Thursday, July 30, 2015

Mixed Bag For Habeas Petitioner as Divided Panel Affirms in Part, Reverses in Part

U.S. v. Williams, 2015 WL 3857270 (6/23/15) (Okl.) (Published) - The 10th broadly interprets the scope of the successive-petition provision of § 2255(h) and strictly limits when it considers a court to be acting sua sponte, Mr. Williams filed a number of unsuccessful § 2255 motions challenging his drug and firearm convictions. Finally he filed a motion to withdraw his guilty plea based on newly-discovered evidence that indicated the Tulsa police acted dishonestly in his case. Based on the new evidence, the district court vacated Mr. Williams' convictions on the grounds that it was sua sponte exercising its inherent power to correct fraud on the court. The 10th holds Congress overrode that inherent power, and the authority to prevent a miscarriage of justice, by adopting 18 USC § 2255(h). As a consequence, Mr. Williams could not get relief except by first obtaining authorization to file a petition from the 10th and by proving his innocence by clear and convincing evidence, as opposed to by a preponderance. There was no work-around to application of the successive-petition rule. Because the factual bases for his claims existed at the time of his first motion, Mr. Williams could not invoke the notion that this was the first opportunity to file a motion based on his current claims. It didn't matter that proof wasn't available until now. Also, even though the district court claimed it acted sua sponte, which would have avoided AEDPA's restrictions, it didn't really act sua sponte because it granted relief based on the new evidence Mr. Williams presented.

The 10th authorizes a successive petition regarding the firearm count. The district court found a witness credible who testified that: a Mr. Owens removed the gun in question from his waistband and put it in Mr. Williams' car; Mr. Owens was worried about being prosecuted for being a felon in possession of a gun; and the officers told her she could avoid prison if she claimed the gun belonged to Mr. Williams, which she eventually did. Mr. Owens testified the gun was Mr. Williams's. The witness's testimony was "compelling," the 10th said---enough to undermine much of the government's proof, including the credibility of Mr. Owens, despite Mr. Williams' guilty plea to firearm possession. Mr. Williams's explanation that he pleaded guilty due to the officers' coercion was credible, in light of credible evidence of the officers' pattern of fraudulent activity.

The 10th refuses to authorize a successive petition with respect to Mr. Williams' drug convictions. Witnesses testified that a controlled buy officers testified about never happened, officers forced a CI to lie about Mr. Williams manufacturing meth and officers lied about the drug quantity involved. This did not amount to a prima facie showing of innocence, the 10th concludes. The conspiracy count was proven by the finding of meth and meth equipment and chemicals, Mr. Williams' association with someone who made and sold meth, a DEA agent's testimony that 70 witnesses provided information incriminating Mr. Williams and Mr. Williams' plea colloquy. So, while Mr. Williams "raised serious questions" about whether officers manufactured evidence, he didn't show by clear and convincing evidence there were pervasive problems with the agent's investigation. Similarly, with respect to the drug-possession conviction, Mr. Williams didn't dispute he was found with meth on two particular occasions. His claims that the searches that discovered the meth were illegal were irrelevant to the innocence inquiry.

Judge Bacharach dissented, believing the 10th should affirm the overturning of all of Mr. Williams's convictions. He thought the majority misread what sua sponte meant in these circumstances. Unlike the majority, he interpreted the definition of sua sponte in Calderon v. Thomspon, 523 U.S. 538 (1998), to apply only in mandate-recall situations. He thought it didn't matter that the district court based its decision on the new evidence Mr. Williams presented in his motion where the judgment was not final due to fraud on the court. The d. ct's ruling was still sua sponte, as the district court said, meaning the successive-petition restrictions didn't apply. Mr. Williams was entitled to relief because the government waived any challenge to how the district court applied the fraud-on-the-court principle.