Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals - Published Opinions

Friday, September 22, 2017

Beeman: Initial 2255 Motion Bringing ACCA/Johnson Claim Fails to Meet Burden of Proof to Show that Sentencing Court Relied on Residual Clause

In Beeman v. United States, No. 16-16710 (Sept. 22, 2017) (Julie Carnes, Edmondson, Kathleen Williams), the Court held that an initial 2255 movant bringing an ACCA Johnson claim failed to meet his burden of proof, because he could not prove that it was more likely than not that the sentencing court relied on the residual clause, as opposed to another clause. 

As an initial matter, the Court agreed that the 2255 motion was in part timely under 2255(f)(3). His motion alleged that his prior conviction for Georgia aggravated assault was no longer a violent felony, both because it did not satisfy the elements clause after Descamps and because it did not satisfy the residual clause after Johnson.  Although the Court found that the Descamps aspect of that claim was untimely, it found that the Johnson aspect was timely.

However, it affirmed on the ground that the movant could not meet his burden to show that the sentencing court had relied on the residual clause.  The Court relied heavily on the burden of proof in 2255 proceedings being on the movant, and it refused to place that burden on the government merely because sentencing courts did not specify the clause on which they relied.  To meet the burden of proof on a Johnson claim, the movant must show that it was more likely than not that the sentencing court relied on the residual clause.  Where the record is inconclusive in that regard, or where it is just as likely that the court relied on the residual clause as on another clause, then the movant cannot meet his burden.  This is a fact-specific question in each case.  In that case, the sentencing record was silent, and there was no precedent at the time of sentencing holding or suggesting that the prior conviction qualified only under the residual clause.  In that regard, the Court rejected the movant's argument that the residual clause had served as a default for many statutes.  In effect, the Court adopted the earlier dicta in Moore over the earlier dicta in Chance, but applied that reasoning in the context of an initial (not successive) 2255 motion.

Judge Williams dissented.  She opined that a movant can meet his burden under Johnson to show that he was sentenced under the residual clause by showing that his ACCA enhancement could not have been properly sustained on any other clause.  Because the prior conviction in that case likely did not satisfy the elements clause, she found that he had met his burden of proof.  She concluded: "I fear that the practical effect of today's opinion is that many criminal defendants like Beeman who were, in fact, sentenced under a constitutionally infirm statute will be denied their right to seek relief to which they may very well be entitled by the holdings of the Supreme Court."