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United States v. Williams

United States Court of Appeals, Tenth Circuit

June 23, 2015

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Plaintiff - Appellant,
JEFFREY DAN WILLIAMS, Defendant - Appellee

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Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Oklahoma. (D.C. No. 4:97-CR-00171-JHP-1).

Richard A. Friedman, Appellate Section, Criminal Division, United States Department of Justice, Washington, D.C. (Patrick C. Harris and Patricia S. Harris, Special Assistants, United States Attorneys, Little Rock, Arkansas; Leslie R. Caldwell, Assistant Attorney General, David A. O'Neil, Acting Deputy Assistant Attorney General, and Sung-Hee Suh, Deputy Assistant Attorney General, Washington, D.C., with him on the briefs), for Plaintiff-Appellant.

Barry L. Derryberry, Research and Writing Specialist (William Widell, Assistant Federal Public Defender with him on the brief), Office of the Federal Public Defender, Tulsa, Oklahoma, for Defendant-Appellee.

Before BACHARACH, BALDOCK, and McHUGH, Circuit Judges. BACHARACH, J., dissenting.


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McHUGH, Circuit Judge.


After multiple attempts over the course of fourteen years to attack his federal convictions on various drug and firearm charges, Jeffrey Dan Williams filed a motion in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Oklahoma seeking to withdraw his guilty plea based on newly discovered evidence. Specifically, Mr. Williams submitted affidavits in support of his claim that his guilty plea was involuntarily entered because the law enforcement officers investigating his case planted evidence, gave false testimony, and used threats and intimidation to suborn perjury from other witnesses. After conducting an evidentiary hearing, the district court vacated Mr. Williams's convictions. It concluded that the officers had perpetrated a fraud on the court and that vacating Mr. Williams's convictions was necessary to correct the fraud and to prevent a miscarriage of justice. The government appeals, asserting the district court lacked jurisdiction over Mr. Williams's motion due to his failure to first obtain certification from this court, as required by 28 U.S.C. § 2255, permitting him to file a second or successive petition for habeas corpus relief.

Exercising jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § § 1291 and 2244, we hold that the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA) limits the courts' power to correct fraud on the court and to prevent a miscarriage of justice when the court vacates a conviction in response to a second or successive habeas petition. Although a district court may invoke these powers sua sponte, the district court here acted on Mr. Williams's motion to withdraw his guilty plea, which is a second or successive petition. We therefore reverse the district court's order vacating Mr. Williams's conviction for lack of jurisdiction. But we exercise our discretion to treat Mr. Williams's appellate brief as a request to file a second or successive motion under 28 U.S.C. § 2255(h), and we grant that request in part.


A. Factual History[1]

According to the government, from at least 1995 to 1997, Mr. Williams operated and directed an illegal drug distribution operation, primarily in Tulsa, Creek, and Osage Counties, Oklahoma. He was an experienced methamphetamine cook and charged large fees to teach others to manufacture methamphetamine. Mr. Williams also employed associates to help him manufacture methamphetamine, to purchase necessary precursor chemicals, and to find

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locations to manufacture and store his product.

Local authorities arrested individuals connected with the conspiracy beginning in 1994 but they did not realize the full scope of the conspiracy until 1997. By that point, the authorities had made controlled buys, seized methamphetamine and paraphernalia at traffic stops, and interviewed various witnesses about their involvement with Mr. Williams and a coconspirator, James Edmondson. At that point, law enforcement officers turned the focus of their investigation to Mr. Williams. Various searches of Mr. Williams's vehicle, residence, and the residence of his then-girlfriend uncovered drugs, drug paraphernalia, drug manufacturing equipment, and a firearm. As a result, Mr. Williams was arrested and ultimately charged under federal law.

B. Procedural History

1. The Federal Indictment, Guilty Plea, and Sentencing

Mr. Williams pled guilty to four counts alleged in a federal indictment: conspiring to manufacture and possess methamphetamine (the conspiracy count); two counts of possessing with intent to distribute methamphetamine on March 12, 1997, and July 22, 1997 (the drug counts); and possessing a firearm during and in relation to a drug trafficking crime (the firearm count). At sentencing, Mr. Williams disputed the amount of methamphetamine he was responsible for manufacturing and/or distributing, but the district court rejected Mr. Williams's argument and instead accepted the testimony of a DEA agent. The district court therefore sentenced Mr. Williams to a total term of 420 months imprisonment, including 360 months for each of the conspiracy and drug counts, running concurrently, and 60 months for the gun count, running consecutively.

