The motion to vacate, set aside, or correct a sentence provided by 28 U.S.C. §2255 is available only to those who have been convicted in federal courts and who are in custody. The habeas corpus motion is the post-conviction tool most federal prisoners turn to after they have exhausted all their appeals. It can be a powerful tool to right injustices that weren't or couldn't have been raised on appeal. And the statute gives courts broad discretion in fashioning appropriate relief, including dismissal, retrial, or resentencing.

Who can file a §2255 motion?

Only prisoners who are in custody may file. "Custody" means that a defendant must be in prison, or otherwise have his liberty restrained by a federal sentence. Restraints short of imprisonment which qualify as custody include probation, parole, supervised release, and being released on bail or one's own recognizance. A defendant only has to be in custody at the time of filing; a subsequent release doesn't render the case moot or divest the court of jurisdiction to consider the motion.

What issues can be raised in a §2255 motion?

The statute provides that defendants may move for relief because:

  • the sentence violates the Constitution;
  • the sentence violates the laws of the United States;
  • the court didn't possess the jurisdiction to impose the sentence; or
  • the sentence was in excess of the maximum established by law.

Most §2255 motions assert that the defendant's lawyer was ineffective, a violation of the Sixth Amendment.

How does a §2255 motion differ from a direct appeal?

Direct appeals consider only the district court record as it exists when the notice of appeal is filed. The §2255 motion, on the other hand, allows the defendant to present the court with new evidence. But, unlike direct appeals, §2255 motions may only raise jurisdictional, constitutional, or other fundamental errors. The motion is the primary vehicle to test whether an attorney's failures at the trial court level deprived the defendant of his Sixth Amendment right to the effective assistance of counsel.

What are some of the obstacles a defendant may encounter in litigating a §2255 motion?

Identifying an appropriate §2255 issue is no guarantee of success. Even prisoners who have good issues must often overcome numerous obstacles before a court will even address them. For instance, if an issue could have been raised on direct appeal, but wasn't, a court won't consider the issue in a §2255 proceeding unless the defendant can show "cause" (good reason for not raising the issue earlier) and "prejudice" (the error likely made a difference in the outcome). Because of this, it's generally not a good idea to forego a direct appeal and proceed directly to a §2255 motion.

Section 2255 motions may not be used to create or apply new rules of constitutional law. While new interpretations of substantive law may be applied retroactively in a §2255 motions, with rare exceptions new rules of constitutional law may not.

Do prisoners have a right to appointed counsel to assist them in filing and litigating a §2255 motion?

Defendants have no right, per se, to appointed counsel, but the court has discretion to appoint counsel at any stage of the proceeding. Appointed counsel is mandated only if the court grants an evidentiary hearing or if the court permits discovery and deems counsel "necessary for effective utilization of discovery procedures."

Is there a time limit within which a § 2255 motion must be filed?

Prior to Congress's enacting the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act ("AEDPA") in 1996, there was no specific time limit for a §2255 motion. Now there is a one-year statute of limitation triggered the latest of four events:

  • the date on which the judgment of conviction becomes final;
  • 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;
  • 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
  • the date on which the facts supporting the claim or claims presented could have been discovered through the exercise of due diligence.

All defendants thus have one year from the date on which their judgments of conviction become final within which to file §2255 motions. Occasionally a defendant can file beyond that date when a new year-long limitation period is triggered by one of the other events listed above.

Unfortunately, there is no consensus among the Courts of Appeals as to when a judgment of conviction becomes "final," thus triggering the one-year statute of limitations. Prior to the AEDPA, the Supreme Court held, in the context of deciding when a "new rule" could be applied on collateral attack, that a conviction becomes final when "the judgment of conviction was rendered, the availability of appeal exhausted, and the time for petition for certiorari ha[s] elapsed ...."12 Although a "new rule" may not be applied retroactively on collateral attack, it may be applied in a particular case if it was announced prior to the judgment of conviction becoming "final" in that case. Although it may seem intuitive that the same rule should trigger the statute of limitations in §2255 cases, not all Courts of Appeals have seen it that way.

When a defendant petitions the Supreme Court for a writ of certiorari as part of the direct appeal, the judgment of conviction becomes final on the date the Supreme Court denies the writ. If the Supreme Court grants the writ, then the judgment of conviction becomes final either on the date the Supreme Court rules (if there is no remand), or on the date that the conviction and sentence are ultimately affirmed on remand. What's not so clear is when a conviction becomes final when a defendant doesn't appeal, or when he or she appeals, but doesn't file a petition for writ of certiorari. Two courts of appeals have held that where a defendant appeals, but fails to petition for writ of certiorari, the conviction becomes final when the court of appeals issues its mandate. Other appellate courts have held that the judgment of conviction becomes final on the last day a defendant has to petition the Supreme Court for certiorari.

