that by virtue of its prior decisions such a collateral challenge was available in right to counsel violations but the Court declined to extend this avenue of collateral relief to other constitutional violations. The Court pointed to concerns of ease of administration and finality of judgments. Right to counsel violations are unusual in that they can generally be determined from the face of the record, as it can easily be ascertained if an attorney appeared. Other constitutional violations, such as ineffective assistance, require review of the entire record of the trial as well as pretrial hearings. Custis went on to state, however, that the defendant could seek to have his prior convictions voided in State court or by a Federal habeas corpus proceeding. If Mr. Custis were to succeed in attacking his State convictions on these other constitutional grounds in either State court or upon Federal habeas corpus, he could then seek "reopening of any federal sentence enhanced by the state sentences." (Id., at 497.) Custis did not limit this right to seek resentencing to any specific class or classes of constitutional violations.