2. The Direct Appeal and Prior Post-Conviction Relief Proceedings

Mr. Williams appealed his conviction, and we affirmed. See United States v. Williams, 201 F.3d 449 (10th Cir. 1999) (unpublished table decision). He then filed a series of collateral attacks. His first four § 2255 motions were denied by the district court and the Tenth Circuit. See, e.g., In re Williams, No. 08-5079 (10th Cir. 2008); United States v. Williams, 167 F.App'x 25 (10th Cir. 2006) (per curiam) (unpublished); United States v. Williams, 44 F.App'x 443 (10th Cir. 2002) (unpublished).

On November 12, 2010, Mr. Williams filed a fifth request for postconviction relief, in which he first raised the allegations relevant to this appeal. Mr. Williams claimed at least five Tulsa Police Department officers who were involved in the investigation of his case were also the subject of an investigation into corruption at the Tulsa Police Department (the corruption investigation), which uncovered instances of planted evidence and perjury in other criminal cases. According to Mr. Williams, these officers fabricated and manipulated evidence, intimidated witnesses, and used false informants in his case.

Although we denied Mr. Williams authorization to file a successive habeas petition because he had not provided evidence to support his allegations, we noted our denial was " without prejudice to Mr. Williams's refiling, in this court, a motion for authorization containing a complete description of all relevant facts and circumstances, with supporting evidence."

In an attempt to comply with our instructions, Mr. Williams refiled his request for authorization to file a second or successive § 2255 petition with this court and attached notarized statements from various witnesses. We again denied the motion because the new evidence did not

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establish a connection between any officer implicated in the corruption investigation and the witnesses and federal agents involved in Mr. Williams's case.

3. The Current Postconviction Relief Proceeding

a. Mr. Williams's Motion

Mr. Williams next filed a pro se " Motion to Withdraw and Nullify Guilty Plea" (the Motion) with the district court on January 17, 2012, which is the subject of this appeal. In the Motion, he argued that " the same officers [involved in the corruption investigation had] engaged in the same type of illegal conduct during the investigation, searches and seizures [in Mr. Williams's case,]" and that this conduct resulted in Mr. Williams's guilty plea. Mr. Williams attached evidence undermining the testimony of the DEA agent used to support the drug quantity findings at Mr. Williams's sentencing.[2] In addition, Mr. Williams attached his own affidavit in which he claimed Tulsa officers conducted searches without probable cause, coerced testimony regarding the gun charge, and seized less methamphetamine than they reported. Mr. Williams further stated that he was pressured to plead guilty because his counsel advised him the government was planning to file a Fourth Superseding Indictment which would add a continuing criminal enterprise (CCE) charge against Mr. Williams and would name Mr. Williams's younger sister as a codefendant.

b. The District Court's Response

The district court construed the Motion as a request under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 60(d)(3), which acknowledges a district court's inherent authority to set aside a judgment for fraud on the court. The district court also appointed counsel for Mr. Williams, ordered the parties to conduct discovery, and held an evidentiary hearing, which was conducted intermittently between May 2012 and June 2012.[3]

At the hearing, the district court received testimony from multiple witnesses who supported Mr. Williams's claims that the Tulsa police officers acted fraudulently during the investigation of his case.

The district court issued an opinion and order vacating Mr. Williams's judgment and sentence and dismissing the third superseding indictment. In so doing, the district court found that Tulsa Police Department officers committed a fraud on the court that required Mr. Williams's convictions to be set aside. In the alternative, the court granted Mr. Williams's motion to withdraw his guilty plea based on the court's common law authority to prevent a miscarriage of justice, specifically finding that Mr. Williams had demonstrated actual innocence by a preponderance of the evidence. To distinguish an intervening decision of this court, United States v. Baker, 718 F.3d 1204 (10th Cir. 2013),[4] which held

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that motions alleging fraud on the court should be treated as second or successive petitions, the district court explained that " it is the Court, not the defendant, that has invoked its inherent authority and has construed Mr. Williams'[s] motion to Withdraw and Nullify Guilty Plea as a fraud on the court motion." United States v. Williams, 16 F.Supp.3d 1301, 1313 n.5 (N.D. Okla. 2014).

The district court entered its order on April 18, 2014, and the government filed an appeal of that decision on June 16, 2014. In response, Mr. Williams filed a motion in this court seeking to dismiss the government's appeal as untimely. [5]


On appeal, the government argues the district court lacked jurisdiction to vacate Mr. Williams's conviction because Mr. Williams failed to first obtain certification from this court permitting him to file a second or successive petition, as required under AEDPA. In response, Mr. Williams claims the district court had independent jurisdiction because (1) the Motion was not a second or successive petition or (2) irrespective of AEDPA's limitations on second or successive petitions, the court had the inherent authority to correct fraud on the court or, alternatively, to prevent a miscarriage of justice.

