Federal Habeas Corpus: Seventh Circuit Says AEDPA Time Limit Opens Door for Savings Clause Relief

Expanding the savings clause yet again, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit held on April 4, 2022, that the one-year time limit for filing a motion under 28 U.S.C. sec 2255 rendered the remedy “inadequate or ineffective” to invoke the savings clause, and vacated an illegal sentence.

At the time of sentencing, Nino Franklin had at least six prior convictions that qualifies as violent felonies under the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA): Two Illinois burglaries, three Minnesota burglaries, and a conviction for kidnapping/armed robbery. The penalty for his federal offense of being a felon in possession of a firearm, under 18 U.S.C. sec 922(g), was a maximum of 10 years. But the ACCA increased that to 15 to life, and he was given just under 17 years in federal prison in 2014. He never appealed.

The Change in Law Came Too Late

Two years after Franklin was sentenced, the Supreme Court decided Mathis v. United States, 136 S. Ct. 2243 (2016), which clarified how a federal sentencing court must determine whether a prior conviction meets the ACCA criteria. That criteria at the time of Mathis for a violent felony under the ACCA included any offense that carried a prison term exceeding a year and (1) “has as an element the use, attempted use, or threatened used of physical force against the person of another” (the elements clause), or (2) “is burglary, arson, or extortion” (the enumerated offenses clause). 18 U.S.C. sec 924(e)(2)(B).

Mathis narrowed which prior offenses met these criteria, and the Eighth Circuit, where Franklin was sentenced, declared Minnesota burglary non-qualifying for the ACCA after Mathis. This was because it was broader than “generic” burglary, as defined by the Supreme Court in Taylor v. United States, 495 U.S. 575 (1990), and because it did not meet the elements clause. See Van Cannon v. United States, 890 F.3d 656 (7th Cir. 2018) (discussing these changes).

But when Franklin filed for sec 2255 relief based on Mathis, the government argued that he was beyond the one-year time limit, and he voluntarily withdrew his motion. The Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA) imposed strict time limits on such motions. sec 2255(f). It also forbids another motion after a first one is denied in nearly all situations. sec 2255(h).

Three days later, however, Franklin filed a habeas petition, under 28 U.S.C. sec 2241, pursuant to the “savings clause” of sec 2255(e), which allows a federal prisoner to resort to classic habeas corpus if the sec 2255 remedy is “inadequate or ineffective.” This is known as the “savings clause.” The Seventh Circuit has held that the savings clause is available if a prisoner “had no reasonable opportunity to obtain earlier judicial correction of a fundamental defect in his conviction or sentence because the law changed after his first sec 2255 motion,” and meets all of the following:

(1) the claim relies on a statutory interpretation case, not a constitutional case, and thus could not have been invoked by a successive sec 2255 motion,

(2) the petitioner could not have invoked the decision in his first sec 2255 motion and the decision applies retroactively, and

(3) the error is grave enough to be deemed a miscarriage of justice.

Chazen v. Marske, 938 F.3d 851 (7th Cir. 2019)

Meeting the Savings Clause

Franklin`s case presented this question before the court of appeals: Whether a petitioner who has never filed a sec 2255 motion, and is now time-barred under the AEDPA, may resort to the savings clause if the law changes and makes his conviction or sentence a fundamental defect. The Seventh Circuit acknowledged that the savings clause test “has its complexities and raises some difficult questions,” but determined that the AEDPA`s time bar rendered the 2255 remedy in adequate or ineffective in this situation.

But first Franklin had to meet the savings clause criteria. As for the first prong, the court found that Mathis “injected much-needed clarity and direction into the law” and, as a statutory-interpretation case, wasn`t available as a constitutional decision to allow a second or successive (SOS) 2255 motion.

The second prong was easily met because the government conceded that Mathis was a retroactive Supreme Court decision, and the court found that any attempt for Franklin to raise the challenge “would have been futile until after Mathis.”

The third prong was also conceded by the government, because the Seventh Circuit has repeatedly held that an erroneous ACCA sentence is a miscarriage of justice. See Guenther v. Marske, 997 F.3d 735 (7th Cir. 2021).

Expanding the Savings Clause

While the savings clause has applied to cases where the AEDPA barred another sec 2255 motion, no court had so far allowed the savings clause where the AEDPA`s time limit would bar a first motion. Because Franklin was denied the opportunity to properly challenge his ACCA sentence after Mathis, and “through no fault of his own,” the only avenue to fix his illegal ACCA sentence was the savings clause, the court concluded, offering this reasoning:

Accepting the government`s position [that the savings clause only applied where another sec 2255 motion was barred] would create arbitrary distinctions between prisoners with essentially identical claims. Franklin would be barred from using sec 2241 — even though he satisfies all three [savings clause] requirements — simply because he refrained from filing a timely sec 2255 motion that would have been frivolous under then-existing Eighth Circuit law. Yet he would be permitted to access sec 2241 if he had filed a doomed sec 2255 motion within a year of when his judgment became final. The same result would follow if he had filed multiple frivolous sec 2255 motions thereafter, even though under earlier law repetitive filings would have been considered possible abuse of the habeas writ. Our precedent neither requires nor supports creating such perverse incentives. A prisoner need not file a futile sec 2255 motion and clog the judicial pipes merely to preserve the possibility of invoking new statutory rules in the future.

The Seventh Circuit therefore reversed the denial of Franklin`s savings clause petition and remanded to the district court to grant him “appropriate habeas relief.” See Franklin v. Keyes, 30 F.4th 634 (7th Cir. 2022).

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