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Understanding Federal Criminal Appeals and Post-Conviction Relief Options

Understanding Federal Criminal Appeals and Post-Conviction Relief Options

If you or a loved one have been convicted of a federal crime, you may still have options to challenge the conviction or sentence. This article provides an overview of the main post-conviction relief options available in the federal criminal justice system.

Direct Appeal

After a conviction in federal district court, the first option is usually to file a direct appeal to the federal circuit court of appeals overseeing that district. The deadline to file a notice of appeal is generally 14 days from the entry of judgment.

On direct appeal, the appellate court examines the record of the case for any reversible errors made by the trial court regarding issues raised by defense counsel during trial or sentencing. This includes things like improperly admitted evidence, incorrect jury instructions, sentencing errors under the guidelines, etc.

The appellate court does not consider new evidence or arguments that were not already raised in the district court. So direct appeal mainly focuses on procedural or legal errors apparent in the formal court record.

If the appellate court finds prejudicial errors that violated the defendant’s substantial rights, they can reverse the conviction and order a new trial. More often though, they will uphold the conviction but still have authority to modify the sentence if guidelines were misapplied.

Motion to Vacate Sentence

After a direct appeal concludes or the deadline to appeal lapses, the main path to challenge a federal conviction or sentence is filing a motion to vacate under 28 U.S.C. § 2255. Often called a “2255 motion,” it is the federal equivalent to a state petition for post-conviction relief (PCR).

This allows federal prisoners to collaterally attack their conviction or sentence by filing a motion in the sentencing court arguing that their conviction or detention violates federal law. Common 2255 motion claims allege:

  • Ineffective assistance of counsel
  • Prosecutorial misconduct
  • Actual innocence based on new evidence
  • Unconstitutional conviction or sentence

The deadline to file a 2255 motion is generally one year from when the conviction becomes “final” after conclusion of direct appeal. However, new evidence or newly recognized constitutional rights can reopen or extend this limitations period in some cases.

If the sentencing court grants the 2255 motion, the court has broad authority to vacate the conviction, re-sentence the defendant, or order a new trial. A denied 2255 motion can also be appealed to the circuit court to review the lower court’s decision.

Successive 2255 Motions

In 1996, a federal law called the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) imposed strict limits on “successive” 2255 motions – i.e. second or subsequent motions raising claims that could have been raised earlier.

Now prisoners generally get only “one bite at the apple” and must show certain exceptions to get authorization to file a successive 2255 motion, such as:

  • Newly discovered evidence proving innocence
  • A new, retroactive change in constitutional law affecting their conviction or sentence

Without such exceptions, federal courts lack jurisdiction to consider successive 2255 claims that were or could have been raised in a prior motion.

Habeas Corpus Petitions

As a last resort, federal prisoners can file a petition for a writ of habeas corpus under 28 U.S.C § 2241. Often called “habeas petitions,” these argue that the defendant’s detention violates federal law or the U.S. Constitution.

However, unlike 2255 motions which are filed in the sentencing court, habeas petitions must be filed in the U.S. District Court in the district the prisoner is confined. The grounds for relief under § 2241 are also much more limited compared to 2255 motions.

For example, federal prisoners sometimes use habeas petitions to challenge denial of good conduct time credits or parole decisions by the Bureau of Prisons. Habeas relief for errors in the underlying conviction itself is only available if the 2255 motion remedy is “inadequate or ineffective.” This is known as the “savings clause” or “safety valve” exception to the limits on successive motions.

The rules for federal post-conviction relief are complex, with strict deadlines and limits on successive motions. Having an experienced federal criminal defense lawyer assist with the process can be essential to successfully challenging a federal conviction or sentence after direct appeals are exhausted.

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