Supreme Court Clarifies Standing Requirements for Habeas Claim
In Alaska v. Wright, 593 U.S. ____ (2021), the U.S. Supreme Court held that if offenders have finished serving their state court sentence, they lack standing to bring a federal habeas claim.
Facts of the Case
In 2009, an Alaska jury convicted Sean Wright of 13 counts of sexual abuse of a minor. Wright finished serving his sentence in Alaska in 2016, and shortly thereafter he moved to Tennessee. Once there, he failed to register as a sex offender as required by federal law. Wright pleaded guilty to one count of failure to register, and ultimately received a sentence of time served along with five years of supervised release.
During the course of those federal proceedings, Wright filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus in the United States District Court for the District of Alaska pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §§2241 and 2254. He argued that the Alaska Supreme Court had unreasonably applied clearly established federal law when it denied his Sixth Amendment claims and affirmed his 2009 state conviction and sentence. The District Court denied the motion on the threshold ground that Wright was not “in custody pursuant to the judgment of a State court.” Noting that a proper motion under §2254(a) requires more than merely being “in custody” somewhere, the court reasoned that “the proper procedure for Wright to challenge his current federal custody would be a motion filed in the Eastern District of Tennessee pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §2255.”
The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed. In its view, Wright’s state conviction was “a necessary predicate” to his federal conviction, (quoting Zichko v. Idaho, 247 F. 3d 1015, 1019 (CA9 2001)), so Wright was in fact in custody pursuant to the judgment of a state court. The panel declined to assess the District Court’s view that §2255, rather than §2254, provided the proper route for Wright to challenge his current custody. One judge concurred and asserted that §2254 was the proper mechanism “because Wright is not attacking the constitutionality of his federal conviction for failing to register as a sex offender in Tennessee; he is collaterally attacking the constitutionality of his predicate Alaska conviction for sexual abuse of a minor.”
Supreme Court’s Decision
The Supreme Court reversed, concluding that “the Court of Appeals clearly erred.” In its per curium opinion, the Court explained that Section 2254(a) permits a federal court to entertain an application for a writ of habeas corpus on behalf of a person “in custody pursuant to the judgment of a State court.” Citing Maleng v. Cook, 490 U.S. 488 (1989) (per curiam), the Court further noted that a habeas petitioner does not remain “in custody” under a conviction “after the sentence imposed for it has fully expired, merely because of the possibility that the prior conviction will be used to enhance the sentences imposed for
any subsequent crimes of which he is convicted.” In that case, the Court held that it made no difference that the possibility of a prior-conviction enhancement had materialized for the habeas petitioner in that case: “When the second sentence is imposed, it is pursuant to the second conviction that the petitioner is incarcerated and is therefore ‘in custody.’”
Based on its prior precedent, the Court concluded that the fact that Wright’s state conviction served as a predicate for his federal conviction did not render him “in custody pursuant to the judgment of a State court” under §2254(a). The Court wrote:
If Wright’s second conviction had been for a state crime, he independently could have satisfied §2254(a)’s “in custody” requirement, though his ability to attack the first conviction by that means would have been limited. Wright could not satisfy §2254(a) on that independent basis for the simple reason that his second judgment was entered by a federal court. (internal citations omitted).
The Supreme Court expressed express no view on the other theories Wright advanced before the District Court for meeting the requirements of §2254(a). It vacated the appeals court judgment and remanded the case back to the district court for proceedings consistent with the opinion.
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