‘IN-CUSTODY’ REQUIREMENT FOR FEDERAL HABEAS DEPENDS ON JUDGMENT BEING CHALLENGED

By Dale Chappell
Author of Federal Habeas Corpus for State Prisoners: An Insider’s Guide

Alaska v. Wright, 141 S. Ct. 1467 (2021)

In this case, the U.S. Supreme Court clarified that the “in-custody” requirement of federal habeas corpus, which is a jurisdictional hurdle, depends on which “judgment” the petitioner is in custody for, not whether the challenged judgment had played a role in the current judgment. Let me explain what this means.

Sean Wright moved from Alaska to Tennessee, but did not register as a sex offender under the Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act (SORNA), making it a federal crime if someone moves to a different state and fails to register. The judgment that Wright attacked in his federal habeas corpus petition was the old state conviction that led to him having to register. The district court denied his petition because he wasn’t “in custody” of the judgment he was challenging, but the court of appeals disagreed and said the old sex offense conviction was a “necessary predicate” to Wright having to register, so it satisfied the jurisdictional requirement under 28 U.S.C. sec. 2254(a).

The Supreme Court disagreed and said that it could not stretch the old judgment that far to consider Wright in custody for purposes of the old judgment. Citing its prior decisions on the habeas “in-custody” jurisdiction, the Court said that had Wright been in state custody for failing to register under state law, he could have met the in-custody prong. But he was in federal custody now. “Wright could not satisfy section 2254(a) on that independent basis for the simple reason that his second judgment was entered by a federal court,” the High Court concluded.

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