The US Supreme Court reversed an appeals court ruling Monday, allowing an inmate’s federal post-conviction challenge to his state conviction after he had completed his state sentence.
The three-page unsigned per curiam opinion came in the case of Alaska v. Wright. Sean Wright had been previously convicted of sexual abuse of a minor in a state court in Alaska in 2009, and was released from prison in 2016. He then moved to Tennessee but failed to register as a sex offender as federal law required, for which he received a sentence of time served plus five years supervised release.
During those proceedings, he filed for a writ of habeas corpus in the US District Court for the District of Alaska, claiming that the Alaska Supreme Court had unreasonably applied federal law when it had denied his Sixth Amendment claims and affirmed his original 2009 conviction and sentence. The district court denied his petition on the ground that he was not “in custody pursuant to the judgment of a State court” as 28 U.S.C. §2254(a) requires. The district court held the proper procedure for Wright to challenge his current federal custody would be to file in the District Court for the District of Tennessee.
The US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed that decision, holding that Wright’s 2009 state court conviction was a “necessary predicate” to his federal conviction, so he was in fact in custody pursuant to the judgment of a state court. However, the Supreme Court ruled that “the Court of Appeals clearly erred.” The court cited prior precedent that a habeas petitioner is not still in custody under a conviction after the sentence for that conviction is over simply because the prior conviction might be used to enhance the sentence of any subsequent crimes he may be convicted of. The second sentence is merely pursuant to the second conviction, and his original conviction, though the predicate for the new conviction, did not render him “in custody” for the purposes of §2254(a).
The court vacated the appeals court judgment and remanded the case back to the district court for proceedings consistent with the opinion.