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United States of America v. JOEL S. ELLIOTT
Case Number: 21-8016
Judge: Allison H. Eid
Court: UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS
FOR THE TENTH CIRCUIT
Denver, CO - Criminal defense lawyer represented defendant with a arson of a building owned or possessed by an entity receiving federal fund charge.
In 2014, Elliott used gasoline and an incendiary device to set fire to a building
owned by Sheridan County, Wyoming, and used by the Sheridan County Attorney’s
* This order is not binding precedent except under the doctrines of law of the case,
res judicata, and collateral estoppel. It may be cited, however, for its persuasive value
consistent with Fed. R. App. P. 32.1 and 10th Cir. R. 32.1.
United States Court of Appeals
July 14, 2021
Christopher M. Wolpert
Clerk of Court
Appellate Case: 21-8016 Document: 010110548700 Date Filed: 07/14/2021 Page: 1
Office. As a result, Elliott was convicted of arson of a building owned or possessed by
an entity receiving federal funds, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 844(f), and using a firearm
during and in relation to a crime of violence pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 924(c). Elliott was
also convicted of possessing an unregistered firearm under 26 U.S.C. § 5861(d) and false
declaration before a Grand Jury under 18 U.S.C. § 1623(a). He was sentenced to 444
months of imprisonment.
Elliott appealed his conviction, raising issues regarding the government’s use of an
undercover informant and the building occupant’s receipt of federal funds. We affirmed.
United States v. Elliott, 684 F. App’x 685, 698 (10th Cir. 2017). Elliott then filed his first
§ 2255 motion, arguing that his trial counsel was ineffective under the Sixth Amendment
and that the government violated Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83 (1963). The district
court denied the motion, and we denied Elliott’s request for a COA to appeal that denial.
United States v. Elliott, 753 F. App’x 624, 626 (10th Cir. 2018).
Next, Elliott filed a Rule 60 motion, which the district court denied and declined to
reconsider. We determined that Elliott’s Rule 60 motion and motion to reconsider were
actually unauthorized second or successive § 2255 motions and remanded for the district
court to dismiss them for lack of jurisdiction. United States v. Elliott, 807 F. App’x 801,
804 (10th Cir. 2020). Elliott subsequently moved this court for authorization to file a
second or successive § 2255 motion based on United States v. Davis, 139 S. Ct. 2319
(2019), and other grounds. We authorized the motion but limited it to arguments based
Appellate Case: 21-8016 Document: 010110548700 Date Filed: 07/14/2021 Page: 2
The bulk of Elliott’s 444-month sentence was attributable to his § 924(c)
conviction, which required a mandatory 360-month sentence to run consecutively with
any other sentences. See 18 U.S.C. § 924(c)(l)(B)(ii), (D)(ii). And in Davis, the Supreme
Court declared § 924(c)(3)(B)—one of two clauses defining a “crime of violence”—void
for vagueness. 139 S. Ct. at 2324. Thus, we allowed Elliott to ask the district court
whether his arson conviction qualifies as a crime of violence under § 924(c)(3)(A)—the
clause that remained intact.
Though Elliott’s motion raised other issues, the district court addressed only the
authorized Davis question. The court held that, “[b]ecause Elliott’s predicate federal
felony—arson of a building owned or possessed by an entity receiving federal funds—
separately satisfies § 924(c)(3)’s elements clause definition for the term ‘crime of
violence,’ any Davis infirmity in [Elliott’s] conviction is harmless.” ROA Vol. IV at 159
(quotation omitted). As such, the court denied Elliott’s successive motion. It
subsequently denied Elliott’s motion to reconsider and denied him a COA. Elliott now
seeks a COA from this court.
To obtain a COA, Elliott must make “a substantial showing of the denial of a
constitutional right.” 28 U.S.C. § 2253(c). That requires Elliott to prove “that reasonable
jurists could debate whether (or, for that matter, agree that) the petition should have been
resolved in a different manner or that the issues presented were adequate to deserve
encouragement to proceed further.” Slack v. McDaniel, 529 U.S. 473, 484 (2000). This
debatability standard “does not require a showing that the appeal will succeed,” Miller-El
Appellate Case: 21-8016 Document: 010110548700 Date Filed: 07/14/2021 Page: 3
v. Cockrell, 537 U.S. 322, 337 (2003), but “[a] prisoner seeking a COA must prove
something more than the absence of frivolity or the existence of mere good faith on his or
her part.” Id. at 338 (quotations omitted). “In evaluating whether an applicant has
satisfied this burden, we undertake a preliminary, though not definitive, consideration of
the [legal] framework applicable to each of the claims.” United States v. Parker, 720
F.3d 781, 785 (10th Cir. 2013) (quotations omitted).
