Thursday, August 16, 2012
Sex Offender Restrictions Don't Amount to "Custody" for Habeas Corpus
Wilson v. Flaherty: Wilson was one of the "Norfolk Four," a group of sailors charged with the rape and murder of another sailor's wife. Wilson was acquitted of murder, but convicted of rape in 1999 (since then, subsantial evidence of the innocence of all four men has been presented - see here for more details) and released from prison in 2005. As a result of the rape conviction, he must register as a sex offender in Virginia and Texas (where he moved in the interim). In 2010, he filed a 2254 motion challenging his conviction, arguing that he was actually innocent. The district court denied the motion for lack of jurisdiction because Wilson was no longer "in custody" as required under 2254.
On appeal, the Fourth Circuit agreed and affirmed the dismissal. Recognizing he was no longer in prison, Wilson argued that the variety of restrictions placed on him by Virginia and Texas law as a registered sex offender meant he as still "in custody" for purposes of 2254. However, the court noted that the Supreme Court has defined "in custody" to mean custody "under conviction or sentence under attack at the time his petition is filed." Although the concept of custody extends to a person released on parole, it does not include someone whose imposed sentence as "fully expired." The sex offender provisions at issue in this case, however, were not part of his sentence for rape, but rather "collateral consequences of him having been convicted for rape." Allowing 2254 challenges in such situations would allow sex offenders to challenge their convictions in federal court at any time.
Judge Davis concurred in the judgement, noting that when 2254 and its definition of "custody" was enacted, neither Congress nor the President had any conception of the type of lifelong sex offender requirements in place today.
Judge Wynn dissented, arguing that the majority's reading of the habeas provisions was too narrow, particularly in a case where Wilson makes such a compelling case for his innocence. Specifically, he argues that Supreme Court precedent allowing for the challenge of prior convictions in habeas proceedings for a current conviction/sentence "strongly suggest that there are instances in which a fully served sentence may be collaterally challenged through a writ of habeas corpus."