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What is a Federal 2255 Motion? How to Challenge a Federal Conviction or Sentence

By Spodek Law Group | October 19, 2023
(Last Updated On: October 20, 2023)

Last Updated on: 20th October 2023, 09:57 am

What is a Federal 2255 Motion? How to Challenge a Federal Conviction or Sentence

A Federal 2255 motion is a way for someone convicted of a federal crime to challenge their conviction or sentence after they have exhausted their direct appeal options. It allows prisoners to argue that their conviction or sentence violated the Constitution or federal law.

Overview of 2255 Motions

The ability to file a 2255 motion comes from 28 U.S.C. § 2255, a federal law passed in 1948. It lets federal prisoners challenge their convictions or sentences by filing a motion in the federal district court that imposed their sentence[1].

Some key things to know about 2255 motions:

  • They are filed after direct appeals are finished. You can’t file one while your direct appeal is still pending.
  • They let you argue your conviction or sentence violated the Constitution or federal law. Common arguments are things like ineffective assistance of counsel, prosecutorial misconduct, actual innocence, etc[2].
  • They are filed in the federal district court that sentenced you, not the court of appeals or Supreme Court[3].
  • There is a 1-year statute of limitations that starts running from the date your conviction becomes final[4].
  • You only get one 2255 motion as a matter of right, unless the court of appeals authorizes a second one[5].

So in summary, a 2255 motion is a collateral attack on your conviction or sentence that you file in the district court after your direct appeals are over. It’s an important tool but you only get one shot, so you need to make it count.

Common Grounds for 2255 Motions

There are several common grounds that federal prisoners use to challenge their convictions or sentences with a 2255 motion. Some of the main ones are:

Ineffective Assistance of Counsel

One of the most common 2255 claims is ineffective assistance of counsel. This argues your attorney’s performance was so deficient it violated your 6th Amendment right to counsel.

To prove this, you must show: 1) your attorney’s performance was deficient and fell below an objective standard of reasonableness, and 2) you were prejudiced as a result[6]. Both prongs must be met.

Examples of ineffective assistance include failing to investigate defenses or call witnesses, not objecting to inadmissible evidence, giving inaccurate legal advice, having a conflict of interest, etc.

Prosecutorial Misconduct

Another common 2255 claim is prosecutorial misconduct, like withholding exculpatory evidence or knowingly allowing perjured testimony. If the prosecution engages in misconduct that violates your due process rights, it can be grounds for a 2255 motion.

Actual Innocence

Arguing you are actually innocent of the crime can also support a 2255 motion in some cases. While innocence alone is not grounds for relief, if you can show new reliable evidence proving your innocence, it may open the door for the court to consider your other claims. Actual innocence can also allow the court to hear claims that would otherwise be procedurally barred.

Unlawful Sentence

You can use a 2255 motion to argue your sentence was illegal or unconstitutional. For example, if the court enhanced your sentence based on inaccurate information or miscalculated the sentencing guidelines range under the U.S. Code.

Lack of Jurisdiction

If the court that convicted you lacked jurisdiction for some reason, you can raise this issue in a 2255 motion and argue your conviction is invalid. For example, if you were charged with a state crime but wrongly convicted in federal court.

How to File a 2255 Motion

Filing a successful 2255 motion takes time and effort. Here are some key steps in the process:

Meet the Custody Requirement

To file a 2255 motion, you must be “in custody” under the conviction you want to challenge. This includes being in prison, on parole, probation, or supervised release.

File in the Right Court

You must file your 2255 motion in the specific federal district court that sentenced you. This is likely different than where you are incarcerated. The court that imposed your sentence is the only one with jurisdiction to hear your 2255 motion.

Meet the Deadline

There is a 1-year statute of limitations on 2255 motions. This clock starts ticking when your conviction becomes “final” – either when the Supreme Court denies cert or when your time to file for cert expires.

Use the Right Form

While not required, it’s a good idea to use the standard AO 243 form for 2255 motions to ensure you include all needed information. You must include all grounds for relief in your original motion.

State Your Claims Clearly

Your motion should clearly lay out each ground for relief, the supporting facts, and the legal basis for why it entitles you to have your conviction or sentence vacated. Cite any relevant case law. Focus on violations of your constitutional rights.

Include Evidence

Attach any evidence, like affidavits, documents, or records that help prove your claims. The motion itself just needs to allege facts entitling you to relief. Evidence is key during later proceedings.

Serve the U.S. Attorney

After filing your motion with the court, you must serve the U.S. Attorney in that district with a copy. This gives the government notice so they can respond.

After Filing a 2255 Motion

Filing the motion is just the first step. Here is what happens after you submit your 2255 motion:

Initial Review by the Court

The judge will conduct an initial review of your motion. If it is missing any key information, they may dismiss it without requiring a response from the government.

Government Files Response

If your motion passes initial review, the court will order the U.S. Attorney to file a response within a certain time frame, like 60 days. They will argue why your motion should be denied.

Your Reply to the Government

After reading the government’s response, you can file a reply brief disputing their arguments and evidence. This is your chance to undermine their position.

Evidentiary Hearing

For fact-intensive 2255 claims like ineffective assistance of counsel, the court may hold an evidentiary hearing to help resolve disputed facts. You would testify about what happened, as would your prior counsel.

Court’s Decision

Finally, the judge will rule on your 2255 motion and either grant or deny relief. If granted, your conviction or sentence will be vacated. But denials can be appealed to the circuit court.

Tips for Success with 2255 Motions

Here are some tips to help maximize your chances of winning 2255 relief:

  • Start early – don’t wait until the deadline to start drafting your motion. Rushing leads to mistakes.
  • Make compelling claims – focus on serious constitutional violations versus technical or harmless errors.
  • Include strong proof – gather declarations, records, statistics, etc. to back up your claims.
  • Stick to the facts – avoid legal jargon and tell your story chronologically. Let the facts speak for themselves.
  • Be detailed – cover what happened, why it was unconstitutional, and how it harmed you. Don’t assume the judge remembers your case.
  • Hire an attorney – while not required, having an experienced federal post-conviction lawyer greatly improves your odds.

Federal post-conviction litigation is complex. But with a compelling 2255 motion and hard work, you may convince the court to vacate your unconstitutional conviction or sentence.

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