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Two Conflicting Views: Restrictions on Habeas Rights Under the AEDPA

Photo Credit: https://longreads.com/2018/11/28/the-rising-tide-of-wrongful-convictions/ (Last Visited Feb. 3, 2020).

By: McKenzie Meade
Member, American Journal of Trial Advocacy

            What does a writ of habeas corpus and the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (“AEDPA”) have in common?  A recent circuit split!  The Sixth and Fourth Circuit Courts of Appeals went head to head on their interpretations of the AEDPA and how it applies to the habeas rights of prisoners.  In short, the Sixth Circuit held that federal prisoners, on appeal, are not allowed to file a second habeas petition to overcome procedural limits.  On the other hand, the Fourth Circuit does not interpret the AEDPA to increase restrictions on habeas rights and conflicts with the Sixth Circuit’s findings.   

            Today, a writ of habeas corpus is mostly used for prisoners who are challenging the legality of their imprisonment.  To be more exact, this writ is a “court order demanding that a public official . . . deliver an imprisoned individual to the court and show a valid reason for that person’s detention.”[1]  For a prisoner to bring this writ in front of a court, they have to file a petition known as a habeas petition in either state or federal court.[2]  But in order to file federally, all state options should be exhausted.[3]  In 1996, the AEDPA limited the ability to file a habeas petition.[4]  Under the AEDPA, a prisoner only has one chance to file a petition, unless they can show that the AEDPA  remedy is inadequate or ineffective.[5]  Not to mention, prisoners cannot file a second petition unless the United States Supreme Court announces a new constitutional law.[6] 

            The Sixth Circuit’s decision was made in the case of Hueso v. Barnhart.[7]  Ramon Hueso was convicted for “conspiring to distribute and possess with intent to distribute illegal drugs.”[8]  He moved to vacate his sentence but was denied.[9]  His certificate of appealability was also denied by the court.[10]  However, Hueso’s sentence ended up doubling from his initial sentence of ten years.[11]  Shortly after this, Hueso filed a habeas petition, challenging his doubled sentence.[12]  After the denial of his first petition, he subsequently filed a second habeas petition for the same reason.[13]  He filed the second petition after a law had been changed regarding motions to vacate, but his second petition was still denied.[14]  Of course, he appealed.  The Sixth Circuit had precedent that barred habeas corpus cases from viewing sentencing challenges.  But, in 2016, this changed.  The Sixth Circuit overturned its previous precedent and now allowed habeas petitions pertaining to sentencing challenges.[15]   

            One would think that the second petition that Hueso filed would been heard by the court, but that was not the case.  After filing his second petition, the court rejected it under the AEDPA, and he appealed.  Hueso argued that a prisoner may seek habeas relief based on “new” decisions from the circuit courts, not just the Supreme Court.[16]  He brought up the Fourth Circuit case, United States v. Wheeler, that had an “identical request.”[17]  However, the Sixth Circuit declined his petition and found that “new rules from the circuit courts (whether of statutory or constitutional law) could render [Section] 2255 ‘inadequate or ineffective’ and trigger the right to a second round of litigation.”[18]  Hueso contends that these circuit cases he cites make the AEDPA remedy inadequate and ineffective, meaning that he should have his petition heard.[19]  However, the Sixth Circuit denied his appeal for two main reasons.  The first reason was that his double sentencing was already decided on during his first motion to vacate, and litigation was over.[20]  Moreover, there was no new evidence or constitutional rules that the second petition was based on, as required under the AEDPA and needed for a second habeas petition.[21] 

            Like mentioned above, the Sixth Circuit has contrasting views with the Fourth Circuit.  The Fourth Circuit’s case of United States v. Wheeler[22] may have similar facts, but it is distinguished from the case above in many ways.  Gerald Wheeler was convicted of conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute a controlled substance, possession of a firearm during and in relation to a drug trafficking crime, and possession of a firearm by a convicted felon.[23]  He took a plea deal and was sentenced to one hundred and twenty months in prison.[24]  Wheeler was convicted on precedent in the Fourth Circuit that allowed a maximum aggravated sentence to be imposed.[25]  However, that precedent was overturned, and he appealed after his motion to vacate was denied.[26]  His appeal was also denied, and after this denial, Wheeler filed a habeas petition.[27]  

            Wheeler’s habeas petition argued that the AEDPA remedy was “inadequate or ineffective” to test the legality of his detention.[28]  At first, the district court dismissed his petition.  Nonetheless, the Court of Appeals found that Wheeler satisfied the AEDPA argument because of the “retroactive change in the law, occurring after the time for direct appeal and the filing of his first [Section] 2255 motion, rendered his applicable mandatory minimum unduly increased, resulting in a fundamental defect in his sentence.”[29]  The court analyzed the elements that “test the legality of a sentence.”[30]  The court concluded 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; (2) subsequent to the prisoner’s direct appeal and first [Section] 2255 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 provisions of [Section] 2255(h)(2) 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.[31]

            The split between the Sixth Circuit and the Fourth Circuit boils down to their interpretations of the AEDPA.  The Sixth Circuit interprets the AEDPA to increase restrictions on habeas rights for prisoners, while the Fourth Circuit is not as strict with its interpretation.  It is likely that more circuits will split on the findings between these two circuits.  The habeas rights for both federal and state prisoners could potentially change in the coming months.  Those changes will either lean towards the strict interpretation of the Sixth Circuit or the approach of the Fourth Circuit, but I guess we will have to wait and see!  


[1] Writ of Habeas Corpus, FindLaw, https://criminal.findlaw.com/criminal-procedure/writ-of-habeas-corpus.html (last visited Feb. 5, 2020).

[2] Appeals, Writs, and Habeas Corpus: FAQ, FindLaw, https://criminal.findlaw.com/criminal-procedure/the-appeal-writ-and-habeas-corpus-petition-process.html (last visited Feb. 5, 2020).

[3] Id.

[4] Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 19962 (AEDPA), Pub. L. No. 104-132, 110 Stat. 1214 (codified as amended in scattered sections of the U.S. Code).

[5] Id.

[6] Id.

[7] Hueso v. Barnhart, 948 F.3d 324, 326 (6th Cir. Jan. 9, 2020).

[8] Hueso, 948 F.3d at 329.

[9] Id. at 330.

[10] Id.

[11] Id.

[12] Id.

[13] Id. at 331.

[14] Id.

[15] Hill v. Masters, 836 F.3d 591 (6th Cir. 2016).

[16] Hueso, 948 F.3d at 326.

[17] Id.

[18] Id.

[19] Id. at 332.

[20] Id. at 336.

[21] Id. at 331.

[22] United States v. Wheeler, 886 F.3d 415 (4th Cir. 2018).

[23] Wheeler, 886 F.3d at 419.

[24] Id.

[25] Id.

[26] Id. at 420.

[27] Id. at 421.

[28] Id.

[29] Id. at 419.

[30] Id. at 429.

[31] Id.

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