Accuracy v. Finality: The Implications of Habeas Rights Based on AEDPA Interpretations

BACKGROUND

With the release of the film Just Mercy, the debate over balancing the prevention of wrongful convictions against the assurance of finality in serious criminal matters has once again come into the spotlight. This dispute is not only receiving national attention in pop culture, but is also making headlines in the judicial field with the emergence of a new circuit split.

A habeas petition is a method invoked by prisoners seeking an early release by challenging the legitimacy of their detention. In 1996, the ability to file habeas petitions was limited with the passage of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (“AEDPA”). Under AEDPA, a prisoner has just one opportunity to file a motion to vacate the earlier sentence. A second opportunity is permitted only when the Supreme Court adopts a new and favorable rule of constitutional law. Prisoners are also restricted to just one habeas petition, unless they can demonstrate that AEDPA’s remedy is “inadequate or ineffective.”

THE ISSUE

Can the AEDPA remedy be considered inadequate or ineffective, thereby circumventing the single habeas restriction, when a new rule of statutory construction is adopted by a circuit court?

THE SPLIT

In Hueso v. Barnhart (2020), the Sixth Circuit split from the Fourth Circuit, interpreting AEDPA to increase restrictions on habeas rights. Hueso was convicted of drug trafficking in Alaska. He was initially sentenced to 10 years in prison; however, the term was doubled under a federal sentencing law. The year after his conviction, the Supreme Court rejected the interpretation permitting doubling. At the time, Hueso’s counsel had already filed a Motion to Vacate challenging evidence, which was rejected. Counsel then filed a habeas petition based on the Supreme Court ruling. The court denied the petition based on Sixth Circuit precedent that barred habeas cases from entertaining challenges based on sentencing. However, in 2016, the Sixth Circuit overturned its previous holding, thereby permitting sentencing-based habeas petitions.

As a result, Hueso’s counsel filed another habeas petition, but this time it was rejected under AEDPA. Hueso appealed to the Sixth Circuit, arguing that he should be permitted to file a second habeas under AEDPA because the AEDPA remedy was inadequate and ineffective. The Sixth Circuit denied the appeal on two bases. First, the Sixth Circuit reasoned that the Supreme Court ruling rejecting double sentencing could not be introduced in a subsequent challenge as the decision was made while Hueso’s first Motion to Vacate was pending. The court reasoned that the decision was available at the time of the challenge and, therefore, the failure to mention it barred a second attempt. Second, the Sixth Circuit held that the second habeas petition was correctly denied because the basis of the petition centered on a circuit court decision to permit sentencing-based habeas petitions. The Sixth Circuit rationalized that this decision was not constitutional law, as required under AEDPA, and thus could not be a basis for seeking to file subsequent petitions.

The Sixth Circuit’s reasoning diverged from the Fourth Circuit’s prior interpretation in United States v. Wheeler (2018). Wheeler was charged with conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute cocaine and possession of a firearm. Wheeler entered into a plea deal, agreeing to an enhanced sentence with a mandatory minimum of 120 months. The next year, Wheeler’s counsel filed a Motion to Vacate, citing both inefficient counsel and the fact that the conviction did not qualify for an enhanced sentence. The Motion was denied based on Fourth Circuit precedent allowing a maximum aggravated sentence to be imposed. Wheeler’s counsel sought to appeal by filing a certificate of appealability. While the appeal was pending, the previous precedent relied upon was overturned by the Fourth Circuit with a finding that a district court could only consider the maximum sentence that the particular defendant could receive in enhanced sentence matters. However, Wheeler’s appeal was still denied based on the reasoning that the new decision could not be applied retroactively.

Wheeler’s counsel subsequently filed a habeas petition, arguing that the AEDPA remedy was inadequate and ineffective. In this case, the Fourth Circuit upheld the inadequacy on appeal. The court reasoned:

“[W]e conclude that [AEDPA] is inadequate and ineffective to test the legality of a sentence when: (1) at the time of sentencing, settled law of this circuit or the Supreme Court established the legality of the sentence; subsequent to the prisoner’s direct appeal and first … motion, the aforementioned settled substantive law changed and was deemed to apply retroactively on collateral review; (3) the prisoner is unable to meet the gatekeeping requirements … for second or successive motions; and (4) due to this retroactive change, the sentence now presents an error sufficiently grave to be deemed a fundamental defect.”

