Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals - Published Opinions

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Williams: 2255 Movant Failed to Satisfy Beeman Burden Where Legal Landscape in Equipoise

In Williams v. United States, No. 19-10308 (Jan. 13, 2021) (Jordan, Lagoa, Brasher), the Court affirmed the denial of a 2255 motion challenging an ACCA enhancement in light of Johnson.    

The Court held that the movant failed to meet his burden of establishing that the sentencing court relied solely upon the residual clause, as required by Beeman.  The ACCA enhancement was based, in part, on a prior conviction for federal kidnapping, in violation of  18 U.S.C. 1201(a)(1).  The question on appeal was under what circumstances the legal landscape at the time of a defendant's sentencing can establish, as a matter of historical fact, that the sentencing court relied on the unconstitutionally vague residual clause of the ACCA to classify a prior felony as violent. 

The Court first determined, in line with the Eighth and Tenth Circuits, that de novo review was appropriate because determining the legal environment requires a legal conclusion about the controlling law at the time of sentencing.  The movant argued that the case law at the time made it unlikely that the sentencing court relied on the elements clause, citing to two Eleventh Circuit published opinions indicating the same.  In response, the government cited to a different published Eleventh Circuit opinion in support of its argument that the district court could just as likely used the elements clause to categorize the federal kidnapping conviction as violent.  The Court held that because the legal landscape was so uncertain--it provides no satisfactory answer in the movant's favor--the movant failed to meet his Beeman burden.  That is, because there is no clear precedent on point dictating a specific result, the Court would merely be guessing if it was to say that the sentencing court relied on the residual clause alone.  As a result, the movant failed to meet the Beeman more-likely-than-not standard.  If the evidence is silent or in equipoise, then the party with the burden fails.  

Judge Jordan dissented.  He noted that for a Johnson 2255 movant to succeed, he must show, by a preponderance of the evidence, that the district court relied only on the ACCA's residual clause.  But, the preponderance of the evidence standard does not require a movant to make a showing to a high degree of certainty.  Instead, the standard results in a roughly equal allocation of the risk of error between litigants.  So, a movant meets his evidentiary burden so long as the evidence tips the scales just one little bit in his favor.  Here, Judge Jordan found that movant's reliance on two binding Eleventh Circuit opinions did just that.           

Friday, January 08, 2021

Amodeo: 2241 Petition Unavailable for Actual Innocence Claim

In Amodeo v. FCC Coleman-Low Warden, No. 17-15456 (Jan. 8, 2021) (Ed Carnes, Branch, Luck), the Court affirmed the dismissal of a 2241 habeas petition claiming actual innocence.

Applying its en banc decision in McCarthen, the Court held that the petitioner’s claim could not be brought in a 2241 petition because 2255 was not an inadequate or ineffective remedy.  Because the petitioner could have brought that type of claim in an initial 2255 motion, 2255 was not inadequate or ineffective, even if procedural bars would have precluded petitioner from prevailing in a 2255 motion.  Under McCarthen, the Court explained, two categories of claims may be brought under 2241: 1) those challenging the execution of a sentence, such as the deprivation of good-time credits; and 2) those in which the sentencing court has been dissolved or is no longer available, as in the military context. 

Garcia: Denying COA in a Davis Dual Predicate Situation Based on Beeman

In Garcia v. United States, No. 19-14734 (Jan. 8, 2021) (Grant, Luck, Ed Carnes) (per curiam), the Court affirmed the denial of a COA on a Davis claim. 

Relying on Beeman, the Court held that the movant could not meet his burden to prove that his 924(o) conviction was predicated solely on Hobbs Act conspiracy.  After distinguishing In re Gomez and In re Cannon as SOS cases, the Court rejected the movant’s argument that it should assume that the 924(o) was based on the least culpable predicate, and it also rejected his reliance on Alleyne.  Although acknowledging that it was dicta, the Court applied In re Cannon’s “inextricably intertwined” analysis to conclude that he could not meet his burden to prove that his 924(o) offense was predicated solely on Hobbs Act conspiracy.  The Court did not address Stromberg or its progeny.

Wednesday, January 06, 2021

Kushmaul: Prior Florida Conviction for Promoting Minor Sexual Abuse Triggered CP Mandatory Minimum

In United States v. Kushmaul, No. 20-10924 (Jan. 6, 2021) (Jordan, Luck, Tjoflat) (per curiam), the Court, without oral argument, affirmed the defendant’s 15-year mandatory minimum sentence for distributing child pornography.

