Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals - Published Opinions

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Williams: Nonexistent precedent precludes habeas relief

In Williams v. Warden, No. 11-13306 (Apr. 11, 2013) (2-1), the Court held that the “savings clause” of 28 U.S.C. § 2255 did not authorize Williams to bring a habeas petition under 28 U.S.C. § 2241 challenging whether three violent felony predicate convictions supported his sentence enhancement under the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA). The Court reasoned that because Williams could and did raise this issue on direct appeal and in his first § 2255 motion, the savings clause does not apply.

The Court pointed out that § 2255's savings clause provides that once a court has denied a petitioner relief, a habeas remedy is not available unless the remedy was “inadequate or ineffective” to test his claim. This erects a “jurisdictional” barrier against habeas remedies.

The Court noted that the savings clause had to interpreted in a way that did not “swallow up” the limitations on second § 2255 motions. “If possible, we try to avoid interpreting a statute in such a way that any part of it becomes mere surplusage.”

The Court held that for a challenge to a sentence to pass muster under the savings clause, it must be based on a retroactively applicable Supreme Court decision, that overturned circuit precedent that had squarely foreclosed a claim.

Williams could not satisfy this test, because at the time of his initial motion, no Circuit precedent foreclosed his sentencing challenge, which relied on Begay, a Supreme Court decision decided after his appeal and his initial § 2255 motion.

[Dissenting. Judge Martin wrote that “prexistence or nonexistence of circuit precedent has no bearing” on whether a defendant is eligible for habeas relief. Martin reasoned that if Williams was never a career criminal in light of Begay, then his continued incarceration violates due process.]