At the time of Elliott’s offenses, 18 U.S.C. § 924(c) prohibited using or carrying a
firearm during or in relation to a crime of violence. A “crime of violence” is defined as a
federal offense that is a felony and:
(A) has as an element the use, attempted use, or threatened use of physical
force against the person or property of another, or
(B) that by its nature, involves a substantial risk that physical force against
the person or property of another may be used in the course of committing
18 U.S.C. § 924(c)(3). Subsection (A) is referred to as the “elements clause,” and
subsection (B) is referred to as the “residual clause.” In Davis, the Supreme Court
declared the residual clause void for vagueness. 139 S. Ct. at 2336. We have held that
Davis is retroactive on collateral review. United States v. Bowen, 936 F.3d 1091, 1098
(10th Cir. 2019). Thus, Elliott’s offense under 18 U.S.C. § 844(f)(1)—arson of a
building receiving federal funds—can serve as a predicate crime of violence only if it
satisfies the elements clause.
To determine whether Elliott’s arson conviction “has as an element the use,
attempted use, or threatened use of physical force against the person or property of
another,” § 924(c)(3)(A), “we apply the categorical approach,” Bowen, 936 F.3d at 1102.
Appellate Case: 21-8016 Document: 010110548700 Date Filed: 07/14/2021 Page: 4
“Under the categorical approach, we look ‘only to the fact of conviction and the statutory
definition of the prior offense, and do not generally consider the particular facts disclosed
by the record of conviction.’” Id. (quoting United States v. Serafin, 562 F.3d 1105,
1107–08 (10th Cir. 2009)).
The arson statute that served as the predicate offense for Elliott’s conviction under
§ 924(c) provides:
Whoever maliciously damages or destroys, or attempts to damage or
destroy, by means of fire or an explosive, any building, vehicle, or other
personal or real property in whole or in part owned or possessed by, or
leased to, the United States, or any department or agency thereof, or any
institution or organization receiving Federal financial assistance, shall be
imprisoned for not less than 5 years and not more than 20 years, fined
under this title, or both.
18 U.S.C. § 844(f)(1).
The district court found “[t]here can be little doubt that arson in violation of
§ 844(f) is a crime of violence under § 924(c)’s elements clause.” ROA Vol. IV at 154.
In doing so, it cited several of our sister circuits, which have held that setting fire to
property is using physical force. See id. (citing United States v. Doggart, 947 F.3d 879,
887–88 (6th Cir. 2020) (holding explosives “generate force capable of causing . . .
damage to property,” and “because fire is itself a physical force that causes physical
damage too, the intentional setting of fire to . . . [buildings] necessarily has as an element
the use, attempted use, or threatened use of physical force.” (quotations and citations
omitted)); United States v. McGuire, 706 F.3d 1333, 1337 (11th Cir. 2013) (holding that
setting fire to an aircraft to damage or destroy it is “unmistakably violent” and qualifies
as a crime of violence under the elements clause); Mbea v. Gonzalez, 482 F.3d 276, 280
Appellate Case: 21-8016 Document: 010110548700 Date Filed: 07/14/2021 Page: 5
(4th Cir. 2007) (“Fire is itself a physical force. . . . When that destructive force is
maliciously set in motion by human hand for the purpose of burning a . . . structure, a
‘physical force’ is used ‘against the property of another.’”)).
In his petition for a COA, Elliott argues the district court erred by finding his
predicate offense satisfies the elements clause, which requires physical force against the
property of another, because the arson statute extends to “any building.” Elliott urges
that the “any building” language “potentially punishes an individual for damaging or
destroying one[’]s own property,” which would not satisfy the elements clause. Aplt. Br.
Elliott is incorrect. A defendant can be convicted of his predicate offense only if
the building is “in whole or in part owned or possessed by, or leased to, the United States,
or any department or agency thereof, or any institution or organization receiving Federal
financial assistance.” 18 U.S.C. § 844(f)(1). It is self-evident that a criminal defendant
cannot be any of those entities. Thus, § 844(f)(1) necessarily has as an element physical
force “against the . . . property of another.” § 924(c)(3)(A). The district court’s decision
is not reasonably debatable, and we deny Elliott’s application for a COA and his motion
for certificate of probable cause.
We also deny Elliott’s request for counsel. To decide whether to request counsel,
we consider the nature of the factual issues, the complexity of the legal issues, the
litigant’s ability to present the claims, and the merits. Rucks v. Boergermann, 57 F.3d
978, 979 (10th Cir. 1995). Elliott has capably presented his claim, and the issues
involved are uncomplicated.
Outcome: For the foregoing reasons, we deny Elliott’s application for a COA and his motion
for certificate of probable cause and/or certificate of appealability. We deny as moot his motion for production of documents. We further deny his motion for summary reversaland decline to request counsel.