If a defendant doesn't appeal, the judgment of conviction becomes final on the last day the defendant could file a notice of appeal — i.e., on the tenth day following the entry of the judgment of sentence (Third, Fifth, Ninth, and Tenth Circuits). It's not clear yet when the judgment would become final in the other circuits. If you are in a jurisdiction which has not decided the issue, the prudent course may be to assume that the year runs from the date the judgment of conviction is entered on the docket (if no notice of appeal is filed), or on the date the court of appeals decides the case or denies a timely-filed petition for rehearing.

If a defendant wins a new trial or a resentencing on appeal (or even as a result of a §2255 motion), then the new judgment of conviction and sentence which is entered after the new trial or resentencing would begin a new year-long statute of limitations.

Is AEDPA's one year rule hard and fast?

Yes and no (we don't handle cases that are too close to the deadline). The appellate court have ruled that AEDPA's one-year rule isn't jurisdictional, and is subject to equitable tolling, but they rarely find that the defendant has met "extraordinary circumstances that are both beyond his control and unavoidable even with diligence" with an untimely filing.

How and where do you file a §2255 motion?

The motion is filed in the court which handed down the sentence. The courts' local rules usually require prisoners acting pro se to use the court clerk's forms. There is no filing fee.

What happens after the motion is filed?

Section 2255 motions are first presented to the judge who presided over the defendant's trial and sentencing if that judge is available. The judge examines the motion and attached exhibits, as well as the rest of the case record (including transcripts and correspondence in the file). The court then either dismisses the motion or orders the government to file an answer. Dismissal is required where the court concludes that the claims raised in the motion, even if true, would not provide a ground for §2255 relief, or where the claims are conclusively refuted by the files and records of the case.

After the government files its answer, the defendant may want to refute the government's arguments. This can be done by filing a memorandum in reply. Sometimes the right to file a reply memorandum exists under local court rules or court order. Sometimes a defendant must file a motion for leave to file a reply.

At this point, the court will either grant or deny relief, or will hold a hearing. While the language of 28 U.S.C. §2255 seems to require a hearing whenever the court orders the government to file an answer, the rules governing §2255 motions leave the necessity of a hearing to the court's discretion. Fed.R. Gov. §2255 Proc. 8(a). In practice, courts grant hearings only where there are critical facts in dispute. Whenever a court holds an evidentiary hearing, Rule 8(c) requires it to appoint counsel for pro se defendants who cannot afford to hire counsel. The prisoner can be brought to court for the hearing if his or her testimony is required, or for any other reason approved by the judge.

How long does the process take?

Disposition of the motion can take anywhere from several weeks (usually in the case of summary dismissal) to well over a year.

Do any special rules apply to §2255 motions?

Yes — the "Rules Governing Section 2255 Proceedings For the United States District Courts." The rules address the following issues: scope of the rules (Rule 1), form of the motion (Rule 2), filing of the motion (Rule 3), preliminary consideration by the judge (Rule 4), answer of the government (Rule 5), discovery (Rule 6), expansion of the record (submitting evidence) (Rule 7), evidentiary hearing (Rule 8), delayed or successive motions (Rule 9; this rule has been largely, if not entirely, superseded by the AEDPA's more stringent restriction on successive motions), the powers of U.S. Magistrate Judges to carry out the duties imposed on the court by the rules (Rule 10), and the time for appeal (Rule 11). If no Rule specifically applies, Rule 12 provides that "the district court may proceed in any lawful manner not inconsistent with these rules, or any applicable statute, and may apply the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure or the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, whichever it deems most appropriate ...."

Rule 22 of the Federal Rules of Appellate Procedure addresses the procedure for applying for a certificate of appealability (permission to appeal). Local district court and appellate rules often have special sections devoted to §2255 motions and prisoner petitions.

What rules of discovery apply to §2255 motions?

Rule 6 of the Rules Governing §2255 Proceedings allows defendants and the government to conduct discovery, with the court's permission, under the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.

Can denial of §2255 motions be appealed?

The denial of a §2255 motion can be appealed only if "a circuit justice or judge issues a certificate of appealability." 28 U.S.C. §2253(c)(1). A circuit justice or judge "may issue a certificate of appealability ... only if the applicant has made a substantial showing of the denial of a constitutional right." Id. §2253(c)(2). (Under this language, even if the §2255 motion properly raised a non-constitutional issue, the denial of that ground for relief cannot be appealed at all.) If a certificate is issued, it must "indicate which specific issue or issues satisfy" the required showing of the denial of a constitutional right. Id. §2253(c)(3). Only defendants need certificates of appealability to appeal the denial of §2255 motions; the government needs no certificate to appeal the granting of a motion to vacate. Fed.R.App.P. 22(b)(3).

