Fourth Circuit Issues Savings Clause Decision Allowing Habeas Corpus Petition To Proceed On The Merits

On March 28, 2018, in United States v. Wheeler, No. 16-6073, the Fourth Circuit held that Wheeler satisfied the requirements of the savings clause of 28 U.S.C. § 2255(e), so to enable him to move forward with his 28 U.S.C. § 2241 habeas corpus petition. In reaching this holding, the court made several critical findings. First, the court agreed with the majority of circuits that the savings clause is a jurisdictional provision – a determination that could have been detrimental to Wheeler. If the court had determined that the savings clause is not jurisdictional, the appellate court could have accepted Wheeler’s argument that the government waived the savings clause requirements because the government took the position in the district court that Wheeler met the savings clause requirements and was entitled to relief. However, a party is not permitted to waive subject matter jurisdiction.

Second, the appellate court held that the requirements of the savings clause were not limited to only challenges against the legality of a conviction. Rather, the court held that a petitioner is entitled to seek relief under § 2241 for sentencing errors when: “(1) at the time of sentencing, settled law of this circuit or the Supreme Court established the legality of the sentence; (2) subsequent to petitioner’s direct appeal and first § 2255 motion, the aforementioned settled substantive law changed and was deemed to apply retroactively on collateral review; (3) the prisoner is unable to meet the gatekeeping provisions of § 2255(h)(2) for second or successive motions; and (4) due to this retroactive change, the sentence now presents an error sufficiently grave to be deemed a fundamental defect.”

Third, the appellate court rejected the argument that because Wheeler had been sentenced to below the statutory maximum for the correctly determined statutory sentencing range, there was no fundamental defect. The agreed with sister circuits finding a fundamental defect can be found when the statutory sentencing range is wrongly determined.

Finally, the Fourth Circuit rejected following a 2017 decision of the Eleventh Circuit that established a different (and higher) test for meeting the requirements of the savings clause.

Applying these findings/determinations/holdings, the Fourth Circuit held that Wheeler met the requirements of the savings clause, and as such, he “may pass through the savings clause portal and have the § 2241 petition addressed on the merits.”

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