Decided: July 31, 2015
The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s ruling.
In 2005, Raymond Surratt (“Surratt”) was found guilty of conspiracy to distribute cocaine and sentenced to life imprisonment. The Government sought enhanced penalties based on Surratt’s criminal history. According to the Government, if two or more of Surratt’s prior convictions constituted “felony drug offenses,” then Surratt would face a mandatory term of life imprisonment. Before Surratt’s sentencing, the Fourth Circuit decided United States v. Harp, which held that a North Carolina drug conviction was a “felony drug offense” if “the maximum aggravated sentence that [the state court] could [have] imposed for that crime upon a defendant with the worst possible criminal history” exceeded one year. The district court sentenced Surratt to life imprisonment. On appeal, the Fourth Circuit affirmed Surratt’s sentence. Surratt then filed a post-conviction relief motion in 2008, but both the district court and Fourth Circuit denied that as well. More than three years after his first motion was denied, the Fourth Circuit decided Simmons, which overruled Harp. In Simmons, the Court held that a prior North Carolina conviction will constitute a felony for purposes of an enhanced punishment only if the prior conviction was punishable for more than one year of imprisonment as to that defendant. Surratt and the Government agreed that only one of his prior convictions would qualify was a “felony drug offense” under Simmons.
Hoping to capitalize on the Simmons decision, in the Fourth Circuit, Surratt filed another motion for post-conviction relief under 28 U.S.C § 2255. The Court denied the motion because it fell outside of the statutory exceptions enumerated under §2255. Simultaneously, Surratt filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus under 28 U.S.C. § 2241 seeking relief under Simmons. However, as a federal prisoner, Surratt could not challenge his conviction under Section 2241 unless 28 U.S.C § 2255(e), the “savings clause,” applied, and the district court concluded that it did not give the court jurisdiction to consider Surratt’s claim.
On appeal, the Fourth Circuit stressed that it was not unsympathetic to the gravity of Surratt’s sentence of life imprisonment. However, the Court determined that Congress was given the power to define the scope of the writ of habeas corpus, and Congress used that power to carefully limit the circumstances in which a Section 2241 petition can be brought. The Court stressed that Section 2255(e) preserves “only the chance to request relief, not the ultimate and absolute right to obtain it.” Surratt’s case did not fall under one of the limited circumstances under Section 2255(e) and therefore, the Court held that the district court lacked the jurisdiction to hear Surratt’s § 2241 petition.
Dissenting, Justice Gregory argued that the role of habeas corpus is to protect against convictions that violate a fundamental fairness. He argued that the plain language of the United States habeas corpus statutes, precedent, and the Constitution demands that Surratt should not die in prison.