The district court applied the mandatory minimum because the defendant’s prior Florida conviction for promoting the sexual performance of a child related to aggravated sexual abuse, sexual abuse, or abusive sexual conduct involving a minor.  The Court found no plain error.  It rejected the defendant’s categorical-approach argument that the Florida offense was obviously broader than the federal definition because the former encompassed clothed as opposed to unclothed minors.  And because there was no precedent on point, the defendant could not show plain error.

Monday, December 21, 2020

Smith: State PD Not Ineffective When Correctly Advised Client About State Plea Deal

 In United States v. Smith, No. 19-12686 (Hull, William Pryor, Marcus), the Court affirmed the defendant’s felon-in-possession conviction and sentence.

As to the conviction, the defendant argued that his state public defender was ineffective during state plea negotiations, and that the federal indictment should be dismissed.  Assuming without deciding that the Sixth Amendment attached during state plea negotiations, the Court determined that there was no ineffective assistance of counsel.  There was no deficient performance because the state public defender correctly communicated, and reasonably advised the client to accept, the state prosecutor’s 5-year plea deal, which would have resulted in the federal prosecutor dropping the federal charge carrying a 15-year mandatory minimum.  And there was no prejudice because the client was adamant that he would not have accepted a 5-year deal in state court because he wanted to go to trial, and he believed that the federal prosecutor was bluffing about filing charges.

As to the sentence, the Court affirmed the ACCA sentence because its prior precedent in Smith established that Florida sale of cocaine under 893.13 was a “serious drug offense.”

Thursday, December 10, 2020

Santos: 2255 Movant Could Not Satisfy Burden Under Beeman to Show Reliance on Residual Clause

In Santos v. United States, No. 17-14291 (Marcus, William Pryor, Hull), the Court affirmed the denial of a 2255 motion challenging an ACCA enhancement in light of Johnson.

The Court held that the movant could not meet his burden to establish that the sentencing judge relied solely on the residual clause, as required by Beeman.  The ACCA enhancement had been based in part on a prior Florida battery conviction.  However, the sentencing record was silent as to which definitional clause was used, and the case law at the time of sentencing would have allowed the judge to impose the enhancement under either the residual clause and the elements clause.  Finally, although the district court denied the motion before Beeman was decided, the Court determined that a remand would be futile.  Unlike the Eleventh Circuit’s earlier decision in Pickett, the district court here had already made a finding that the record was unclear as to which clause had been used, and the district court handling the 2255 motion was not the original sentencing judge.  Thus, the Court did not decide whether the “touch or strike” aspect of Florida battery was divisible, and it stated that this question remains an open one.

Wednesday, December 09, 2020

Taylor: Dual-Object Drug Conspiracy Including Crack Element is a "Covered Offense" Under Section 404 of the First Step Act

 In United States v. Taylor, No. 19-12872 (Grant, Marcus, Axon (N.D. Ala.)), the Court vacated the denial of a  motion for a reduced sentence under Section 404 of the First Step Act.

 The Court held that a dual-object drug conspiracy count including both a crack and a powder element is a “covered offense.”  Even though the Fair Sentencing Act did not modify the statutory penalties for the powder offense, it did modify the statutory penalties for the crack offense.  And that satisfied the “covered offense” definition in Section 404(a).  The district court therefore had discretion to reduce the sentence, though it is not permitted to conduct a plenary or de novo re-sentencing proceeding, and it cannot reduce the sentence based on changes in the law beyond those mandated by the Fair Sentencing Act.   

Friday, December 04, 2020

Graham: Upholding Conviction Under Marinello for Obstructing IRS Collection Action

 In United States v. Graham, No. 18-15299 (Dec. 4, 2020) (Grant, Marcus, Julie Carnes), the Court affirmed the defendant’s conviction for obstructing the IRS.

In addition to proving that the defendant knowingly and corruptly tried to obstruct or impede the administration of the tax laws, the Supreme Court’s decision in Marinello also required it to prove a nexus between the defendant’s conduct and a particular administrative proceeding.  The Court held that the IRS’s extensive collection activities qualified as such a proceeding, and there was otherwise sufficient evidence to support the conviction based on the defendant falsifying a bill of exchange to the IRS.

The Court also rejected the defendant’s evidentiary challenges.  It reviewed the exclusion of evidence for plain error because he failed to make a proffer about what the evidence would show.  First, the Court found no plain error in limiting a defense witness’ testimony because  the defendant was permitted to present his defense, and he failed to draw a connection between that defense and the limits placed on the witness.  Second,  there was no error under Rule 404(b) in admitting the defendant’s prior misdemeanor conviction for failing to file a tax return.  Third, there was no plain error in striking an answer the government’s expert gave on cross-examination because it did not affect his substantial rights.  And, finally, there was no error in excluding evidence of the defendant’s other efforts to comply with the IRS because good character evidence is inadmissible.