Calling A Rose A Rose


“What’s in a name?” Shakespeare wrote. So why does it matter what an inmate filer calls his or her post-conviction motion under 28 USC § 2255?

A month before the statutory one-year deadline for filing his § 2255 motion, Richie Elam filed a document he called “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 all caps-laden motion, Richie requested a hearing concerning whether he had received adequate representation. He also said his guilty plea was given under duress and contended that counsel coerced the plea.

After the 2255 deadline had passed, the district court held Rich had failed to establish that his case required appointment of counsel, saying “a defendant is not entitled to go on a fishing expedition prior to filing a § 2255 motion.” Richie then asked the court to construe the weirdly-titled motion as a § 2255 motion, but the district court refused to do so, saying that Richie knew that whatever his discovery request might have been, it “was not… a § 2255 motion.”

Richie appealed. Last week, the 7th Circuit granted the appeal and reinstated the motion Rich had filed as a § 2255 motion. The Court said dismissal of a first 2255 “is a particularly serious matter, for that dismissal denies the petitioner the protections of the Great Writ entirely, risking injury to an important interest in human liberty.” Because pro se habeas petitions are “not held to the same stringent and rigorous standards as are pleadings filed by lawyers,” the appellate panel wrote, “it is the substance of the relief sought by a pro se pleading, not the label that the petitioner has attached to it, that determines the true nature and operative effect of a habeas filing.”

While the decision to recharacterize a motion is discretionary, here the district court abused that discretion. District courts must “determine the true nature of a pleading by its substance, not its label.” Here, Richie’s discovery motion, “although inartfully drafted, stated enough that it should have been liberally construed as a § 2255 motion. Rich asserted that his constitutional right to effective assistance of counsel had been violated, resulting in a deprivation of his liberty. He “implicitly stated seven bases for his [ineffective assistance of counsel] claim” and maintained that his guilty plea was entered under duress. Liberally construed, that is enough to qualify Elam’s motion as a § 2255 motion.”

United States v. Elam, 2019 U.S. App. LEXIS 2086 (7th Cir. July 15, 2019)

-Tom Root

Dan Wise