Federal Habeas Corpus: Raising Successful Habeas Claims

Criminal cases are chock full of errors. Judges err, prosecutors err, and of course defense lawyers are far from perfect. But when it comes to federal habeas corpus, not all errors are worth raising. Perhaps the most challenging part of federal habeas corpus might be coming up with claims worthy of arguing for relief.

In my books, Insider’s Guide: Habeas Corpus for Federal Prisoners, and Insider’s Guide: Federal Habeas Corpus for State Prisoners, I go into detail on the following sections about raising successful federal habeas corpus claims. Here, we will touch on some of the major points in my books.

What is a “Claim?”

Before digging through your case to see if you have errors to raise in a habeas corpus petition, first let’s go over what constitutes a “claim” for habeas corpus relief. One court has defined a habeas claim as “the underlying events, rather that the legal arguments advanced to obtain relief from those events.” Branningan v. United States, 249 F.3d 584 (7th Cir. 2001). In other words, a proper claim is the underlying facts about the error, and not so much about the case law in support of the claim.

It’s not that case law isn’t important to your claim — it is! — but to survive federal habeas review, a claim must be factually supported. It’s all about the facts when it comes to federal habeas relief.

While the federal statutes say you may attack your “custody” or “sentence,” courts have not interpreted these words narrowly, and have allowed challenges to both convictions and sentences alike, as both relate to the “custody” of a prisoner in some way. United States v. Bernard, 351 F.3d 360 (8th Cir. 2003) (collecting cases).

However, not every claim related to sentencing or custody is cognizable under federal habeas corpus. For example, a federal prisoner challenging restitution might have a great claim that counsel dropped the ball at the restitution hearing; but because such a claim wouldn’t reduce his time in prison, it’s generally not a “claim” under federal habeas corpus. United States v. Rutigliano, 887 F.3d 98 (2d Cir. 2018).

Categories of Claims

There are four main categories of habeas claims under § 2255(f), with each having certain criteria for relief. Let’s go over each in turn.

The sentence or conviction was imposed in violation of the U.S. Constitution or federal law

By far the most common category of claims is that the conviction or sentence violates the U.S. Constitution or federal law. This is because the most common habeas claim is ineffective assistance of counsel (“IAC”), arguing that defense counsel failed to provide the assistance guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment of the Constitution. For state prisoners, a common claim in addition to IAC is that the state court unreasonably applied “clearly established federal law,” defined as decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court. Often, these issues overlap.

The reason IAC is so common is because the Supreme Court has recognized that these claims are best brought under habeas corpus and not direct appeal. Massaro v. United States, 538 U.S. 500 (2003). This makes sense, because the facts of an IAC claim aren’t usually part of the criminal record, and the best claims are based on facts occurring outside the record. Federal habeas corpus is, especially for federal prisoners, the opportunity to

develop the criminal record with these facts to convince the court to grant relief.

The court was without jurisdiction to impose the sentence

“Jurisdiction” has many different meanings, but here it refers to a district court’s legal authority to impose a sentence on a federal defendant. A common example of federal court not having jurisdiction to enter judgment in a criminal case would be when the indictment fails to charge an offense. While an indictment doesn’t need to be perfect, it must at least state the elements of the charged offense. Without this, a court has no jurisdiction to hear the case. United States v. Harper, 901 F.2d 471 (5th Cir. 1990).

Be aware, though, that the “jurisdiction can be raised anytime” argument only applies to open or pending criminal cases. Jurisdictional claims are still governed by the one-year time limit under  § 2255(f)(1). Williams v. United States, 383 Fed. Appx. 927 (11th Cir. 2010) (collecting cases).

The sentence exceeds the statutory maximum

Another category of claims for federal prisoners is that the sentence for one or more of the offenses exceeds the statutory maximum. While this may seem like an obvious error not likely to happen by an alert judge, it happens more often than expected. When a federal judge imposes a blanket (or “general”) sentence on a federal prisoner to cover all the convictions in a case, sometimes that sentence can exceed the maximum for one of those convictions. You might see this happen with drug and firearms cases, with the statutory maximum for the drugs usually higher than for the firearms.

Subsequent Supreme Court decisions limiting recidivist penalties, like the Armed Career Criminal Act, can also render a sentence over the statutory maximum and open to relief under § 2255. See Johnson v. United States, 135 S. Ct. 2551 (2015).

The “otherwise subject to collateral attack” catch-all category

The last category applying to federal prisoners under § 2255 is the catch-all “otherwise subject to collateral attack” provision. Courts have limited this category to claims that would require relief to prevent a “fundamental miscarriage of justice.” Just like it sounds, this is a high bar to meet.

But it’s not impossible. Courts have held that a prior conviction that was used to enhance a federal sentence that is later vacated could fit under the catch-all category. Cuevas v. United  States, 778 F.3d 267 (1st Cir. 2015). An erroneous mandatory career offender sentence has also been cognizable under the catch-all provision. Narvaez v. United States, 641 F.3d 877 (7th Cir. 2011).

The cumulative effect of multiple errors

In addition to these four categories of claims, there’s also the cumulative-effect-of-errors claim. If an error by itself may not amount to a strong habeas claim, courts have held that the cumulative effect of multiple seemingly harmless errors could be enough to grant habeas relief. Cook v. Foster, 948 F.3d 896 (7th Cir. 2020) (habeas relief granted because of cumulative effect of counsel’s errors). The cumulative-effect claim, however, is not often granted and is commonly included at the end of a motion as a last-ditch effort at relief. Courts also tend to give short attention to such claims, reasoning that since none of these claims separately deserved relief, a combination of them would not require relief. Not all the courts agree on this point, though.

Claim Screening

Both state and federal prisoners must pass through the federal court’s screening of their claims before their habeas case even gets started. See Rules Governing Habeas Corpus Proceedings, Rule 4. This “Rule 4 screening”, as it’s unimaginatively called, isn’t a difficult bar to get over. Really, the court must allow your claims to move forward, unless it “plainly appears” you’re not entitled to relief. Since more than 93% of federal habeas cases are filed pro se, the courts must “liberally construe” the claims and give the pro se petitioner the benefit of the doubt.

This is where the facts come into play. If you give enough facts to support your claims, especially facts of events not in the criminal record, you’ll easily survive Rule 4 screening. You may even get an evidentiary hearing, which is your short-term goal with a habeas proceeding (with being granted relief your long-term goal).

There’s also the issue of which judge hears your habeas case. For state prisoners, this really isn’t an issue because the federal judge hearing the habeas case isn’t the same judge that imposed the sentence and entered the judgment. For federal prisoners, however, this can be a problem. It may seem unfair to allow the same judge who imposed the sentence to decide a § 2255 motion challenging that sentence, but that’s how the committee that wrote the rules wanted it. They said it would be better that way because that’s the judge who knows the case best and he won’t be “misled” by false claims. Carvell v. United States, 173 F.2d 348 (4th Cir. 1949) (explaining the reasoning for this rule).

Conclusion

As you can see, there’s much more to filing federal habeas claims than just amassing the errors in your case. Not all errors lead to good habeas claims — but it only takes one good claim to get relief. Getting a grasp on the procedures for properly raising your claims will go a long way on the road to federal habeas relief.

Got any questions? Let’s talk!

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