Direct Appeals vs. §2255s: Core Differences

Direct Appeals vs. §2255s - Core Differences

Clients are often curious about the differences between filing a direct appeal to a federal appellate court and seeking relief under 28 USC §2255: a motion to vacate, set aside, or correct a sentence. The simplest answer is that one addresses the merits of the judgment while the other challenges the procedure by which it was granted. Here is a primer on the key differences.

A Form of Habeas Relief

Motions under §2255 allow incarcerated individuals to ask a court to “vacate, set aside, or correct” a federal sentence on the grounds that it violates federal law. Unlike a “direct” appeal of a conviction, a §2255 motion is a “collateral” appeal. Whereas a direct appeal challenges the substance and merits of the judgment itself, a collateral appeal challenges the process and procedure leading to your sentence, from your arrest to whether you received ineffective assistance of counsel.

When used properly, a motion under §2255 can correct errors raised on direct appeal and can allow you to bring in evidence beyond the four corners of the record on appeal. The statute gives courts broad discretion to provide relief, including dismissing charges, ordering a retrial or resentencing, or even granting release. The most common grounds for granting relief are: 

  • Your sentence was imposed in violation of the Constitution or the laws of the United States.
  • The court did not have jurisdiction to sentence you.
  • Your sentence exceeded the maximum allowed under the law.
  • New evidence, which was unavailable at the time of your conviction, has been discovered.
  • You received ineffective assistance of counsel.

Relief is only available in a specific set of circumstances. The error you allege must be grave, and courts tend to apply a stringent standard: the error must be “a fundamental defect which inherently results in a complete miscarriage of justice.” 

Also, relief is only available to individuals convicted in federal courts and who are currently in government custody. Custody does not have to mean only jail or prison; it can also apply to those on probation, parole, or supervised release, or those who have been released on bail. No matter the type of custody, you must be in government custody at the time you file the motion in order to qualify for §2255 relief. Being released from custody during the time your case is pending does not disqualify you from bringing this type of motion.

Direct Appeals Distinguished 

The most significant practical difference is that direct appeals are decided based on the district court record as it exists at the time the notice of appeal is filed. While a §2255 motion can bring in evidence beyond the record, on direct appeal, you are limited to what is contained in the district court record itself and there is no opportunity to present new evidence to the court.

What if Your §2255 Motion is Denied?

It is important to know that this process is different from typical appellate procedure. If you file your §2255 in a district court and it is denied, you can file an appeal in the district court where you brought your §2255 motion. You must file within 60 days of the judgment on your §2255. 

The district court will then prepare a record of the evidence presented in the §2255 motion and submit it to the applicable appellate court. The appellate court will then review the case for its appealability. When the court believes the appeal has merit, it will grant a “certificate of appealability (COA).” This means the court believes it is substantially likely that your direct appeal violated your constitutional rights. 

At this point, you will have an opportunity to petition the court to hear your case. This looks similar to an appellate brief you would see in a direct appeal. In some cases, you may also be able to request oral arguments. The appellate court will either affirm or reverse the district court’s decision. If it affirms, the district court’s decision will stand. If it reverses, the appellate court will send the case back to the district court to correct the error.

Direct Appeals vs. Collateral Appeals: Seeking Counsel 

It can be difficult to know whether to file a direct appeal or seek relief through a collateral appeal. Federal criminal defense lawyer Elizabeth Franklin-Best helps individuals pursue appropriate legal remedies based on their specific cases.

For more information, you may contact us at (803) 445-1333 or send us an email to set up a consultation.