Tag Archives: 28 usc 2255

Clueless Defense Counsel Gets Defendant a Hearing – Update for September 29, 2017

We post news and comment on federal criminal justice issues, focused primarily on trial and post-conviction matters, legislative initiatives, and sentencing issues.


yacht170928We would give writing this blog and soak up tropical rays aboard our 300-foot long yacht if we had a nickel for every time a defendant has told us that his attorney didn’t listen to what had really happened. Occasionally, an opinion comes along to remind us that this is often the case.

Jim Griffith was a science guy. Unfortunately for him, he used his chemistry knowhow to manufacture methamphetamine from pseudoephedrine. There are a lot of things you probably do not need to know about meth homebrew, but one thing you ought to know: the amount of meth you end up with will never weigh more than the pseudoephedrine you start with. In fact, even high-yield processes yield a lot less, something like 3 units of meth for every 4 units of “suzy.”

science170928Jim’s lawyer was no science guy. That was too bad. As every student of the drug war knows, Section 2D1.1 of the Sentencing Guidelines is driven by drug weight. The more a defendant’s drugs weighed, the higher the sentence.

At Jim’s trial, a forensic chemist explained that all of the liquids the cops seized when Jim’s lab was raided either contained meth or pseudoephedrine. All of the various liquids containing meth was 150.2 grams, and the combined weight of liquids containing the pseudoephedrine was 124.9 grams. The jury found Jim responsible for 150.2 grams of meth.

During the trial, Jim repeatedly explained to his lawyer that no one was looking at the meth issue correctly. He said most of the liquids counted against him were mostly “toxic waste materials” that were “unusable.” He complained he started with only 2.4 grams of pseudoephedrine and said that “it is impossible to turn 2.4 grams of pseudoephedrine into more than 2.4 grams of methamphetamine.” He told counsel “on numerous occasions that the liquids seized by the police were unusable in their current form and were mostly nothing more than the waste materials from the one multi-step process that I was conducting to make a small amount of methamphetamine for my own personal use.”

His lawyer didn’t get it. He thoughstupidoil170928t that “unusable” liquids were just meth mixtures too weak to get users high. Something like ditch weed is to pot. He told Jim it didn’t matter, because all of the weight of the liquid mixtures had to be included in the sentence calculation.

Jim got 20 years.

He then filed a post-conviction motion under 28 USC 2255, complaining that his attorney was ineffective for failing to conduct an adequate investigation, to hire an expert witness to testify as to the amount of usable methamphetamine that could be produced from the liquids; to object to jury instructions addressing whether he manufactured a “mixture or substance” containing methamphetamine; and to challenge the jury instructions and presentence report. Jim fully explained the three-step process he used to manufacture methamphetamine, and that starting with 2.4 grams of pseudoephedrine, it is impossible to end up with more than 2.4 grams of meth. He asserted that he repeatedly told counsel those facts “from the very beginning,” but counsel failed to argue that the liquids were not a usable “mixture or substance.”

lab170928Jim’s lawyer admitted that he did not know what Jim had meant by “usable.” As to whether the substances amounted to “mixtures,” he explained that, after he had talked “with both probation and the Government on that issue,” he concluded that the substances were “mixtures” so he was “satisfied that the calculations were correct.”

The district court concluded Jim was not entitled to a hearing on his 2255 motion. But earlier this week, the 11th Circuit agreed with Jim, and ordered that the district court give him the evidentiary hearing he sought. The Circuit pointed out that precedent clearly held that waste product, even if trace amounts of the drug were present, “which is unusable and not ready for retail or wholesale distribution” should not be counted in the weight of the drugs attributed to a defendant. The Circuit said that “if a petitioner alleges facts that, if true, would entitle him to relief, then the district court should order an evidentiary hearing and rule on the merits of his claim… A petitioner need only allege — not prove — reasonably specific, non-conclusory facts that, if true, would entitle him to relief. If the allegations are not affirmatively contradicted by the record and the claims are not patently frivolous, the district court is required to hold an evidentiary hearing.”

atty170928The Circuit observed that If Jim “proves the factual allegations he has made, he will have shown that counsel’s failure to render reasonably effective assistance not only resulted in an erroneously higher guidelines range but it also caused the sentencing court to apply an inapplicable statutory mandatory minimum for Count 1. There is nothing in the record to indicate that the combined force of those two errors did not affect his sentence. To the contrary, the fact that the district court sentenced Griffith to the bottom of the guidelines range on the grouped counts, even though the government argued for a sentence above the guidelines range, is evidence of a reasonable probability of a different result.”

