Justices Say No Habeas For Retroactively Innocent Inmates

By Marco Poggio | June 22, 2023, 11:30 AM EDT ·

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Thursday that federal prisoners are barred from petitioning federal courts to get their sentences overturned after new case law makes them retroactively innocent, dealing the latest blow to a legal process known as habeas corpus.

With a 6-3 decision in the case, Jones v. Hendrix, the court said a provision in the federal habeas statute known as the "safety valve" or "savings clause" doesn't permit federal prisoners who are barred from filing motions to vacate their convictions to use habeas petitions instead.

Marcus DeAngelo Jones was sentenced to over 27 years in prison in 2000 after being convicted of unlawful possession of a firearm by a felon. Nearly two decades later, ruling in Rehaif v. United States, the Supreme Court altered the legal standard for convicting people under the federal gun possession law, making Jones legally innocent of his crime.

Throughout his incarceration, Jones filed several unsuccessful motions to seek resentencing or release on constitutional grounds. He also turned multiple times to habeas corpus, a legal process used to challenge sentences on the basis of constitutional errors, to no avail.

In June 2019, in light of the Rehaif decision that came down only a few days earlier, Jones filed his latest petition habeas petition arguing that the motion process was inadequate to bring his change-of-law claim of legal innocence, but was denied relief.

On Thursday, the Supreme Court's conservative majority said the safety valve does not allow prisoners like Jones to sidestep a federal law, the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, also known as AEDPA, which prohibits prisoners from filing successive motions to challenge their sentences.

"Jones and the United States each advance unpersuasive theories," Justice Clarence Thomas wrote for the majority. "[The] saving clause does not authorize that end-run around AEDPA."

Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan dissented in a joint opinion, saying the decision "yields disturbing results." Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson filed a lengthy dissent in which she said she was "deeply troubled" by the repercussions the ruling could have for defendants with innocence claims.

Since Congress allowed it in the 1940s, federal prisoners can challenge their sentences or convictions by filing motions under Section 2255 of Title 28 of the U.S. Code instead of using the traditional habeas action process, which requires filing a petition under Section 2241.

Under the safety valve clause — Section 2255(e) — federal prisoners can still file traditional habeas petitions if they can show the Section 2255 motion process is "inadequate or ineffective" in addressing their claims.

U.S. courts of appeals have disagreed as to whether Supreme Court decisions that retroactively make certain conduct not criminal trigger the safety valve clause. The Eight, Tenth and Eleventh circuits all held that they did not.

Meanwhile, the First, Second, Third, Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Seventh and Ninth circuits all allowed prisoners to file Section 2241 petitions when they have claims of legal innocence following a high court ruling.

Thursday's ruling solves the circuit rift, by clarifying that the limitations for relief spelled out in the AEDPA overrun the savings clause. The majority said Jones' argument for using the habeas process defy the Founding Fathers' intention.

"It would extend the writ of habeas corpus far beyond its scope when the Constitution was drafted and ratified," Justice Thomas wrote in the opinion. "When the Suspension Clause was adopted, Jones' Rehaif claim would not have been cognizable in habeas at all."

Jones, who had served time in Tennessee as a young adult for drug crimes, was convicted of one count of making false statements to acquire a firearm and two counts of possessing a firearm as a felon in violation of a federal statute barring it.

Jones filed his first Section 2255 motion in August 2002 seeking to vacate his conviction on various claims but left out an important one: that he didn't know he was a felon at the time he bought a gun in a Missouri pawn shop, as he testified at his trial. That omission prevented him from raising that claim again, effectively dooming his attempts to use the motion process.

After the Supreme Court ruled in 2019 in Rehaif that intent is necessary to convict a person under the federal felon-in-possession statute, Jones filed a habeas corpus petition arguing the clarification in the law made him legally innocent. In making his case, Jones argued that because his motions had been rendered toothless, the safety clause applied to him.

The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas denied Jones relief, and so did the Eight Circuit, paving the way for a showdown at the high court.

Daniel R. Ortiz, who represents Jones, called the Supreme Court's decision "a great disappointment" and "a defeat for the traditional conception of habeas."

