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Teague v. Lane: The Teague Doctrine

In 1989, the U.S. Supreme Court rendered a decision that made significant changes to federal habeas corpus practice. In Teague v. Lane, 489 U.S. 288 (1989), the Court established that a newly announced rule of criminal procedure is generally not retroactively applicable to cases on collateral review. There are two very narrow exceptions to this rule, but in almost every case, Teague directs that “an old rule applies both on direct and collateral review, but a new rule is generally applicable only to cases that are still on direct review.” Whorton v. Bockting, 549 U.S. 406, 416 (2007).

Teague v. Lane: The Teague Doctrine Only Applies to Procedural Rules

Teague only applies to procedural rules. As such, when the Supreme Court recognizes a new right by way of statutory interpretation, Teague will not bar retroactive application of the new rule on collateral review. This is the case with any newly created substantive rule.               Substantive rules include rules that (1) “narrow the scope of a criminal statute by interpreting its terms,” Schriro v. Summerlin, 542 U.S. 358, 351, (2004); (2) “forbid[] punishment of certain primary conduct;” or (3) “prohibit[] a certain category of punishment for a class of defendants because of their status or offense,” Beard v. Banks, 542 U.S. 406, 417 (2004).Teague v. Lane, Teague Doctrine

It is easy to understand why the Court would be hesitant to prohibit prisoners from using a substantive change to the law on collateral review. If, for instance, the Court determined that punishment of certain conduct was unconstitutional, it would be a perversion of justice to say that individuals imprisoned for engaging in that behavior could not seek habeas relief.

But when it comes to procedural rules, the Court feels differently. “New rules of procedure . . . generally do not apply retroactively” because they “merely raise the possibility that someone convicted with use of the invalidated procedure might have been acquitted otherwise.”         Schriro, 542 U.S. at 352. While a federal prisoner convicted by way of a later invalidated procedure might disagree with the Court about the fact that they “might have been acquitted” had the rule not been in place at the time of conviction, Teague is the law.

Avoiding the Teague v. Lane Bar: Exceptions to the Teague Doctrine

Because of Teague, a federal prisoner seeking section 2255 relief should proceed carefully when pursuing a claim involving a rule of procedure. If the prisoner’s conviction and sentence have become final (meaning that the time for appeal has passed or the direct appeal is concluded), such a claim will likely run afoul of Teague. There are only three ways to avoid a Teague bar in such a situation.

First, remember that Teague only applies to rules of criminal procedure. To determine whether a decision rendered a “new rule” for the purposes of Teague, the Supreme Court directs courts to “survey the legal landscape” at the time the movant’s case became final, and determine whether the rule was dictated by then-existing precedent. Lambrix v. Singletary, 520 U.S. 518, 527-28 (1997). A prisoner seeking section 2255 relief on the basis of a rule of criminal procedure must argue that the rule is not new in order to avoid Teague.

Second, a new rule of procedure will be applied retroactively when it “places a class of private conduct beyond the power of the state to proscribe” or prohibits “a certain category of punishment for a class of defendants because of their status or offense.” Graham v. Collins, 506 U.S. 461, 477 (1993). This is less an exception to Teague than adherence to the Supreme Court’s direction that the doctrine does not apply to substantive rules.

The final exception to Teague is of little use to section 2255 litigants. If a new rule is a “watershed rule of criminal procedure,” then it does apply retroactively to cases on collateral review. The Supreme Court has said that there are two necessary conditions for a new procedural rule to be considered a watershed rule: “First, the rule must be necessary to prevent an impermissibly large risk of an inaccurate conviction. Second, the rule must alter our understanding of the bedrock procedural elements essential to the fairness of a proceeding.” Whorton, 549 U.S. at 418. Importantly, it appears that such a rule has yet to emerge as an exception to Teague.

Lawyers Experience with Teague v. Lane and the Teague Doctrine

If you or a loved one are considering filing a section 2255 motion based on a new rule of criminal procedure, it is highly advisable that you seek the help of an attorney who understands the Teague doctrine. Our experienced criminal defense and post-conviction relief attorneys know how to navigate the Teague minefield. Contact us today to discuss how we can help you take your best shot at obtaining section 2255 relief.

Teague v. Lane: The Teague Doctrine FAQs

Q:  What is the Teague doctrine?

A: In Teague v. Lane, 489 U.S. 288 (1989), the Supreme Court declared that a newly announced rule of criminal procedure is generally not retroactively applicable to cases on collateral review. The Teague doctrine prevents prisoners from using a new rule of procedure to attack their conviction in habeas corpus proceedings.

Q: Does the  Teague doctrine apply to newly announced substantive rights?

A: No. Teague only applies to newly announced rules of criminal procedure.

Q: How can I avoid the Teague doctrine?

A: When a newly announced rule of procedure forms the basis of your section 2255 claim, you can expect to run afoul of Teague. There are three ways to avoid this deadly doctrine: (1) Argue that the new rule is not actually “new,” but rather an extension of existing law; (2) Argue that the new rule either places a class of private conduct beyond the power of the state to proscribe, or that it prohibits punishment of a certain class of defendants because of their status or offense; or (3) Argue that the new rule is a “watershed rule of criminal ”

Q: Will a change to a rule of criminal procedure help my case?

A: Because of Teague, if you are pursuing collateral relief through a section 2255 motion, a new rule of procedure is not likely to help. There are ways to avoid Teague, however. Contact us now to discuss your situation.

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