United States v. Griffith, Case No. 15-11877 (11th Cir., Sept. 26, 2017)

Thomas L. Root


Monday Morning Odds and Ends… – Update for August 28, 2017

We post news and comment on federal criminal justice issues, focused primarily on trial and post-conviction matters, legislative initiatives, and sentencing issues.


Jim and his girlfriend “Sweetie” had a brief fling a few years ago. The allure wore off for Sweetie pretty quickly. Now sick of Jim, she moved a thousand miles away.

persist170828Jim did not take rejection well. He began sending emails, texts and Facebook messages demanding that Sweetie apologize to him for breaking it off.

When she refused, Jim used social media to portray Sweetie as a stripper and prostitute, sending the lies to her new employer and generally spreading the meme to the four corners of the Internet. He told Sweetie and her family he would keep it up until she apologized. Sweetie found it pretty upsetting.

Jim was charged with interstate stalking, which he moved to dismiss on the grounds he had a 1st Amendment right to say whatever he wanted to. Problem is that the law is a bit more complex. It holds that “speech integral to criminal conduct” is not protected by the 1st Amendment.

stalk170828The district court said Jim was committing extortion under 18 USC 875(d), making prosecution of him for interstate stalking permissible despite his asserted 1st Amendment right.

Jim argued that he was not extorting Sweetie, because extortion required that one person threaten to injure the reputation of another with the intent to extort a “thing of value” from that person. Jim said all he wanted was an apology, and, after all, what’s an apology worth, anyway?

Last week, the 8th Circuit upheld his conviction. The Court found that a “thing of value” includes intangibles. The focus, the Court said, is on whether the defendant thinks what is demanded is of value. Here, regardless of how much the apology might really have been worth, it was clearly a “thing of value” to Jim. Thus, he was extorting Sweetie, and his speck thus was integral to a crime.

run170828Meanwhile, a couple hundred miles away from Jim and Sweetie, Rod had struck up an Internet friendship with a 17-year girl in another state. The young girlfriend, whom we’ll simply call “Honeybunch,” lived in an unhappy home environment and was aching to get out of there. Rod sent her money for a bus ticket to come to live with him several states away in Texas (where the romance, he conceded, would have included some “honey” from Honeybunch in the form of consensual and loving sex).

The plan fell apart before Honeybunch could even get as far as the state line. Honeybunch’s family found her missing, and panicked. When they found Rod’s phone number among things Honeybunch had left behind, they called him. Rod counseled the girl by phone to go back home, which she did.

That was not enough for the family, whose panic quickly turned to ire. They convinced the feds to prosecute Rod under the Mann Act, for knowingly transporting someone under 18 in interstate commerce “with intent that the individual engage in… sexual activity for which any person can be charged with a criminal offense.” The age of consent in Honeybunch’s home state was 18, but Rod argued that any sex would have occurred in Texas, where the age of consent was 17. Rod argued the 1st Amendment protected his communications with Honeybunch, because he did not urge her to do anything that would have been a crime where he proposed doing it.

hook170828Last week, the 8th Circuit denied Rod’s 2255 motion, too. Sure, it agreed, the age of consent in Texas is 17 years old. But it found another Texas statute that made it a crime to “employ, authorize, or induce a child younger than 18 years of age to engage in sexual conduct,” including “sexual contact, actual or simulated sexual intercourse.” Rod was right that Texas allowed him to have sex with a 17-year old, but Texas nevertheless made it a crime for him to say or do anything that might convince the 17-year old to have sex with him.

So in Texas, you can have sex with a 17-year old if you just lie there. But if you’re at all interested, you could end up with 10 years in federal prison. Charles Dickens was right: “‘If the law supposes that,’ said Mr. Bumble, squeezing his hat emphatically in both hands, ‘the law is a ass – a idiot’.”

