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.