In Rudolph v. United States, No. 21-12828 (Feb. 12, 2024) (Wilson, Grant, Brasher), the Court found Mr. Rudolph’s attempts to collaterally attack his sentences barred by his plea agreement.

In order to avoid the death penalty for setting off a series of bombs (some during the Olympics in Atlanta), Mr. Rudolph pleaded guilty to six federal arson charges and four counts of use of a destructive device during and in relation to a crime of violence.  As part of his plea deal, he waived his right to appeal his conviction and sentence, as well as his right to collaterally attack his sentence in any post-conviction proceeding, including under 18 U.S.C. § 2255.  His waiver specifically stated: “In consideration of the Government’s recommended disposition, the defendant voluntarily and expressly waives, to the maximum extent permitted by federal law, the right to appeal his conviction and sentence in this case, and the right to collaterally attack his sentence in any post-conviction proceeding, including motions brought under 28 U.S.C. § 2255 or 18 U.S.C. § 3771, on any ground.”

Post-Davis, however, Mr. Rudolph filed a § 2255 motion to vacate his § 924(c) convictions and sentences because his arson offenses no longer qualified as crimes of violence.  The district court denied the motion, finding it barred by the plea agreement because “it is not possible to collaterally attack only a conviction under 28 U.S.C. § 2255, which provides an avenue to attack the defendant’s sentence.”

On appeal, this Court agreed with the district court, holding that § 2255 is a vehicle for attacking sentences, not convictions, and therefore finding Mr. Rudolph’s motion barred by his plea agreement.  The Court noted: “Section 2255 fundamentally remains a procedure for prisoners to challenge their sentences. That is no less true when the method of attack is to show that a conviction was illegal. Even then, a motion under § 2255 is a collateral attack on the proceeding or process of detention.”

The Court also refused to adopt a miscarriage-of-justice exception to the general rule that appeal waivers are enforceable, splitting from the First and Eighth Circuits.  And even so, the Court noted that Mr. Rudolph was not “actually innocent” of the § 924(c) convictions because actual innocence means factual innocence–that is, it is more likely than not that no reasonable juror would have convicted him.

Finally, the Court obliquely hinted that there may be other mechanisms by which Mr. Rudolph could collaterally challenge his convictions–such as maybe remedies available at common law–but failed to specifically delineate what those mechanisms were.

***Yet another cautionary tale of guilty pleas and corresponding appeal/collateral relief waivers.  The Eleventh Circuit will enforce them, even when doing so could potentially result in an individual remaining convicted (and here, sentenced to life imprisonment) of a nonoffense.***