Federal Post-Conviction Relief Opportunities

Even after being convicted of a federal crime, there are some options to seek some form of relief under special circumstances. Federal prisoners, or those otherwise in “custody” with their liberty under restraint by order of a federal court, may be able to challenge the legality of their federal criminal conviction and/or sentence. One statute, known as  Title 28 U.S.C Section 2255 or the “Motion to vacate, set aside, or correct the sentence“, enables someone convicted of a federal crime to seek relief on challenges (after sentencing) to the government’s case. There are various additional laws and tools that skilled and experience lawyers, like those at Tarlton Polk, can use to help your loved ones obtain some relief of sentencing and/or their conviction.

prisoner behind bars, who can benefit from federal post-conviction relief

Section 2255 Claims — Motion to Vacate, Set Aside, or Correct Sentence

There are several special circumstances where, with the right legal representation, section 2255 can be used to challenge the convicted person’s conviction or sentence. While this section is not the only law or tool that can be used to remedy or offer relief to convicted individuals, it is a powerful one. Such circumstances where it can work include:

  • The person is in custody as a result of a violation(s) of the Constitution or laws or treaties of the U.S.
  • The sentence was imposed in violation of the Constitution or laws of the U.S.
  • the sentence was imposed in excess of the maximum authorized by statutory law.
  • The federal district court lacked the legal authority to impose the sentence.
  • The conviction and/or sentence is otherwise subject to an error (not among the above) such that  it constitutes a complete miscarriage of justice or is an oversight that has made the legal process unfair.

Section 2255 Limitations

Common claims raised in 2255 motions include:

  • Claims of ineffective assistance of defense counsel. This could take place at the pre-trial/trial stages or at sentencing. This  includes claims that trial counsel did not file a notice of appeal as directed or otherwise properly counsel the defendant about the risks and advantages of an appeal under the Supreme Court’s analysis in Roe v. Flores-Ortega, 528 U.S. 470 (2000).
  • Prosecutorial misconduct, or the proper application of cases that are beneficial to the person but decided after their trial or sentencing.

There are some limits imposed on Section 2255. The Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (“AEDPA”) imposes time restrictions on 2255. There is a statute of limitations requirement for 2255 (with a lot of complicated exceptions or tolling provisions) that such a motion must be filed within one year from the latest of:

  • when the judgment of conviction becomes final,
  • the date that the impediment to filing the motion as a result of government action that violated the Constitution or U.S. laws was removed,
  • the date of a newly recognized right by the U.S. Supreme Court that was made retroactive to cases,
  • the date on which the facts that support the claim could have been discovered through due diligence.

Section 2241 Claims — Power to Grant Writ

Section 2255 is not the exclusive federal post-conviction tool or habeas corpus remedy for convicted persons. In general, direct appeal remedies must be exhausted before filing a 2255 motion. When 2255 is an inadequate tool to test the legality of one’s confinement, then Title 28 U.S.C. Sec. 2241 may provide relief. A 2241 motion is filed in the district of confinement and there is no one-year statute of limitations, unlike 2255. Many times, a person’s claims that attack the execution of a sentence are brought via 2241, for example:

  • The improper denial of credit for time in prison or pre-trial detention.
  • Transfers or adverse changes in the manner of detention.
  • Prison discipline.
  • Parole determinations (though parole has largely been abolished in the federal criminal justice system).
  • Certain immigration orders.
  • Extradition to a foreign country
  • Unilateral Executive detention orders (e.g. Guantanamo Bay detainees detained as enemy combatants).

Other Opportunities for Post-Conviction Relief

  • Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure #33: works as an avenue to seek a new trial based on newly discovered evidence within 3 years from the verdict or finding of guilt (and within 7 days on claims other than newly discovered evidence).
  • Title 18 U.S.C Section 3582(c): Offers a procedure to modify a person’s sentence. This includes compassionate release for elderly prisoners.
  • Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure #35: Enables a sentence to be reduced for substantial assistance or cooperation with authorities in their criminal investigation of other people, or as the result of error.
  • Sentence reductions may be implemented retroactively due to amendments to the United States Sentencing Commission’s Federal Sentencing Guidelines. For example, retroactive amendments include reductions in the crack cocaine (cocaine base) guidelines to reduce the disparities in punishments between crack and powder cocaine (due to the 2010 Fair Sentencing Act) and the new 2 point across the board reduction in the guidelines drug tables.

When no statutory basis exists for pursuing a post-conviction remedy in federal court, then the common law writ of error Coram norbis – an extraordinary remedy – is available to correct errors of the most fundamental character. One of the narrow situations in which this writ has been found to apply is in a situation where the operation of the conviction continues to place a great hardship on the person but they are no longer in “custody” such that a statutory remedy is no longer available.

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