Print this Page
Case Basics
Docket No. 
Lackawanna County District Attorney
(Denver, Colorado, on behalf of Colorado, et al., as amici curiae, supporting the petitioners)
(Scranton, Pennsylvania, argued the cause for the petitioners)
(Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, argued the cause for the respondent)
Facts of the Case 

In 1986, after being convicted for simple assault, institutional vandalism, and criminal mischief, Edward R. Coss, Jr., filed a petition for relief, but the Pennsylvania courts never ruled on the petition. In 1990, after he had served the full sentences for his 1986 convictions, Coss was convicted of aggravated assault. Ultimately, the sentencing court did not consider Coss' 1986 convictions in determining his eligible sentencing range. In choosing a sentence within the applicable range, the court considered several factors including Coss' extensive criminal record, making reference to his 1986 convictions. Coss then filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus, claiming that his 1986 convictions were constitutionally invalid. The Federal District Court denied the petition reasoning that Coss had not been prejudiced by his 1986 counsel's ineffectiveness. The Court of Appeals found that Coss would not have been convicted in 1986 but for the ineffective assistance. The court remanded the case ordering a retrial or resentencing without consideration of the 1986 conviction.


May a state prisoner use a federal habeas petition to challenge a current sentence on the ground that it was enhanced based on an unconstitutional prior conviction for which the sentence has fully expired?

Decision: 5 votes for Lackawanna County District Attorney, 4 vote(s) against
Legal provision: 28 USC 2241-2255 (habeas corpus)

No. In a 5-4 opinion delivered by Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, the Court held that "once a state conviction is no longer open to direct or collateral attack in its own right because the defendant failed to pursue those remedies while they were available (or because the defendant did so unsuccessfully), the conviction may be regarded as conclusively valid. If that conviction is later used to enhance a criminal sentence, the defendant generally may not challenge the enhanced sentence through a [federal habeas petition] on the ground that the prior conviction was unconstitutionally obtained." Justice David H. Souter filed a dissenting opinion, which was joined by Justices John Paul Stevens and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Justice Stephen G. Breyer also filed a dissenting opinion.

Cite this Page
LACKAWANNA COUNTY DISTRICT ATTORNEY v. COSS. The Oyez Project at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law. 26 August 2015. <>.
LACKAWANNA COUNTY DISTRICT ATTORNEY v. COSS, The Oyez Project at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law, (last visited August 26, 2015).
"LACKAWANNA COUNTY DISTRICT ATTORNEY v. COSS," The Oyez Project at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law, accessed August 26, 2015,