Castro v. United States

PETITIONER: Hernan O'Ryan Castro
RESPONDENT: United States
LOCATION: Pennsylvania General Assembly

DOCKET NO.: 02-6683
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit

CITATION: 540 US 375 (2003)
GRANTED: Jan 27, 2003
ARGUED: Oct 15, 2003
DECIDED: Dec 15, 2003

Dan Himmelfarb - argued the cause for Respondent
Lisa Kemler - for the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers as amicus curiae urging reversal
Michael G. Frick - argued the cause for Petitioner
Michael G. Frick -
Paul Mogin - for the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers as amicus curiae urging reversal

Facts of the case

Hernan O'Ryan Castro was sentenced to 20 years in prison for drug related offenses. After the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed his conviction, Castro alleged that he had discovered evidence that a government witness had testified falsely. Based on this evidence, he requested a new trial without legal representation. The district court, because Castro had no legal representation, attempted to help him by re-characterizing his request for a new trial as a petition for a writ of habeas corpus. The judge's re-characterization of Castro's appeal was intended to help him, but two years later, in the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, Congress limited the number of petitions for writ of habeas corpus that a prisoner could file to one. When Castro attempted to petition for what he thought was his first write of habeas corpus in 1998, he was denied because of the earlier reclassification of his request for a new trial. When he appealed, the 11th Circuit Court of appeals initially sided with Castro, ruling that the reclassification should not count against him. Four months later, however, the 11th Circuit reconsidered, siding with the government.


When a district judge re-classifies a post-conviction motion by a defendant, turning it into a petition for a writ of habeas corpus, does that preclude future petitions for a writ of habeas corpus under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996?

Media for Castro v. United States

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - October 15, 2003 in Castro v. United States

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - December 15, 2003 in Castro v. United States

William H. Rehnquist:

No. 02-6683 Castro against the United States will be announced by Justice Breyer.

Stephen G. Breyer:

This is a little complicated, Habeas case.

The federal prisoner, when the prisoner filed a 2255 motion commonly known as a habeas corpus motion, he might find himself without a habeas corpus remedy for a rather special reason.

Imagine that before filing this motion, at some earlier time, he filed a different motion that he used the wrong name for.

He called it a Rule 33 motion, but it should have been called a 2255 motion.

Now, imagine that the judge in that first hearing noticing that the litigant did not have a lawyer, he was preceding pro se, said I will re-characterize that motion for you.

I will call it a 2255 motion, i.e. a habeas motion.

And imagine that the judge did that because he really thought that 2255 more aptly suited the nature of the litigant’s claim.

And the litigant, not being a lawyer, did not say anything.

Now, we are at our proceeding where he files his 2255 motion, but the government will claim you already did that, this is your second habeas motion.

Since it is your second habeas motion, you have to meet special very rigorous requirements that apply to a second but not a first one.

And therefore this second one, says the government, will be dismissed.

The prisoner says “oh my goodness, if only I had known at that earlier time what was going to happen to me if I allowed the judge to call this first motion the 2255 motion, I never would have done it or maybe I would have withdrawn it, but I would have done something anyway because I would have wanted to keep my chance to file a habeas motion later.”

Well, that is what this case is about, and we are asked whether a judge should at least warn the pro se litigant, that first judge, about the potential consequences of what would happen if he re-characterized the motion and what would happen if he does not re-characterized the motion.

Now in our opinion, we hold first, contrary to what the government argued, that we do have jurisdiction at leads to consider this question.

True, the habeas statute bars us from considering a lower court’s decision to grant or deny a litigant’s request to file any 2255 motion after the first, but in this case the litigant never asked for or denied permission.

He is just talking about whether that first motion was his first or second, and we can answer the question.

Now what we go on to hold on the question in exercising our supervisory powers that the lower court’s power, that first judge, his power to re-characterize a motion as the first 2255, i.e. as a first habeas, that power is limited.

Now how is it limited?

Well, the limitation applies when a court re-characterizes a pro se litigant’s motion as a first 2255 motion.

In other words, the judge is saying “what you filed as a 33, is not a 3, it is a 2255.”

That is our situation.

Now in those circumstances, the District Court has to notify the pro se litigant that it is going to do this.

That it is going to re-characterize the pleading, and he has to warn the litigant that this re-characterization means that any subsequent habeas motion is going to be subject to those restrictions that apply to second or successive habeas motion, and he has to say to the litigant “you now have the opportunity to withdraw the motion or amend it so it contains all the habeas claims you think you have.”

Now if the court fails to do that, then the consequence is that the motion cannot be considered to become a 2255 motion for purposes of applying to later motions the law’s second or successive requirement.

In other words, unless the first judge warns the pro se litigant about the potential consequences of the re-characterization a subsequently filed habeas motion has to be treated as the first not the second habeas motion.

Now because in this case the pro se litigant’s Rule 33 motion was re-characterized without any warning, the subsequent 2255 motion should not have been treated as his second it should have been treated as his first.

We therefore vacate and remand for further proceedings.

Justice Scalia has filed an opinion concurring in our resolution of the jurisdictional question and concurring in the judgment which Justice Thomas joins.