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Pennsylvania Post-Conviction Relief (PCRA) Explained

Proceedings seeking relief under the state’s Post-Conviction Relief Act (PCRA) are difficult and there is no room for error. Neglecting to file on time, not including certain facts in pleadings, and not understanding what actually needs to be proved are surprisingly frequent mistakes.

Experienced Philadelphia criminal appeals lawyer Lloyd Long explains Pennsylvania’s Post-Conviction Relief Act and how it allows individuals to challenge a conviction in Pennsylvania.

An Overview of Pennsylvania’s Post-Conviction Relief Act (PCRA)

Pennsylvania’s Post-Conviction Relief Act, commonly referred to as the “PCRA,” allows individuals who are serving a sentence to challenge their conviction on certain constitutional and statutory grounds. Those grounds include the following:

  • Constitutional violations of significant magnitude;
  • Ineffective assistance of a prior attorney at trial, sentencing, or appeal;
  • An unlawfully induced guilty plea of a likely innocent person;
  • Governmental obstruction of the right to appeal;
  • Newly discovered evidence; and
  • Establishing that no subject matter jurisdiction existed in the court where the conviction occurred.

Of these, the most frequent ground for post-conviction relief is ineffective assistance of counsel. To obtain relief under the PCRA for those claims, you must prove three points: 1) the claim is of arguable merit – meaning that the mistake that you are alleging is truly a mistake; 2) that the mistake you accuse your attorney of making was not a reasonable strategic decision; and 3) that if the claimed error did not occur, there is a reasonable likelihood that the result of the proceeding would be different.

Challenging Your Trial Attorney’s Effectiveness with PCRA

When challenging your prior lawyer’s effectiveness under section 2255, it is important to remember that courts begin these proceedings with the belief that the representation you received was effective. This is a difficult presumption to overcome. The best way to increase the odds of success is by hiring an experienced Pennsylvania PCRA lawyer.

The very first case that Lloyd Long was hired for after entering private practice involved a client who had been convicted of worker’s compensation fraud. It would generally be a terrible idea to hire a Delaware County criminal defense lawyer with no private practice experience for such a case. But due to his time as an appellate prosecutor, he knew the PCRA inside and out. Long filed a post-conviction relief petition on his client’s behalf, and after being granted an evidentiary hearing, a judge reversed the convictions because he proved that his client’s trial attorney had been ineffective. The retrial ended in a hung jury, and his client received an offer that did not result in conviction. He went from being convicted of fraud to a clean criminal record.

A petition seeking post-conviction relief must be filed within one year of the date on which the judgment of sentence in a criminal case becomes final. Calculating that date can be difficult, but it essentially means that you must file a PCRA petition no later than one year after you lose on appeal or the date on which seeking an appeal expires. In certain circumstances, petitions can be filed later, but immediate action is almost always required.

The time constraints for filing under the PCRA are unforgiving. If you do not file within the limits specified in the statute, you have likely lost the right to raise the issues. Lawyers who do not practice PCRA proceedings regularly often do not understand the timeliness requirements imposed. A mistake in the time calculation could have disastrous consequences.

Post-Conviction Proceedings Under 28 U.S.C. § 2254 for Pennsylvania Criminal Convictions

If you were convicted in Pennsylvania and are serving a sentence, this is probably your last chance for relief. It is a limited opportunity for a federal judge to review your conviction for errors of a federal constitutional magnitude and time is of the essence if you wish to hire a seasoned Philadelphia criminal lawyer.

The time limit in which to file a section 2254 motion is limited. It must be filed within one year of the state conviction becoming final. This can be a difficult time to calculate because some periods, like when a PCRA petition is pending, do not count toward the one-year limit. The PCRA petition must, however, be “properly filed.” That term can be complex. It is enough to say that a criminal defendant should not wait to get a federal post-conviction proceeding started. Waiting too long can result in the loss of the opportunity.

Federal courts rarely grant relief on section 2254 motions. An experienced post-conviction attorney is the best choice to evaluate the state court record to find claims that could result in relief. Just as importantly, attorneys who are familiar with post-conviction law know the proper way to plead and present these claims.

Like calculating the one-year time limitation, determining which claims can be presented to a federal court in a section 2254 motion is complex. In many circumstances, claims cannot be presented to the federal court because they were never presented to state courts in early proceedings (like on direct appeal or in a PCRA petition). This is called default. Default can be overcome in a few different ways, but a clear understanding of the law is necessary.

This process can be convoluted, and the case law interpreting presentation of claims in a section 2254 motion is dense. It can take considerable time to go through state court proceedings to find claims that can be presented to a federal court. For this reason, it is important to get an experienced Pennsylvania post-conviction lawyer, like Lloyd Long, involved as early as possible. In fact, as long as you pick the right lawyer, the earlier he gets involved in a case, the better: when a lawyer first works on a PCRA, going through the record again for a section 2254 motion is unnecessary because he is already familiar with the case. If you have any questions regarding post-conviction proceedings for Pennsylvania criminal convictions, contact us today to schedule a consultation.

Post-Conviction Proceedings Under 28 U.S.C. § 2255 for Federal Criminal Convictions

Like it’s equivalent in Pennsylvania – the PCRA – section 2255 presents a person convicted of a federal crime an opportunity to challenge their attorney’s representation. Defendants are also able to raise other claims, such as the suppression of evidence by the government, or the existence of newly discovered evidence that could not have been found with the exercise of due diligence.

Section 2255 motions must be filed within one year of a defendant’s convictions becoming final. Circuit courts of appeals have come to different conclusions about when that occurs in different situations, and for that reason, the process should always begin as soon as possible. Once your criminal appeal is decided, an experienced post-conviction attorney should be contacted. It is often a good idea to get a Pennsylvania criminal appeals lawyer involved while an appeal is pending. That way, the gap between the decision on appeal and the filing of a section 2255 motion is shortened, and concerns about filing on time are avoided.

Much like the PCRA, section 2255 motions primarily focus on a prior trial or appellate attorney’s decisions. Proving that an attorney made an error is not enough. Instead, it must be established that the error was not a reasonable strategic choice and that the error caused prejudice to the defendant. Prejudice means that if the error had not been made, there is a reasonable likelihood that the outcome would have been different.

Arguing that an attorney made an error – which is commonly referred to as a claim of “ineffective assistance of counsel” – is not limited to trial. A defendant who pleaded guilty might have a claim that they would not have pleaded guilty absent bad advice, and that they very well may have been acquitted at trial. These claims can also be presented for sentencing errors. If an attorney could have argued that a sentence should be lower for a specific reason but did not make that argument, a new sentencing hearing might be granted.

Ineffectiveness claims can be presented for appellate representation. In other words, if your appellate attorney made an unreasonable error and you might have been granted appellate relief without the error, this claim can be raised in a section 2255 motion. The most frequent type of appellate error is failing to include an argument that stood a reasonable chance of some type of victory, such as a new trial, suppression being granted, a lesser sentence, or complete discharge from custody.

Call a Philadelphia Criminal Appeals Attorney About How You May Be Affected by the PCRA

Philadelphia criminal appeals attorney Lloyd Long is passionate about representing clients in their appeals and post-conviction relief matters. He understands that being entrusted with his clients’ cases is no small matter. Based on firsthand experience, Lloyd Long sees the effects that criminal charges and convictions have on clients and their families. If you have any further questions regarding the PCRA or the criminal appeals process in general, call our Pennsylvania criminal conviction appeals attorneys at (215) 731-9500 today for a consultation.