An Inmate May Attack a Sentence or Judgment under Section 2255

When a prisoner has exhausted his or her right to appeal, a collateral attack on the sentence or conviction can be made under Section 2255 of the United States Code. This can be a powerful tool when seeking the release of a federal inmate.

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Seeking a Post-Judgment Dismissal or Reduction of Sentence

A motion under Section 2255 can be used by a federal defendant who is “in custody” to attack his or her conviction or sentence. This type of motion is commonly referred to as a “collateral” attack because it is not an appeal to a higher court. A 2255 Motion is filed with the trial judge. It can only be filed after all rights to appeal have been exercised or exhausted. In other words, a Section 2255 claim is brought separately from any direct post-conviction motions or appeals.

Getting relief from a judgment or sentence under 2255 is not easy. Motions under 2255 do not typically include all claimed errors in conviction or sentencing. These motions tend to be more specific and focused than a general appeal of a conviction or sentence. Federal courts have found that a prisoner filing a 2255 Motion must meet a higher burden than an appellant in the appellate process. Essentially, the petitioner must demonstrate a fundamental defect in the proceedings, which necessarily results in a complete miscarriage of justice or an egregious error violative of due process.

“In Custody” is Not What You May Think

For a federal defendant to be considered “in custody” so that he or she has standing to file a motion under Section 2255, he or she must either be in prison, jail, or otherwise have his or her freedom under some form of restraint as part of a federal sentence. Examples of “restraint,” other than imprisonment that would qualify as “custody,” include probation, parole, supervised release, and being released on bail. A defendant must meet the “custody” requirement at the time he or she files a 2255 Motion. If the defendant is released from custody following the filing of the motion, the motion is still valid and can proceed to court.

Egregious Error in Violation of Due Process

To succeed on a 2255 Motion, the petitioner must demonstrate that his or her due process rights were violated because of an egregious error resulting in a miscarriage of justice. In other words, there must be

(1) an error of constitutional magnitude,

(2) a sentence imposed outside the statutory limits, or

(3) an error of fact or law so fundamental as to render the entire proceeding invalid.

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“Can I use a 2255 Motion instead of an appeal?”

No. A defendant cannot use a 2255 Motion to circumvent direct appeal, so  claims not raised on direct appeal are procedurally defaulted and may not be raised on collateral review unless the defendant shows either (1) good “cause” excusing his procedural default and “actual prejudice” resulting from the error of which he complains, or (2) “actual innocence.”

A claim of actual innocence is not in and of itself a constitutional claim, but instead a gateway through which a petitioner must pass to have his otherwise barred constitutional claim considered on the merits with a 2255 Motion.

One of the most noteworthy differences between a direct appeal and a 2255 Motion is that direct appeals are generally decided based on the district court record, including transcripts and pleadings, as it exists as of the time the notice of appeal is filed. In contrast, § 2255 motions offer defendants the opportunity to present the court with new evidence.

Avoiding Procedural Default

The Procedural Default Doctrine bars any claim in a 2255 Motion that could have been brought on appeal but wasn’t. A claim is not procedurally defaulted if it is so novel that its legal basis was not reasonably available to the defendant at the time of the appeal. The novelty standard is high. The defendant’s appellate counsel must have had no reasonable basis upon which to formulate the legal issue raised in the 2255 Motion.

Sentencing and 2255 Motions

The “actual innocence” exception to the Procedural Default Rule for 2255 Motions does not permit prisoners to raise claims about guidelines calculations in a collateral attack. In fact, most guidelines issues cannot be challenged on collateral attack. Relative to sentencing, Section 2255 authorizes post-conviction relief only when (1) the sentence was imposed in violation of the Constitution or laws of the United States, (2) the district court did not have jurisdiction, or (3) the sentence imposed by the district court exceeded the maximum under the statute. Absent such a constitutional or jurisdictional error, the only way a sentencing issue can be reviewed under Section 2255 is if there was a fundamental defect that inherently resulted in a complete miscarriage of justice. Generally, attacks on the calculation of a defendant’s advisory guidelines range do not constitute such a fundamental defect unless they involve a constitutional dimension.

A defendant who meets the 2255 custody requirement is not permitted to challenge aspects of their sentence, which are unrelated to their custody. Guideline calculation errors that a lawyer failed to raise on direct appeal cannot be later be raised under 2255.

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One Year Limitation for a 2255 Motion

The 1996 Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act imposed a one-year statute of limitations on 2255 Motions. The one-year limitation is triggered by the latest of four events:

    1. the date on which the judgment of conviction becomes final;

    2. the date on which the impediment to making a motion created by governmental action in violation of the Constitution or laws of the United States is removed, if the movant was prevented from making a motion by such governmental action;

    3. the date on which the right asserted was initially recognized by the Supreme Court, if that right has been newly recognized by the Supreme Court and made retroactively applicable to cases on collateral review; or

    4. the date on which the facts supporting the claim or claims presented could have been discovered through the exercise of due diligence.

The one-year limitation is subject to equitable tolling (extension based on fairness). Equitable tolling extends the time limitation if there are extraordinary circumstances that are both beyond the defendant’s control and unavoidable even with diligence. This is a standard that is extremely hard to satisfy.

Ineffective Assistance of Counsel

One of the most common 2255 motions is based on the claim that the defendant’s 6th Amendment constitutional right to counsel was violated through “ineffective assistance of counsel.” A lawyer’s deficient legal representation may be a basis for moving to vacate a sentence or conviction. Courts are very reluctant to find that a trial lawyer was ineffective to the point that there was a constitutional violation.  Also, the defendant must be able to show the court that if it had not been for the ineffective assistance of counsel, the result would have likely been different.

Attorneys for 2255 Motions in Federal Court

The lawyers with LEWIS & DICKSTEIN, P.L.L.C. have been fighting for clients in federal courts for decades. We have an unparalleled track record for providing the highest level of legal representation and zealously pursuing the best possible result for each client. A motion under Section 2255 is highly complex, and most are not successful. A defendant’s best hope of success with a collateral attack on a sentence or conviction is with a highly experienced, dedicated defense lawyer. If you want an attorney with these qualifications to represent you or your loved one, do not hesitate to give us a call and discuss the available options. If there is a way to help, we will find it.

Call us today at (248) 263-6800 for a free consultation, or complete a Request for Assistance Form and we will contact you promptly.

We will find a way to help you and, most importantly,
we are not afraid to win!

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