Eleventh Circuit Clarifies Understanding of AEDPA’s “Second or Successive” Requirement

In Patterson v. Secretary, Florida Department of Corrections, No. 12–12653, 2016 WL 373336 (11th Cir. Jan. 29, 2016), the Eleventh Circuit reversed the Northern District of Florida’s decision to dismiss petitioner Ace Patterson’s habeas petition as “second and successive” under the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (“AEDPA”), 28 U.S.C. § 2244(b) (2012). The Eleventh Circuit found that under the AEDPA Patterson’s current habeas petition was not improperly filed.

In 1998, Patterson was convicted of aggravated child kidnapping, burglary, and two counts of sexual battery. His sentence included 311 months of imprisonment for burglary, two concurrent life sentences for the sexual assaults, and chemical castration. After several failed attempts at filing a habeas petition in state court, and a federal petition that was dismissed as untimely, in 2009 Patterson successfully filed a Rule 3.800 motion, arguing that the mandatory requirements of the chemical castration statute were not properly met. The state trial court granted the motion and removed the chemical castration portion of Patterson’s sentence. Following this order, Patterson filed a new habeas petition in district court which was dismissed as “second or successive” in violation of AEDPA.

Judge Jordan, writing the majority opinion, considered if the state court deleting the chemical castration portion of Patterson’s sentence constituted a new judgment that would allow Patterson to file a new habeas petition in federal court. The court found that deleting the chemical castration requirement of the imposed sentence substantively changed the nature of the sentence, and therefore, constituted a new judgment. The court supported its decision by citing precedent in which a reduction of a prisoner’s sentence qualified as a new judgment under AEDPA. In turn, the court held that Patterson’s habeas petition, filed after his sentence was altered, did not violate AEDPA as “second or successive.”

In his dissenting opinion, Judge Pryor disagreed with the majority, espousing that Patterson’s petition was properly dismissed by the district court. Judge Pryor stated that a judgment is contingent on “authorizing imprisonment.” Therefore, the order deleting the chemical castration portion of Patterson’s sentence did not equal a formal new judgment, as it did not authorize imprisonment. In the dissent’s view, the only order allowing for imprisonment was the original order filed in 1998. The dissent also noted that Patterson’s habeas petition only challenged issues from his initial conviction and not from the order deleting the castration portion of his sentence. Therefore, Judge Pryor found that the current petition was just a second opportunity to raise the same claims previously denied by the court.

Not only did the dissent disagree with the outcome of the majority, but it also raised several concerns with the implications of the majority’s decision. First, the majority’s opinion was inconsistent with AEDPA’s goal of limiting abusive filings of habeas petitions. In addition, Judge Pryor was concerned that the majority’s ruling would disincentivize judges from correcting sentences out of concern for successive habeas petitions.

In a concurring opinion, Judge Haikala countered some of the claims raised in the dissent. Judge Haikala argued that precedent is binding on the court and required the outcome of the majority. He noted that, although some petitioners may receive the ability to file a second habeas petition after the majority’s opinion, this outcome is mandatory under binding precedent. In addition, Judge Haikala confronted the dissent’s concern about disincentivizing judges from correcting sentences. In Judge Haikala’s view, the dissent’s point is a non-issue, because judges are called to make difficult decisions if the law requires them to do so.

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