LOOKING FORWARD

Following the Wheeler decision, the Solicitor General, on behalf of the United States, filed a writ of certiorari with the United States Supreme Court. The petition was denied in March 2019, before the split emerged. The developing split has the potential for unfortunate consequences for prisoners based solely on the region they are imprisoned in. The split will inevitably result in disparate results concerning a prisoner’s rights to seek relief and retrial in the case of wrongful convictions. In the Sixth Circuit, Judge Karen Nelson Moore acknowledged the disparity in her dissent, pointing out that Hueso would “almost certainly prevail” had he attacked his sentence the first time, and noting that, as a result of the majority interpretation, Hueso would be spending another decade incarcerated.

Agree to Disagree: Defining Submission to Police Authority

Issue

The Fourth Amendment of the Constitution protects against unwarranted searches and seizures, which begs the question—what exactly constitutes a seizure? In California v. Hodari D. (1991), the Supreme Court held that a “seizure” requires either physical force or submission to police authority. In the wake of this decision, circuit courts have struggled to define the phrase, “submission to police authority,” resulting in a split of authority. The emergent view in the Courts of Appeals, although admittedly uneven within the circuits, is that when a suspect does nearly anything more than pausing briefly, including any significant verbal engagement with the officer, that action is strong evidence of submission.” United States v. Camacho (1st Cir. 2011). Some courts have adopted this rather broad interpretation of the term, imparting a low standard for submission. Other courts have adopted a narrow view, requiring additional conduct to meet the standard.

The issue of defining submission is incredibly significant because of its impact on other aspects of a case. For example, whether or not a defendant is deemed to have submitted to police authority can determine what evidence may be presented at trial, which can significantly influence the outcome of a case. The Fourth Amendment serves to protect against unwarranted invasions of privacy by requiring probable cause. The Fourth Amendment “prohibition on unreasonable searches and seizures is enforced through the exclusionary rule, which excludes evidence seized in violation of the Fourth Amendment.” United States v. Camacho (1st Cir. 2011).

The Split

The following circuits have adopted the view that brief compliance followed by flight does not constitute submission.

  • Second Circuit: In United States v. Huertas (2d Cir. 2017), the court held that, in dealing with the police, conduct that amounts to evasion cannot be considered submission.
  • Third Circuit: In direct contradiction with the Tenth Circuit’s ruling, the court in United States v. Valentine (3d Cir. 2000) held that a brief pause does not make for a submission, and therefore the defendant in this case was not seized within the Fourth Amendment meaning.
  • Ninth Circuit: In United States v. Hernandez (9th Cir. 1994), the court rejected the defendant’s argument that he was “seized” because he briefly submitted to the police officer’s show of authority before fleeing. The court here requires a discernible showing of compliance to constitute submission:

“We decline to adopt a rule whereby momentary hesitation and direct eye contact prior to flight constitute submission to a show of authority. Such a rule would encourage suspects to flee after the slightest contact with an officer in order to discard evidence, and yet still maintain Fourth Amendment protections.”

The following circuits have adopted the view that brief compliance followed by flight does constitute submission.

  • First Circuit: In United States v. Camacho (1st Cir. 2011), the court held that once a defendant responds to questions posed by the police, he or she has submitted to police authority.
  • Tenth Circuit: In United States v. Morgan (10th Cir. 1991), the court held that even the slightest form of compliance, in this case, a momentary hesitation, is enough to constitute submission. The court explains its reasoning as follows:

“Here, the intrusion on Mr. Morgan in regard to the initial attempted questioning by Officer Eubanks and the subsequent exchange between the two was minimal. However, since Officer Eubanks had followed the car in which Defendant was a passenger for several blocks with his red lights flashing; since Officer Eubanks exited from a marked police car, in uniform, and asked the Defendant to hold up; and since Defendant, at least momentarily, yielded to the Officer’s apparent show of authority, we find Mr. Morgan was seized for purposes of the Fourth Amendment during the initial portion of the encounter.”

  • D.C. Circuit: In United States v. Brodie (D.C. Cir. 2014), the court ruled that when a defendant complies with an officer’s orders by engaging in overt acts, such as putting one’s hands on the car, the defendant has submitted to police authority.

