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United States v. Elam

United States Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit

July 15, 2019

RICHARD LUKE ELAM, Defendant-Appellant.

          Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Texas

          Before HIGGINBOTHAM, SMITH, and SOUTHWICK, Circuit Judges.


         After failing to appeal either his conviction or sentence, Richard Elam moved for a special discovery hearing concerning the adequacy of trial counsel's representation. The district court denied the request and declined to recharacterize the discovery motion as a 28 U.S.C. § 2255 motion. Because the court erred in failing to recharacterize, we vacate and remand.


         In March 2016, Elam agreed to plead guilty of conspiracy to distribute and possess with intent to distribute methamphetamine in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 846 (2012). As part of the agreement, Elam consented to an appeal waiver but expressly reserved the right to challenge the voluntariness of the guilty plea and to bring a claim for ineffective assistance of counsel ("IAC"). The district court entered judgment on July 29, 2016. Because Elam did not directly appeal his conviction or sentence, the judgment became final on August 12, 2016 under Federal Rule of Appellate Procedure 4(b)(1)(A)(i). See United States v. Plascencia, 537 F.3d 385, 388-90 (5th Cir. 2008).

         On July 10, 2017, Elam filed in the district court[1] a motion titled "Defendant's Motion Requesting SPECIAL DISCOVERY HEARING to Determine if Level of Court-Appointed Representation was ADEQUATE, Pursuant to the Criminal Justice Act (18 USC § 3006A)." In the motion, Elam maintained that counsel had violated his constitutional right to effective assistance. He requested that the district court order a hearing concerning whether he had received adequate representation. He also asserted that his guilty plea was given under duress and contended that counsel coerced the plea. He emphasized that counsel provides inadequate representation when he, inter alia, neglects to (1) file motions, (2) investigate possible defenses, (3) hire experts and investigators, (4) develop witness testimony, or (5) subpoena evidence. In addition, Elam included a request for the appointment of counsel "for the express purpose of filing all necessary motions/appeals" related to his IAC claim.

         The district court denied the motion, concluding that Elam had failed to establish that the case's legal or factual complexity necessitated appointment of counsel for the adequate investigation and presentation of his claim. The court stressed that "a defendant is not entitled to go on a fishing expedition prior to filing a [28 U.S.C.] § 2255 motion."

         On October 16, 2017, Elam moved to alter or amend the judgment under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 59(e). He contended that the district court erred in denying his motion for a discovery hearing by failing to construe it as a § 2255 motion. Elam urged that pro se filings should be liberally construed, citing precedent from this court and others, and reiterated his intent to bring an IAC claim. Ultimately, he requested that the court vacate its order denying his special-discovery motion and recharacterize it as a § 2255 motion. Elam also asked that the court grant leave to amend the motion.

         In a later order, the district court expressly declined to construe the discovery motion as a § 2255 motion, noting that Elam had "attempted to first secure the appointment of counsel and discovery to investigate whether a possible ineffective assistance of counsel claim may exist" even though he "could have certainly filed a motion under § 2255." Nonetheless, "to prevent the loss of [Elam's] rights to pursue an [IAC] claim under § 2255," the court reclassified Elam's Rule 59(e) motion and directed him to file an amended § 2255 motion within thirty days. The court also instructed Elam to answer each question on a § 2255 form approved for use in the Northern District of Texas.

         Elam filed an amended § 2255 motion and a memorandum in support. He cited two grounds for relief: (1) an IAC claim and (2) a claim that his guilty plea was invalid because it was coerced by counsel. Elam responded "N/A" to the question on the § 2255 form related to the timeliness of the motion.

         The district court denied the amended motion, reiterating that by filing a discovery request, Elam "understood he was not filing a § 2255 motion." The court emphasized that "[t]he law does not allow Movant to engage in a fishing expedition for evidence before filing a § 2255 motion, nor does it allow him to toll the one-year statute of limitations for filing a § 2255 motion simply because he requested an attorney to research possible claims." Ultimately, the court construed the date Elam filed his Rule 59(e) motion as the filing date of the habeas petition but determined that the motion was barred by the relevant statute of limitations, 28 U.S.C. § 2255(f)(1), because the motion was filed on October 16, 2017, more than one year after Elam's judgment of conviction had become final on August 12, 2016. Elam appeals.


         A habeas petitioner in federal custody is subject to a one-year statute of limitations. See 28 U.S.C. ยง 2255(f). As relevant here, limitations runs from "the date on which the judgment of ...

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