For the reasons explained below, we conclude that although AEDPA has not eliminated the courts' power to correct fraud on the court or to prevent a miscarriage of justice entirely, AEDPA has restricted those powers in a way that divested the district court of jurisdiction to act on the Motion. In so ruling, we first analyze whether the Motion is a second or successive petition for habeas relief and conclude that it is. Next, we explain that although courts have the inherent authority to correct fraud on the court or to prevent a miscarriage of justice, AEDPA has limited a court's ability to exercise those inherent powers when the court is acting on a second or successive petition for habeas relief. Ultimately, we conclude that the district court did not properly invoke its inherent powers in Mr. Williams's case and therefore it lacked subject matter jurisdiction to vacate his conviction. But we exercise our discretion to construe Mr. Williams's arguments on appeal as a request for authorization to file a successive habeas petition and grant that request in part.

A. The Motion is a Second or Successive Petition for Habeas Corpus Relief.

We begin by determining whether Mr. Williams's Motion is a second or successive petition and is therefore governed by AEDPA. After a federal prisoner has filed one postjudgment habeas petition, which is permitted under 28 U.S.C. § 2255(a), another postjudgment motion is treated as a second or successive § 2255 motion if it asserts or reasserts claims of error in the prisoner's conviction. United States v. Nelson, 465 F.3d 1145, 1147 (10th Cir. 2006); see Gonzalez v. Crosby, 545 U.S. 524, 530-31,

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125 S.Ct. 2641, 162 L.Ed.2d 480 (2005) (involving a § 2254 motion). To discern whether a postjudgment motion styled otherwise is, in fact, a successive § 2255 motion, we " look at the relief sought, rather than a pleading's title or its form." United States v. Baker, 718 F.3d 1204, 1206-08 (10th Cir. 2013). If a petitioner challenges his underlying conviction, his filing is a successive § 2255 motion. See id. (concluding that a petition filed alleging fraud on the conviction court was a second or successive petition). The distinction is important because § 2255(h) deprives a district court of jurisdiction over uncertified second or successive habeas petitions. Nelson, 465 F.3d at 1148.[6]

Mr. Williams's motion to withdraw his guilty plea falls squarely within the definition of a second or successive petition. He filed an initial § 2255 motion on January 4, 2001, which the district court reviewed and denied on the merits. His current Motion asked the district court to allow him to withdraw his guilty plea and thus challenged his underlying conviction. It is therefore a successive § 2255 motion, and the district court did " not even have jurisdiction to deny the relief sought in the pleading" in the absence of a certification from this court. Nelson, 465 F.3d at 1148; see also 28 U.S.C. § 2255(h) (explaining that a second or successive motion must receive certification from the appropriate court of appeals before it may be considered by a district court).

Despite this, Mr. Williams asks us to consider the Motion as an initial § 2255 petition. He relies on our decision in In re Weathersby, where we held that a petition technically filed after an initial petition need not be treated as a second or successive petition if " the purported defect did not arise, or the claim did not ripen, until after the conclusion of the previous petition." 717 F.3d 1108, 1111 (10th Cir. 2013) (internal quotation marks omitted). Attempting to qualify for the Weathersby exception, Mr. Williams alleges the defect in his conviction did not exist when he filed his first habeas petition, and thus his habeas claim was not ripe, because the Tulsa police corruption had not been discovered at that time. We are not persuaded.

Weathersby outlined a narrow exception to the bar on successive § 2255 motions for circumstances where a particular claim cannot be raised in a defendant's initial § 2255 motion. Id. at 1111. This occurs where the factual basis for a claim does not yet exist--not where it has simply not yet been discovered--at the time of a defendant's first motion. For instance, in Weathersby, the defendant's federal sentence was enhanced based on prior state convictions. Id. at 1109. After sentencing and after his first § 2255 motion, the defendant successfully challenged his state convictions and they were expunged. Id. He then raised a separate challenge to his federal sentence. Although the defendant in Weathersby filed a new motion for postconviction relief, this court held it was not a successive petition because the challenge to his enhanced sentence was not ripe when he filed his first § 2255 motion. Id. at 1111. We explained that the factual

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basis for his claim--that his state convictions were expunged--did not exist when he filed the first habeas corpus motion. Id.