Looking Forward

Although the Supreme Court expressly outlined the requirements for a “seizure” in California v. Hodari D. (1991), it still left some questions unanswered—circuit courts were tasked with the responsibility of defining “submission to police authority,” and conflicting rulings resulted. Branden Huertas submitted a petition for writ of certiorari to the Supreme Court in December 2017, in hopes of appealing the Second Circuit’s decision in United States v. Huertas (2017). In the petition, Huertas discusses the split among the lower courts and urges the Supreme Court to review the issue. In his petition for a writ of certiorari to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, Huertas notes: “The conflict is widely recognized by courts and commentators. It also is deeply entrenched; the courts on either side of the split have acknowledged the contrary reasoning of their peers and have had multiple opportunities to reconsider their positions, but the conflict has persisted. Thus, only this Court can restore uniformity on this important question of Fourth Amendment law.” For further reading, see the petition for writ of certiorari: Huertas v. United States.

Waive after Waive: Can the Government Waive a Challenge to Fourth Amendment Standing?

Background: Not All Standing is Done on the Same Legs

The most familiar idea of “standing” is based in Article III and is about whether someone can participate in the case at all. However, the term “standing” has attached itself to a narrower issue within Fourth Amendment law, despite then-Justice Rehnquist’s misgivings in Rakas v. Illinois.

Fourth Amendment standing is shorthand for the requirement that in a motion to suppress evidence from an unconstitutional search and seizure, the defendant must show that the search violated the defendant’s own personal rights of privacy, liberty, or possession. A defendant lacks Fourth Amendment standing if they attempt to suppress evidence based on the violation of someone else’s rights, for example, when a search of a car one does not own uncovers a gun that one, likewise, cannot lay claim to—the move not permitted in Rakas.

It is the responsibility of the government to bring a challenge to a defendant’s Fourth Amendment standing, but what happens when it does not do so at the district level? Is it waived in any future proceedings?

The Split

Two circuits have held that the government does not waive Fourth Amendment standing issues if it fails to raise them in district court: the First Circuit and the Eighth Circuit. The Eighth Circuit case on point, United States v. Rodriguez-Arreola, clearly states that the government does not waive a lack of Fourth Amendment standing based on a previous case pertaining to Article III standing, surely causing Chief Justice Rehnquist to spin uncontrollably in his grave:

The government cannot waive Rodriguez’s lack of standing, and therefore any argument based on waiver must fail…(“[I]t is elementary that standing relates to the justiciability of a case and cannot be waived by the parties.”).

On the other hand, seven circuits hold that the government does in fact waive Fourth Amendment standing challenges if it fails to raise them in district court, though some circuits are more lenient than others. This majority position is rooted in the idea that just because the word “standing” is involved, it does not implicate Article III jurisdictional issues—it views Fourth Amendment standing as simply shorthand for the substance of the Fourth Amendment.

Most of these circuits (namely, the Third, Fifth, Seventh, Tenth, and Eleventh) hold that the government may not raise an issue of Fourth Amendment standing for the first time on appeal. If the government fails to challenge Fourth Amendment standing on the district level, it amounts to a complete concession on the issue by the government.

The Ninth Circuit, in United States v. Paopao, gives the government some wiggle room, allowing challenges to Fourth Amendment standing to be raised for the first time on appeal. It makes clear in United States v. Ewing, however, that failure to place a challenge to Fourth Amendment standing in the appellate brief only to bring it up at oral argument is not a valid move, and amounts to a waiver of the challenge.

The latest circuit to join the waive-friendly bunch is the Sixth. United States v. Noble leans toward the Ninth Circuit’s holding, though it is not so lenient. The Sixth Circuit first criticizes the approach of the First and Eighth Circuits, noting:

“Fourth Amendment standing is akin to an element of a claim and does not sound in Article III. The government, like other litigants, therefore, can forfeit or waive an argument that defendants lack Fourth Amendment standing.”

Later, the Sixth Circuit lays out its own approach to waivability:

“[W]e would allow the government to raise an objection to a defendant’s Fourth Amendment standing for the first time on appeal, provided that the government can show that the defendant plainly lacked standing and that our failure to recognize it would “seriously affect…the fairness, integrity or public reputation of judicial proceedings.” …However, if the government fails to raise the issue in its opening brief on appeal, then the objection is waived.”

Looking Forward

While the Supreme Court has released opinions concerning Fourth Amendment standing, it has not explicitly stated whether the government waives the issue if it fails to bring it up in district court. Considering the precedent of Rakas, if the right mix of criminal procedures twists and turns its way up to the highest Court, it would not be unreasonable to wager on the path chosen by most circuits today. For what it’s worth, however, this blogger would like to see a reexamination of the general idea that a defendant cannot acquire Fourth Amendment standing without an interest in the property searched, especially when that unconstitutional search specifically targeted that defendant.