Lack of Jurisdiction Cognizable 2255 Claims

Federal courts are courts of limited jurisdiction, deriving their power solely from Article III of the Constitution and from the legislative acts of Congress. See Insurance Corp of Ir., Ltd. v. Compagnie des Bauxites de Guinee, 456 U.S. 694, 701 (1982). As such, federal courts cannot derive power to act from the actions of the parties before them. Id. at 702. When a federal court lacks constitutional or statutory jurisdiction, it has no power or authority to do anything. This article will discuss this lack of jurisdiction in the context of 2255 claims.lack of jurisdiction, 2255 claims

When a federal court acts without jurisdiction, it does more than commit an error — it exercises authority that it does not possess. Such actions may always be attacked via a section 2255 motion. Jurisdictional defects, in fact, cannot be waived, defaulted, or lost in any way. If a federal court acted outside of its limited jurisdiction, the action is void from the get-go. This lack of jurisdiction is ripe for 2255 claims.

There are a variety of ways that a section 2255 movant can raise a jurisdictional claim. Consider the following 2255 claims and cases.

Lack of Jurisdiction: The Court Acted Outside its Limited Jurisdiction

  • Dorszynski v. United States, 418 U.S. 424 (1974). The district court acted outside its limited jurisdiction when it failed to make a specific finding that the 19-year-old defendant would not derive benefits from treatment under the Federal Youth Corrections Act.


  • Bifulco v. United States, 447 U.S. 381 (1980). The district court exceeded its jurisdiction when it imposed a special parole term on the defendant. The statute did not authorize a special parole term at all.


  • Smith v. United States, 360 U.S. 1 (1979). The district court did not have jurisdiction to entertain death penalty case when government prosecuted via criminal information. The Fifth Amendment requires that defendants charged with crimes punishable by death be charged by indictment.


  • United States v. DiPasguale, 859 F.2d 9 (3d Cir. 1988). The district court exceeded its jurisdiction when it imposed a pre-parole eligibility period that exceeded the maximum allowed by statute.


  • Harris v. United States, 149 F.3d 1304 (11th Cir. 1998). The court acted outside its limited jurisdiction when it enhanced a defendant’s sentence via 21 U.S.C. §851 in the absence of the government’s pre-plea information concerning the prior convictions that would be used for the enhancement. Because §851 requires the government to make such a timely filing, the district court lacked jurisdiction to apply the enhancement in its absence.

Failed to Charge an Offense: The Indictment or Information Failed to Charge an Offense

  • United States v. Harper, 901 F.2d 471, 472-73 (5th Cir. 1993).  An indictment that fails to allege each material element of an offense fails to charge that offense. Failure to charge an offense divests the sentencing court of jurisdiction, and is a cognizable section 2255 claim.


  • Scott v. United States, 231 F.Supp. 360 (D.C. N.J. 1964). Regardless of a guilty plea, an indictment that is so defective as to not charge an offense is vulnerable to attack under section 2255, and in such a case the conviction and sentence should be vacated.

Lack of Jurisdictional Element: The Evidence was Insufficient to Support a Jurisdictional Element

  • United States v. Ryan, 227 F.3d 1058, 1061 (8th Cir. 2000). When the evidence was insufficient to support 18 U.S.C. 844(i)’s interstate commerce element, court lacked jurisdiction to enter judgment of conviction. Section 2255 attack was proper.


  • United States v. Guess, 203 F.3d 1143, 1147 (9th Cir. 2000). Post-Bailey v. United States, 516 U.S. 137 (1995), which changed the understanding of the term “use” of a firearm under 18 U.S.C. §924(c)(1), there was insufficient evidence to support defendant’s “use” of a firearm; jurisdiction lost.


  • Toulabi v. United States, 875 F.2d 122 (7th Cir. 1989). Post-McNally v. United States, 483 U.S. 350 (1987), which rejected the “intangible rights” theory of property under the mail fraud statute, 18 U.S.C. §1341, there was insufficient evidence to support conviction when the defendant deprived the victim of intangible rights; conviction was subject to §2255 challenge.

Lack of Jurisdiction Claims Complicated: Federal Courts Decide 2255 Claims Differently

Jurisdictional challenges can be complicated, partly as a result of the “chameleon-like quality of the term jurisdiction.'” Prou v. United States, 199 F.3d 37 (1st Cir. 1999). In Prou, for example, the court determined that the government’s failure to timely file a section 851 notice was not jurisdictional, and was therefore subject to procedural default and waiver defenses in a section 2255 action. In Harris v. United States, 149 F.3d 1304, the Eleventh Circuit came to the exact opposite conclusion — the failure to file a section 851 notice was jurisdictional, and could neither be defaulted nor waived.

Experienced 2255 Claims and Lack of Jurisdiction Attorneys

If you or a loved one want to file a section 2255 motion based on a jurisdictional error, contact us today to speak to one of our experienced  habeas corpus litigators. In the right hands, 2255 claims that a federal court acted without jurisdiction can overcome almost any obstacle to relief. We will work with you to ensure that your 2255 claims stand the best chance of success.

Lack of Jurisdiction Cognizable 2255 Claims FAQs

Q: What does it mean to say that a court has a lack of jurisdiction?

A: The jurisdiction of a court can be loosely understood as the court’s authority to hear a case. Many courts are courts of general jurisdiction; these courts have the authority to entertain and decide most any dispute. Some courts, however, are courts of limited jurisdiction. These courts have authority to hear specific cases, and nothing more. Federal courts are courts of limited jurisdiction. The authority of a federal court to hear and decide an issue is limited by the authority granted in Article III of the Constitution, and in acts of Congress.

Q: My indictment didn’t charge me with an offense. Can I challenge my conviction with a 2255 proceeding?

A: A federal indictment is rarely so defective as to not charge an offense, but when this does happen, the conviction is ripe for a section 2255 challenge. This is a classic example of lack of jurisdiction; if the indictment never charged an offense, there was never a crime for the court to adjudicate. If you believe that your indictment failed to charge an offense, contact us today. We can explore appropriate lack of jurisdiction 2255 claims.

Q: There was insufficient evidence that I affected interstate commerce. Can I mount a section 2255 challenge?

A: Because many federal crimes depend on “interstate commerce” to invoke the authority of the federal government, a failure of evidence as to this element will generally deprive the court of jurisdiction. Federal courts can only convict individuals of federal crimes. When a federal crime depends on interstate commerce, there must be sufficient evidence of such in order for the court to have jurisdiction. If you believe that there was insufficient evidence of interstate commerce in your case, contact us today to discuss the matter.  Our team of experienced habeas corpus litigators are standing by to assist you.

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Cognizable Claims: The Conviction or Sentence Violates Federal Law

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