Judge: Don Bush
Holding: Petition for Habeas Corpus Relief Denied
This opinion by Judge Bush in Plano provides a good overview of the contours of habeas petitions, which make up a substantial portion of the cases filed in federal courts. The writ of habeas corpus, also referred to as the Great Writ, is used to determine if the detention of a prisoner is valid. A writ of habeas corpus, i.e. "you have the the body" from Latin, is used to bring a prisoner or other person before the court to determine if the person's imprisonment or detention is lawful.
Essentially, an inmate, usually proceeding pro se, files a motion to vacate, set aside, or correct sentence pursuant to 28 USC section 2255, challenging constitutional violations concerning his conviction. Such motions are typically referred to magistrate judges for findings of fact, conclusions of law, and recommendations for the disposition of the case by the district judge pursuant to 28 USC section 636 and the Amended Order for the Adoption of Local Rules for the Assignment of Duties to the United States Magistrate Judge in the Eastern District.
The first step in a habeas petition is a conviction of the movant, followed by a sentence of imprisonment. In some cases, the conviction is followed by a direct appeal to the Fifth Circuit, which is unsuccessful or, as in this case, dismissed as frivolous.
What happens next is that the movant files a motion pursuant to section 2255, asserting that he is entitled to relief because of alleged errors in the conduct of his case. Typically there are complaints regarding the performance of trial counsel or appellate counsel, usually that there was ineffective assistance of counsel at each critical stage of sentencing of and appeal. Or the alleged error may be by the trial court or the Government.
In any event, as Judge Bush noted here at the outset of his discussion "a section 2255 motion is 'fundamentally different from a direct appeal'" and only a limited range of claims may be raised, compared to a direct appeal. Errors of law are not enough – the error must be of constitutional or jurisdictional magnitude.
In this case, movant Smith (no relation) actually was not convicted of a crime - he signed a plea agreement which included a waiver of proceedings under section 2255, which the Court noted was permissible. Thus this case does not have the usual recitation of alleged errors during the trial or appellate process (I know - I'm disappointed as well). Instead, the core of the ruling was the Court's review the terms of the plea agreement, including all of the actions that took place at the plea hearing, during which the Court questioned the movant and explained his rights and what he was giving up as a result of his plea of guilty. After an extensive recitation of the facts surrounding the plea, Judge Bush concluded that the plea was in fact voluntary and knowing, thus the waiver must be enforced. The court also noted that the claims of ineffective assistance of counsel did not affect the plea or waiver it self, thus they did not provide relief either. Out of an an abundance of caution, the Court also discussed the movant's claim that the government breached the plea agreement, and concluded that this was not the case. Finally, the court reviewed the standards for a certificate of appealability of a final order in a section 2255 proceeding, and concluded that the movant had not met the standards for such relief
To wrap everything up, Judge Bush recommended that the movant's motion for relief under section 2255 be denied, the case be dismissed with prejudice, and the request for a certificate of appealability denied. He concluded by setting forth the timing and substantive requirements for objections to the findings and recommendations he had just made, and explained the consequences of failure to file objections.