United States v. Hobgood, Case No. 16-3778 (8th Cir., Aug. 22, 2017)

United States v. Goodwin, Case No. 16-1669 (8th Cir., Aug. 25, 2017)


Since the Supreme Court decided in the 2010 Curtis Johnson v. United States case that “force” meant “violent force—that is, force capable of causing physical pain or injury to another person,” circuits have been determining whether force was “violent” by asking whether it was likely to cause pain. Trust the 11th Circuit to upend that logical approach with a 67-page en banc decision holding that everyone is wrong: violent force only needs to be “capable” of causing physical pain. Degree of force no longer matters: only the effect does.

The ruling came last Friday in a reversal of an earlier 3-judge decision that Florida’s felony battery offense is categorically not a violent crime.

violence160110Five dissenting judges point out that Florida felony battery “criminalizes a mere touching that happens to cause great bodily harm… A mere touching is not violent—it does not involve a substantial degree of force. A tap on a jogger’s shoulder that happens to cause the jogger to suffer a concussion is still just a tap.” The dissenters complaint that “the Majority’s decision cannot be reconciled with Curtis Johnson… Johnson explain[s] over the course of several pages that “physical force” refers to a threshold degree of force. But the Majority, reading this lengthy analysis out of Curtis Johnson, creates a new test for “physical force” that disregards degree of force. Although the Supreme Court has cautioned against reading a statement from one of its opinions “in isolation” rather than “alongside” the rest of the opinion, the Majority does exactly that.”

United States v. Vail-Bailon, Case No. 15-1035 (11th Cir., Aug, 25, 2017)



We have written before about the Circuit split on whether a prisoner can use a 28 USC 2241 to challenge his or her guilt when there has been an intervening change in statute. Nine circuits say the saving clause of 28 USC 2255(e) permits it. Two, the 10th and 11th, do not.

A case challenging the 11th Circuit’s ban is awaiting grant of review by the Supreme Court, and some heavyweight legal talent is lining up to urge the issue on the high court. Meanwhile, the 3rd Circuit last week recognized the circuit split while reaffirming its commitment to maintaining 2241 as a safety valve.

violent160620Gary Bruce was involved in a rather ugly robbery/murder years ago in Tennessee. Among other crimes, he was convicted of witness tampering murder, for killing to “prevent the communication by any person to a law enforcement officer or judge of the United States of information relating to the commission or possible commission of a Federal offense.” Gary’s jury was not instructed at all about whether it had to find Gary thought the witnesses might communicate with a federal officer. At the time, the law said that “no state of mind need be proved with respect to the circumstance… that the law enforcement officer is an officer or employee of the Federal Government.”

Later, the Supreme Court held that the statute required that the jury find that it was “reasonably likely under the circumstances that (in the absence of the killing) at least one of the relevant communications would have been made to a federal officer.” This was a new rule of substantive law not dictated by precedent existing at the time Gary was convicted, that narrowed the scope of the statute.

The Court said it permitted a 2241 when two conditions are satisfied: First, a prisoner must assert a “claim of actual innocence’ on the theory that… an intervening Supreme Court decision” has changed the statutory case law in a way that applies retroactively in cases on collateral review. Second, the prisoner must have had no earlier opportunity to challenge the conviction with a 2255 since the intervening Supreme Court decision issued.

Some of the people who say this really are...
‘Actual innocence’ is a standard all circuits apply to 2241 motions…

Some other circuits allowing 2241s have stricter standards, requiring that prisoners show that circuit precedent foreclosed the issue at the time the 2255 was due. Here, Gary’s brother Bob was locked up in a different circuit that had such a rule. The 3rd noted the unfairness of the disparate treatment, noting that while Congress enacted Sec. 2255 to “alleviate the inefficiencies that attend 2241’s… rules, now those difficulties have returned, though in a new form. And so they will remain, at least until Congress or the Supreme Court speaks on the matter.”

Bruce v. Warden, Case No. 14-4284 (3rd Cir., Aug. 22, 2017)

McCarthan v. Goodwill Industries, Petition for Writ of Certiorari, Case No. 17-85 (Supreme Ct., filed July 17, 2017)

– Thomas L. Root