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Hill v. Sepanek

United States District Court, E.D. Kentucky, Southern Division, Pikeville

January 6, 2017

MARK DAVE HILL, Petitioner,
MICHAEL SEPANEK, Warden, Respondent.



         Federal habeas law is rather basic. A prisoner challenging the legality of his sentence must do so under 28 U.S.C. § 2255; a prisoner challenging the legality of his detention must do so under 28 U.S.C. § 2241. But from these roots a tangled forest has grown. Part of the confusion stems from the back door that Congress created between Sections 2255 and 2241: When Section 2255 “is inadequate or ineffective to test the legality of his detention, ” the prisoner may bring his challenge under Section 2241. 28 U.S.C. § 2255(e). The circuits are split on when Section 2255 is “inadequate or ineffective.” Many require a petitioner to prove his “actual innocence” before invoking the savings clause and attacking his sentence under Section 2241. In this case, the Sixth Circuit went a different way.

         To this point, however, the debate has largely overlooked the practical problems a district court faces when it must provide Section 2255 relief via Section 2241. Logistically, how can a court that never sentenced a prisoner resentence him? What power does it have to do so? Does Congress want it to use that power in that way? Those are some of the questions here.

         Mark Dave Hill challenges the sentencing enhancement he received for qualifying as a career offender. The Court has been directed to hear that sentencing challenge under Section 2241 through the savings clause. Before proceeding further, the Court would like to hear what the parties think the Court can-and should-do. The issues are laid out below.

         I. Background

         In 2001, shortly after his trial began in the District of South Carolina, Hill pled guilty to conspiring to distribute heroin. See Hill v. Masters, 836 F.3d 591, 592-94 (6th Cir. 2016) (recounting the facts). The sentencing judge then needed to calculate Hill's guidelines range. The sentencing guidelines provide longer sentences for career offenders. U.S. Sentencing Guidelines Manual (U.S.S.G.) § 4B1.1. Hill qualified: His most recent crime, “a controlled substance offense, ” followed “at least two prior felony convictions of either a crime of violence or a controlled substance offense.” U.S.S.G. § 4B1.1(a). Hill, who was on the Maryland books with a drug offense and a second-degree assault, had one of each. With the enhancement, Hill had a criminal history category of VI and an offense level of thirty-five. Id. § 4B1.1(b). These coordinates landed him in a guidelines range of 292 to 365 months. And back then, the guidelines were mandatory, meaning the court was required to sentence him somewhere within this range. See United States v. Booker, 543 U.S. 220, 245 (2005) (holding, later, that the guidelines are advisory). The court gave him 300 months.

         A decade later, the law on the career-offender enhancement changed. In Descamps v. United States, 133 S.Ct. 2276 (2013), the Supreme Court clarified when a prior felony is a “violent” felony under the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA). The ACCA, like the career-offender guideline, imposes stiffer penalties on defendants with prior violent offenses or serious drug crimes. See Id. at 2283-86. Later that year, the Fourth Circuit held in light of Descamps that Maryland's second-degree-assault statute-the one Hill had once violated- did not describe a “violent felony” under the ACCA. See United States v. Royal, 731 F.3d 333, 342 (4th Cir. 2013).

         Hill filed a habeas petition, arguing that Descamps and Royal entitle him to a lower sentence. R. 1. The career-offender guidelines define “crime of violence” the same way that the ACCA defines “violent felony.” Compare 18 U.S.C. § 924(e)(2)(B)(i), with U.S.S.G. § 4B1.2(a)(1). Knowing what we know now about Maryland's second-degree-assault law, Hill argues, he should not have been classified as a career offender-and if so, his mandatory range should have dropped to 235 to 292 months. See Hill, 836 F.3d at 593. Not only that: He might also have qualified for certain guideline amendments that could have moved his range as low as 188 to 235 months. Id.

         Usually, a federal habeas petitioner wishing to challenge his sentence must do so in his sentencing court through a motion under 28 U.S.C. § 2255. But as discussed below-and because of the quirks that have grown from the habeas laws-Hill brought his petition under 28 U.S.C. § 2241 and in the district where he was confined.

         A. The structure of Sections 2241 and 2255

         There are generally two paths federal habeas petitioners can go by. The first path is Section 2241, which lets them challenge the legality of their detention. 28 U.S.C. § 2241. If a prisoner wants to contest “the execution or manner in which [his] sentence is served”-i.e., if the jail is withholding good-time credits-Section 2241 is his remedy. Terell v. United States, 564 F.3d 442, 447 (6th Cir. 2009). When the Great Writ issues under this section, it gets served on the petitioner's jailer; after all, he is the one who executes the sentence. Id. The petitioner must therefore file his 2241 motion in a court with jurisdiction over the jailer: the court for the district where the petitioner is confined.

         The second path runs through Section 2255, which allows federal prisoners to challenge the validity of their convictions and sentences. See 28 U.S.C. § 2255. The remedy that they can obtain is “exactly commensurate” with what, before the days of Section 2255, they could have obtained through a habeas petition in the district of their confinement. Hill v. United States, 368 U.S. 424, 471 (1962). Why use Section 2255 instead of Section 2241? Section 2255 explicitly enables a petitioner to challenge the legality of the proceedings that led to his sentence, and it is in fact the only way to collaterally attack sentences. 28 U.S.C. § 2255(e). Petitioners may file such challenges from anywhere in the country, but in one court only: “the court which imposed the sentence.” Id. § 2255(a). This jurisdiction is not only the one Congress happened to choose, but the one that makes the most sense. The jailer simply executes the sentence handed down by a judge. If the judge got that sentence wrong, he or she should fix it. And for reasons that are obvious to any judge who has sentenced before, the best judge to fix the sentence is the one intimately familiar with the defendant, the case, and local practices.