"The conservatives on the court have not looked favorably on post-conviction relief," Ortiz told Law360. "This is another decision which is basically rolling back the rights of people to challenge their convictions."

Last year, the Supreme Court ruled that two Arizona prisoners could not use habeas corpus to present new evidence that supported their claims that their legal representation in state court was constitutionally deficient. One of those men, Barry Jones, was released last week after making a deal with state prosecutors.

Thursday's ruling also rebukes the U.S. government's theory for when the safety valve is triggered, which the justices say borrows its standards from those abused by state prisoners in traditional habeas corpus petitions.

The government argued that the clause is triggered when a prisoner has already filed an unsuccessful Section 2255 motion and has a claim that falls within the scope of a habeas corpus review.

But the justices said they didn't believe the savings clause adopts the type of standard the government endorses. The court said the AEDPA ultimately governed the habeas corpus process in a way that gives courts much deference in determining whether it was within prisoners' reach, even when changes in the law favored them.

"AEDPA's restrictions embody Congress's policy judgment regarding the appropriate balance between finality and error correction," Justice Thomas wrote. "The court declines to adopt a presumption against finality."

Laying out some of the historical milestones that have shaped habeas corpus since the founding era, the court's majority said that some U.S. courts of appeals have found a "workaround" to allow prisoners to file habeas petitions by recognizing that the motions process was inadequate following rulings on criminal law.

"We now hold that the saving clause does not authorize such an end-run around AEDPA," Justice Thomas wrote.

In her full-throated dissenting opinion, Justice Jackson, the only member of the court with significant criminal defense experience, criticized the majority's interpretation of the savings clause, saying it unfairly denied Jones a path for bringing his legal innocence claim before a habeas court.

"I am also deeply troubled by the constitutional implications of the nothing-to-see-here approach that the majority takes with respect to the incarceration of potential legal innocents," she wrote. "Forever slamming the courtroom doors to a possibly innocent person who has never had a meaningful opportunity to get a new and retroactively applicable claim for release reviewed on the merits raises serious constitutional concerns."

The dissent points out that although Congress did not offer detail concerning the scope of the safety valve, given the important constitutional rights at stake, it should be read fairly broadly.

In their dissenting opinion, Justices Sotomayor and Kagan said they agreed with the government's view that Jones' claim falls within the scope of habeas corpus.

"We have long held that federal prisoners can collaterally attack their convictions in successive petitions if they can make a colorable showing that they are innocent under an intervening decision of statutory construction," they wrote.

Brandon L. Garrett, a habeas corpus scholar at Duke University School of Law, said the majority offered a "very narrow" reading of the savings clause that assumed that Congress meant to rule out remedies, even to a prisoner who is legally innocent under the Supreme Court's own intervening decision.

"I agree with Justice Jackson that the savings clause adopts a broad safety valve which is particularly important for claims of innocence," he said.

John H. Blume, a professor of criminal procedure at Cornell University Law School, said Justice Thomas' historical analysis assumes that Congress intended to put the limitations the majority now argue doom Jones' ability to file a habeas petition.

"I don't think it's obvious at all that that's what Congress intended to do," Blume told Law360, adding that lawmakers should find a way to clarify the law.

Blume agreed with Justice Jackson's argument that the door to the habeas process should be left open for people who, like Jones, are legally innocent of their crimes.

"If you went out there and asked the average person, 'Do you think somebody who didn't commit what now the Supreme Court has said is not a crime — do you think they should be allowed to die in prison or rot in prison?" he said. "I think the overwhelming majority of people would say, 'Well, no, that's crazy.'"

Jones is represented by Daniel R. Ortiz of the University of Virginia School of Law Supreme Court Litigation Clinic and Jeremy B. Lowrey.

The government is represented by Elizabeth B. Prelogar and John M. Pellettieri of the U.S. Department of Justice's Criminal Division, Appellate Section.

The case is Marcus Deangelo Jones v. Dewayne Hendrix, case number 21-857, in the Supreme Court of the United States.

--Editing by Alyssa Miller.

Update: This story has been updated with more details and with reactions to the decision.

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