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June 12, 2018

Spotlighting lower-court divides over AEDPA's savings clause and consideration of sentencing errors

At the intersection of hard-core habeas and sentencing issues is whether the so-called savings clause of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act can be used by a federal prisoner to get federal court to hear a claim of sentencing error.  The Fourth Circuit yesterday, via this order, refused to reconsider en banc its pro-access ruling on this matter in US v. Wheeler, and two judges wrote separately to spotlight what is at stake.  First, a "Statement of Circuit Judge Agee respecting denial of petition for rehearing en banc" starts this way:

The issues in this case are of significant national importance and are best considered by the Supreme Court at the earliest possible date in order to resolve an existing circuit split that the panel decision broadens even farther.  Because of the potential that the case may become moot if Wheeler is released from incarceration in October 2019, as projected, I have not requested a poll of the Court upon the petition for rehearing en banc in order to expedite the path for the Government to petition for certiorari to the Supreme Court.

The opinion in this case casts 28 U.S.C. § 2255(e) in a way that rewrites the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (“AEDPA”) — a valid congressional act that falls squarely within Congress’ power to define the scope of the writ.  As a consequence, federal prisoners who are detained in this Circuit pursuant to a valid and final criminal judgment may evade the careful limitations placed by Congress upon the writ of habeas corpus in § 2255(h) and, most likely, § 2255(f) as well.  These prisoners may now file § 2241 petitions challenging their sentences whenever circuit court precedent changes, so long as a given majority decides the change created a fundamental sentencing defect. Among the circuits that have addressed the question of the reach of the § 2255(e) saving clause, we stand alone in this most expansive view.

Only two circuits permit a sentencing-based claim to proceed via the saving clause: the Sixth and Seventh.  Hill v. Masters, 836 F.3d 591 (6th Cir. 2016); Brown v. Caraway, 719 F.3d 583 (7th Cir. 2013).  The opinion here relies on these cases in error, however, because none gives the expansive reference to “fundamental defect” that is put forth here. In short, even those few circuits that have opened the saving clause portal to sentencing-based claims have only opened it wide enough to allow for a claim that the prisoner is being, or at some point will be, detained by the warden beyond the time legally authorized by Congress for his offense of conviction.

Second, a "Statement of Judge Thacker on Petition for Rehearing En Banc" starts this way:

When this court decided United States v. Simmons, 649 F.3d 237 (4th Cir. 2011) (en banc), and rendered it retroactive in Miller v. United States, 735 F.3d 141 (4th Cir. 2013), it became clear that the mandatory minimum for Gerald Wheeler’s sentence was double what it should have been.  But Wheeler was left with a conundrum -- how could he test the legality of his detention?  He had already filed a direct appeal and motion pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2255, and he could not meet the requirements to file a second or successive motion because his mandatory minimum was not increased by a new rule of constitutional law made retroactive by the Supreme Court.  See § 2255(h)(2).  Yet he was nonetheless sentenced under the mistaken understanding that ten years was as low as the sentencing court could go. Indeed, that was precisely the sentence he received.  The district court recognized this sentence was “harsh,” but believed that its “hands [we]re . . . tied.” J.A. 85.

The savings clause, set forth in § 2255(e), allows a court to entertain a traditional § 2241 petition for habeas corpus if “the remedy by [§ 2255] motion is inadequate or ineffective to test the legality of [the prisoner’s] detention.”  This circuit, see In re Jones, 226 F.3d 328, 333–34 (4th Cir. 2000), as well as nine other circuits, interpret the savings clause to provide an opportunity for prisoners to demonstrate they are being held under an erroneous application or interpretation of statutory law.  Two circuits, however, read the clause so narrowly that the savings clause may only be satisfied under the limited circumstances when the sentencing court is unavailable, “practical considerations” prevent the prisoner from filing a motion to vacate, or a prisoner’s claim concerns “the execution of his sentence.” McCarthan v. Director of Goodwill Indus., 851 F.3d 1076, 1092–93 (11th Cir. 2017) (en banc); see also Prost v. Anderson, 636 F.3d 578, 587–88 (10th Cir. 2011).

To adopt the minority view and deny Wheeler the chance to test the legality of his detention under the circumstances at hand would fly in the face of the Supreme Court’s pronouncement that “the privilege of habeas corpus entitles the prisoner to a meaningful opportunity to demonstrate that he is being held pursuant to ‘the erroneous application or interpretation’ of relevant law.” Boumediene v. Bush, 553 U.S. 723, 779 (2008) (quoting INS v. St. Cyr, 533 U.S. 289, 302 (2001)).

I am inclined to predict that this issue, if not this case, will be taken up by SCOTUS relatively soon. But I have said this and been wrong before, so maybe I will be blogging in six months saying, "Hey, I was wrong." But I don’t know that I'll ever admit that, but I'll find some kind of an excuse for why my SCOTUS prediction was off.

June 12, 2018 at 10:57 AM | Permalink

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