         A federal prisoner gets one free chance to file a 2255 motion. If, after filing his first, he discovers some new evidence, or if the Supreme Court creates a new constitutional rule that applies retroactively to his case, he may bring a “second or successive” 2255 motion. Id. § 2255(h). But when Section 2255 is “inadequate or ineffective to test the legality of his detention, ” a prisoner may bring his challenge under Section 2241 instead. Id. § 2255(e). Although courts disagree about what this “savings clause” means, they generally agree that Section 2255 is not “inadequate or ineffective” just because a prisoner is procedurally barred from invoking it-the statute is not “self-cancelling.” Brown v. Caraway, 719 F.3d 583, 600 (7th Cir. 2013) (Easterbrook, J., statement concerning Circuit Rule 40(e) circulation); see United States v. Peterman, 249 F.3d 458, 461 (6th Cir. 2001) (“The unavailability of § 2255 relief does not alone establish inadequacy or ineffectiveness under the savings clause. The court has clearly stated ‘the § 2255 remedy is not considered inadequate or ineffective simply because . . . the petitioner is procedurally barred from pursuing relief under § 2255[.]'” (quoting Charles v. Chandler, 180 F.3d 753, 758 (6th Cir. 1999))).

         Rather, courts have held that a prisoner may access the savings clause when he has been convicted under a law that later changes in a way that makes him “actually innocent” of the offense. See Wooten v. Cauley, 677 F.3d 303, 307-08 (6th Cir. 2012). To prove that, he must show that (1) a new interpretation of a statute, (2) issued too late for him to have incorporated it into his previous motion, (3) is retroactive, and (4) not only applies to his case but also makes it “more likely than not that no reasonable juror would have convicted” him of the offense. Id. When all of that is true, he may challenge his conviction-not under Section 2255, but under Section 2241. Id.

         But until recently, prisoners could not use the savings clause to challenge sentencing enhancements. As some courts have written, “[t]o say ‘that a petitioner can be “actually innocent” of a sentencing enhancement, ' rather than an element of the actual crime, ‘would require a great deal of both verbal and logical gymnastics.'” United States v. Surratt, 797 F.3d 240, 249 (4th Cir. 2015) (quoting Turner v. Warden Coleman FCI (Medium), 709 F.3d 1328, 1334 n.3 (11th Cir. 2013)). Whether or not that's true, until this case the Sixth Circuit had consistently held-albeit in unpublished cases-that the savings clause “does not apply to sentencing claims.” Reminsky v. United States, 523 F. App'x 327, 329 (6th Cir. 2013); see also, e.g., Jones v. Castillo, 489 F. App'x 864, 866 (6th Cir. 2012) (same); Hayes v. Holland, 473 F. App'x 501, 502 (6th Cir. 2012) (same).

         B. Hill's petition

         After years of litigation, Hill's habeas claim had stalled. He had already filed his free Section 2255 motion-plus one more-both of which were denied. See United States v. Hill, 158 F. App'x 436, 437 (4th Cir. 2005) (denying Hill's first 2255 petition); United States v. Hill, 442 F. App'x 76, 77 (4th Cir. 2011) (denying his second 2255 petition). No new rule of constitutional law applied to him (Descamps is statutory), nor did any new evidence prove his actual innocence of the heroin conspiracy, so he could not file a third Section 2255 claim. But after the Fourth Circuit reinterpreted his predicate offense, he brought another motion-this time under Section 2241. R. 1. Since he wanted to challenge a sentence enhancement, however, he could not (yet) pass through the savings clause. Without any contrary published precedent in sight, this Court held that Hill's sentencing claim “does not belong in a § 2241 proceeding” and dismissed his petition at the screening stage. R. 7 at 4.

         His boat stranded, Hill appealed. At which point the Sixth Circuit gave him a tow, holding that petitioners barred from bringing successive motions under Section 2255 may sometimes challenge their sentence enhancements under Section 2241 via the savings clause. See Hill, 836 F.3d at 599-600. The court did not require Hill to prove his actual innocence under the old savings-clause test. Instead, it adopted a new test for prisoners who challenge “the legality of [their] detention” by attacking their mandatory sentence enhancements. 28 U.S.C. § 2255(e). To pass this test, the prisoner must show that (1) a new interpretation of a statute, (2) is retroactive and was issued too late to incorporate into an earlier 2255 motion, and (3) his enhanced sentence under the old interpretation is “an error sufficiently grave to be deemed a miscarriage of justice or a fundamental defect.” Hill, 836 F.3d at 595.

         According to the Sixth Circuit, Hill passes this test. The government conceded that, in the hindsight of Descamps and Royal, Hill's second-degree assault conviction is no longer a crime of violence under the career-offender guideline. Id. It also conceded that this change applies retroactively. Id. Those concessions brought Hill within view of shoreline. But see infra Part II.D. As for the defect in his sentence, the court reflected that serving a too-high sentence under mandatory guidelines “shares similarities” with serving a sentence higher than the statutory maximum. Id. at 599. “Both sentences, ” the court said, “are beyond what is called for by law.” Id. If Hill had not qualified as a career offender, he could have been sentenced in a lower range. Id. Because his sentence thus “raises a fundamental fairness issue, ” Hill has passed the new test and may challenge his career-offender enhancement under Section 2241. Id.

         While it created a new rule, the court also limited its reach. The rule applies only to petitioners in Hill's particular position: “prisoners who were sentenced under the mandatory guidelines regime, ” “who are foreclosed from filing a successive [2255] petition, ” and who received the career-offender enhancement because of a predicate offense that “a subsequent, retroactive change in statutory interpretation by the Supreme Court reveals” is no longer a qualifying predicate offense. Id. at 599-600.

         C. ...

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