Supreme Court Overturns Habeas Win for Alaska Sex Offender

The justices held that a criminal who already served his time for sexual abuse of a minor cannot challenge those convictions while facing a new charge for failure to register as a sex offender.

(AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

(CN) — The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday vacated a sex offender’s habeas corpus victory, finding that the Ninth Circuit incorrectly granted him relief because he was not legally “in custody” for his sex-based convictions when he tried to file a federal petition challenging them.

The case, which arose from Sean Wright’s failure to register as a sex offender, asked the court to consider how much time is allowed to elapse between when a person is in custody for a conviction and when the habeas petition challenging that conviction is filed and litigated.

The Ninth Circuit ruled last year that Wright’s incarceration and supervised-release sentence for his failure-to-register conviction rendered him “in custody” for the purposes of challenging his underlying sex-offense convictions.

But in a three-page unsigned opinion Monday, the Supreme Court ruled that the San Francisco-based appeals court got it wrong. The justices found that although Wright’s state conviction served as a predicate for his federal conviction, he was not in custody pursuant to the judgment of a state court.

“If Wright’s second conviction had been for a state crime, he independently could have satisfied [28 US Code] §2254(a)’s ‘in custody’ requirement, though his ability to attack the first conviction by that means would have been limited,” the ruling states. “Wright could not satisfy §2254(a) on that independent basis for the simple reason that his second judgment was entered by a federal court.”

An attorney for Wright did not immediately respond to a request for comment Monday.

In 2009, an Alaska jury convicted Wright of 13 counts of sexual abuse of a minor. After completing his sentence in 2016, Wright moved to Tennessee, where he failed to register as a sex offender as required by federal law.

He was jailed in the Volunteer State from June 2017 until February 2018 and pleaded guilty to one count of failure to register in Tennessee. Wright received a sentence of time served plus five years of supervised release.

During the course of the failure-to-register proceedings against him, Wright filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus under 28 U.S.C. §2254 in Alaska federal court challenging his state sex-offense convictions on Sixth Amendment speedy-trial grounds.

Wright argued that the Alaska Supreme Court failed to correctly apply the law when it dismissed his petition on the grounds that the Sixth Amendment only authorizes courts to hear petitions filed by a person in custody pursuant to the judgment of a state court. Wright said his then-pending federal failure-to-register charges rendered him “in custody” with respect to his Alaska state court sex offense convictions.

U.S. District Judge James Singleton Jr. rejected Wright’s claims, ruling that he was not “in custody” under the meaning of the law when he filed his initial petition since he had already fully served the sentences imposed on him for his Alaska state convictions.

The Ninth Circuit reversed that finding, deciding that Wright’s state conviction was “a necessary predicate” to his federal conviction and that he was actually in custody pursuant to the judgment of a state court.

“Wright’s conviction and sentence for failure to register was ‘positively and demonstrably related to the [Alaska] conviction he attack[ed],'” the three-judge panel’s order stated.

With the Supreme Court’s vacatur of the Ninth Circuit’s judgment, the case will be returned to the appeals court for further proceedings.

The decision puts clear limits on a 2001 Ninth Circuit ruling, Zichko v. Idaho, which held that a conviction for failure to register as a sex offender would revive “custody” status as to an otherwise fully served conviction for the underlying sex offense.

Attorneys representing the government did not respond to a request for comment Monday.

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