Although the appeal of the court's denial of a §2255 motion may not proceed without a certificate of appealability, a notice of appeal must nevertheless be filed within 60 days from the date judgment is entered. Fed.R.Gov. §2255 Proc. 11 (time to appeal is as provided in Fed.R.App.P. 4(a), governing civil appeals). Since there is no time limit within which a court must rule on an application for a certificate of appealability (some courts have been taking a year or more to rule on such requests), the rules of appellate procedure provide that the notice of appeal itself "constitutes a request [for a certificate of appealability] addressed to the judges of the court of appeals." Fed.R.App.P. 22(b)(3). The filing of a notice of appeal also triggers a requirement that the "district judge who rendered the judgment must either issue a certificate of appealability or state why a certificate should not issue." Rule 22(b)(1). If the district court denies the certificate, the defendant "may request a circuit court judge to issue the certificate." Id. Rule 22(b)(2) provides that "A request addressed to the court of appeals may be considered by a circuit judge or judges, as the court prescribes." Some Courts of Appeals assign this task to a single judge. Others refer such requests to panels of the Court. Even when consideration of a request for a certificate of appeal-ability is referred to a panel, the support of only one judge is required for the certificate to issue.

What is required to make a "substantial showing of the denial of a constitutional right"?

The standard for appealability under 28 U.S.C. §2253(c)(2) is somewhat different depending upon whether the district court has rejected the issue sought to be appealed on its merits or on procedural grounds. With respect to constitutional claims rejected on their merits, the Supreme Court has applied to certificates of appealability the standard for granting certificates of probable cause set forth in Barefoot v. Estelle, and followed in the AEDPA. Under this standard, the appellant must make a showing that each issue he or she seeks to appeal is at least "debatable among jurists of reason; that a court could resolve the issues [in a different manner]; or that the questions are adequate to deserve encouragement to proceed further." The "substantial showing" standard "does not compel a petitioner to demonstrate that he or she would prevail on the merits." As to claims denied on procedural grounds (that is, where the district court has not reached the merits), the Court in Slack clarified that the certificate of appealability standard is somewhat different and easier to meet: (1) "whether jurists of reason would find it debatable whether the petition states a valid claim of the denial of a constitutional right" (in other words, does the petition at least allege a valid claim, even though it hasn't been proven yet), and (2) whether "jurists of reason would find it debatable whether the district court was correct in its procedural ruling."

Can a defendant file more than one §2255 motion?

As provided in 28 U.S.C. §2255, before a prisoner may file a second §2255 to challenge a particular judgment, a "panel of the appropriate court of appeals" must "certif[y]" that the motion "contain[s]" either:

(1) newly discovered evidence that, if proven and viewed in the light of the evidence as a whole, would be sufficient to establish by clear and convincing evidence that no reasonable factfinder would have found the movant guilty of the offense; or

(2) a new rule of constitutional law, made retroactive to cases on collateral review by the Supreme Court, that was previously unavailable.

This harsh rule is tempered slightly by the fact that it applies only to motions which attack the a judgment that a defendant has previously moved pursuant to §2255 to vacate. Defendants may file one §2255 motion as of right for each judgment of conviction and sentence. For example, if a defendant's conviction is vacated as a result of a §2255 motion, he receives a new trial and is convicted and sentenced again (or simply resentenced), he may file a §2255 motion to challenge that new judgment without receiving permission from the Court of Appeals.

If a defendant wants to file a second §2255 motion attacking the same judgment, his or her options are severely limited. The newly discovered evidence ground, for example, applies only to newly discovered evidence which establishes a defendant's factual innocence. It does not, for example, apply to evidence which, had it been known prior to sentencing, would have resulted in a shorter term of imprisonment. Nor would it apply to newly discovered evidence which, if it had been introduced at trial, might have engendered a reasonable doubt. The evidence must be such that had it be introduced, "no reasonable factfinder would have found the movant guilty of the offense."

The second ground is also quite narrow. It applies only to "new rule[s] of constitutional law" — not to changes in substantive law. The "new rule" must also have been "previously unavailable" and have been "made retroactive to cases on collateral review by the Supreme Court." A "new rule" has been "made retroactive to cases on collateral review by the Supreme Court" only if the Supreme Court itself has previously declared it to be retroactive — something which ordinarily can happen only on appeal of someone else's timely first §2255 or habeas petition.30

Not only must a second §2255 motion meet one of these criteria before it may be filed, it must also be filed within an applicable clause of the statute of limitations. For most defendants, that will mean within one year of the discovery of the new evidence, or "the date on which the right asserted was initially recognized by the Supreme Court, if the right has been newly recognized by the Supreme Court and made retroactively applicable to cases on collateral review." §2255 (¶ (3)).

* Please note that this page doesn't constitute legal advice, but is only general information about federal post-conviction relief. Consult a lawyer about how §2255 might apply to your case.