In contrast, the factual basis of Mr. Williams's claim--that Tulsa police officers and various witnesses lied, planted evidence, fabricated witness statements, misled federal agents, and otherwise coerced Mr. Williams to plead guilty--existed at the time of his initial habeas petition. Because these acts occurred well before Mr. Williams filed the Motion, he cannot rely on the Weathersby exception. See United States v. McCalister, 545 F.App'x 718, 720-21 (10th Cir. 2013) (unpublished) (treating an allegation of police corruption as a successive § 2255 motion because the police corruption, and hence the defendant's claim, existed at the time of trial).[7] Although the proof of those allegations may not have been available to Mr. Williams when he filed his first petition, newly available proof implicates the newly discovered evidence exception in § 2255(h)(1), not whether Mr. Williams's claim should be treated as an initial habeas petition.[8]

For these reasons, we conclude Mr. Williams's petition must be construed as a second or successive petition governed by § 2255(h) of AEDPA. Under § 2255(h), Mr. Williams was prohibited from filing a second or successive petition without first obtaining certification from this court, which he failed to do. We therefore proceed to Mr. Williams's alternative argument that, even though his Motion is a second or successive petition, the district court had jurisdiction under its inherent authority to correct fraud on the court or to prevent a miscarriage of justice.

B. The Courts' Inherent Powers and AEDPA's Limitations on Them

Federal courts enjoy numerous inherent equitable powers. See Chambers v. NASCO, Inc., 501 U.S. 32, 43-45, 111 S.Ct. 2123, 115 L.Ed.2d 27 (1991) (discussing various inherent powers, including the power to " control admission to its bar and to discipline attorneys who appear before it," to " punish for contempt," to correct fraud on the court, to control its courtroom, to dismiss for forum non conveniens, and to sua sponte dismiss for failure to prosecute); Eash v. Riggins Trucking Inc., 757 F.2d 557, 561-64 (3d. Cir. 1985) (outlining three general categories of inherent powers); see also McQuiggin v. Perkins, 133 S.Ct. 1924, 1934, 185 L.Ed.2d 1019 (2013) (evaluating the courts' equitable authority to prevent a miscarriage of justice). These powers are necessary to " control and direct the conduct of litigation" and are exercised " without any express authorization in a constitution, statute, or written rule of court." Joseph J. Anclien, Broader Is Better: The Inherent Powers of Federal Courts, 64 N.Y.U. Ann. Surv. Am. L. 37, 44 (2008) (alteration and internal quotation marks omitted). Two of these powers, the power to correct a fraud on the court and to prevent a miscarriage of justice, are at issue here.

Although the courts' equitable powers have " always been characterized by flexibility" so that they may " meet new

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situations which demand equitable intervention, and to accord all the relief necessary to correct the particular injustices involved in these situations," Hazel-Atlas Glass Co. v. Hartford-Empire Co., 322 U.S. 238, 248, 64 S.Ct. 997, 88 L.Ed. 1250, 1944 Dec. Comm'r Pat. 675 (1944), the judicial power is not boundless. Instead, the Supreme Court has recognized that because Congress created the federal district and circuit courts, it may statutorily limit their inherent powers, so long as such limitations are clearly reflected by statute. Chambers, 501 U.S. at 47. But see Eash, 757 F.2d at 562 (opining that the judiciary's " irreducible inherent authority" authorizes the exercise of inherent powers which are " so fundamental to the essence of a court as a constitutional tribunal" that Congress cannot limit them). Therefore, where a statute includes " clear[] command" limiting an inherent judicial power, courts cannot exercise that power in contravention of the statute. McQuiggin, 133 S.Ct. at 1934 (quoting Holland v. Florida, 560 U.S. 631, 646, 130 S.Ct. 2549, 177 L.Ed.2d 130 (2010)); see, e.g., Carlisle v. United States, 517 U.S. 416, 428, 116 S.Ct. 1460, 134 L.Ed.2d 613 (1996) (rejecting the argument that a court has the inherent power to act in contradiction to an applicable rule and holding that a district court could not sua sponte grant an untimely motion for judgment of acquittal); Bank of Nova Scotia v. United States, 487 U.S. 250, 254, 108 S.Ct. 2369, 101 L.Ed.2d 228 (1988) (holding that Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 52 sets the boundaries of a federal court's supervisory power to dismiss an indictment procured by prosecutorial misconduct).

We are therefore charged with determining whether the relevant AEDPA provision, 28 U.S.C. § 2255, reflects the type of clear statutory command that limits the courts' power to correct fraud on the court and prevent a miscarriage of justice in this case.

1. Fraud on the Court

The government argues AEDPA has limited the courts' inherent power to correct fraud on the court where a petitioner has raised allegations of fraud in a second or successive petition but has failed to obtain the required certification under § 2255(h).[9] The district court rejected this argument, reasoning that any procedural bars contained in AEDPA ...

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