Postconviction Petitions in Washington

What is a postconviction petition?

This term refers to a variety of options, other than an appeal, for challenging a criminal conviction or sentence in state or federal court. A Washington conviction can be challenged in the superior court through a state habeas petition or a motion to vacate judgment under Criminal Rule 7.8.  The conviction or sentence can be challenged in the Washington Court of Appeals or Supreme Court through a personal restraint petition (PRP).  As discussed below, it may also be possible to challenge a Washington state-court conviction through a petition for a writ of habeas corpus in federal court. See 28 U.S.C. § 2254.

Federal prisoners also have several options for postconviction challenges. The most common one is a motion to vacate sentence under 28 U.S.C. § 2255.

How is a postconviction petition different from an appeal?

One difference is that an appeal is limited to the “trial court record,” which means that the appellate court will consider only information that was presented to the trial court. In a postconviction petition, however, the prisoner may submit new evidence. For this reason, certain claims must be raised in a postconviction petition rather than an appeal. A common example is a claim that the defense attorney at trial was ineffective because he failed to present exculpatory evidence. This claim cannot be raised in an appeal because, of course, the exculpatory evidence is not in the record. The claim can be raised in a postconviction petition, however, by presenting the evidence that the lawyer should have used at trial.

Another difference is the “standard of review.” If a prisoner shows in an appeal that his constitutional rights were violated, he is generally entitled to a new trial unless the government can prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the error could not have affected the verdict. In a postconviction petition, the burden is generally on the petitioner to prove that the error was harmful.

The procedures that a prisoner must follow in a postconviction petition are quite different from those on appeal.

What are some of the procedural hurdles?

This subject could fill a thick book (and in fact it has filled several of them). Perhaps the most important procedural barrier is the deadline for filing a petition. A Washington prisoner must generally file within one year of the date his conviction becomes “final.” See RCW 10.73.090.  But there are some exceptions set out in RCW 10.73.100. A federal prisoner also has a one-year time limit. See 28 U.S.C. § 2255(f).

Both the state and federal courts generally limit prisoners to only one postconviction petition. See RCW 10.73.140; RAP 16.4(d); 28 U.S.C. § 2255(h).

Things get even more complicated if a prisoner with a state-court conviction wishes to file a petition for a writ of habeas corpus in federal court. Among other things, the prisoner must first “exhaust” his options in state court, which means that he must properly present his claims to the State’s highest court. Calculating the deadline for filing the federal petition is quite complicated, and depends in part on whether a state postconviction petition was filed. See 28 U.S.C. 2244 (d).

Because of the many procedural hurdles, the majority of postconviction petitions are dismissed on procedural grounds, without the court ever deciding whether the petitioner’s rights were violated.