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Eleventh Circuit: Timely Filed Amended Fla. R. Crim. P. 3.850 Motion Tolls AEDPA Clock, Rejects State’s Proposed 30-Day Limitations Period

The case began its journey to the federal courts after Richard Morris was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison in 2011. He began by filing a motion for postconviction relief under Fla. R. Crim. P. 3.850 in the trial court, which was dismissed without prejudice. The court said that Morris could “file a single, comprehensive, legally sufficient motion, if amended claims can be made in good faith.” The court said his claims were “difficult to interpret” and undeveloped, but it didn’t set a due date for the amended motion.

Several months later, Morris filed an amended motion that the court accepted as timely filed and denied relief on the merits of his claims. Morris appealed and also filed other postconviction motions during his pending Rule 3.850 motion. Eventually, all of his motions and appeals were denied in 2014. He then filed for habeas corpus relief in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida, which was denied as untimely. The district court added up all the days between Morris’ postconviction motions, and appeals of them, and determined that he had exceeded the 365 days allowed for a federal habeas petition.

The only thing that could have rendered Morris’ federal petition timely was if any of those in-between days could toll the federal clock. Under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (“AEDPA”), a state prisoner has one year from the date the state conviction is final to file a habeas petition in federal court. 28 U.S.C. § 2244(d)(1). That clock, however, is tolled (or paused) while a “properly filed” state postconviction motion is pending. § 2244(d)(2) Whether Morris’ original motion was pending while he crafted his amended motion was the key issue in his appeal, and the Court granted a certificate of appealability to answer the question.

Under Florida law, when a postconviction motion is denied without prejudice with leave to refile an amended motion, the amended motion relates back to the original motion. Bryant v. State, 901 So.2d 810 (Fla. 2005). The Eleventh Circuit has recognized as much, recently holding that a compliant amended Rule 3.850 motion relates back to the noncompliant original motion, making it “properly filed and pending” for AEDPA purposes. Bates v. Sec’y Dep’t. of Corr., 964 F.3d 1326 (11th Cir. 2020). A Rule 3.850 motion is “pending” under the AEDPA until “it is denied with prejudice.” Hall v. Sec’y, Dep’t of Corr., 921 F.3d 983 (11th Cir. 2019).

The State conceded that Morris’ amended motion related back to his original motion and that the state court accepted his amended motion as timely filed, ruling on the merits of his claims. But it argued that Morris took too long to file his amended motion. At the time, there was no rule or law that limited the time to file an amended Rule 3.850 motion in Florida. Instead, it was up to the courts to set a limit, if they wanted. The State has since added a 60-day limit to Rule 3.850, but that new rule did not apply retroactively to Morris.

Still, the State urged the Eleventh Circuit to create a 30-day rule for amending a Rule 3.850 motion (despite the 60-day rule later passed by the state Legislature) or else a state prisoner could “toll the time for years, if not indefinitely.” This would “run contra to the purpose of the AEDPA’s one-year limitations period,” the State argued.

The Court flatly rejected the State’s position, noting that neither “Florida law nor federal law creates a 30-day default deadline for amending a post-conviction motion.” It added, “Under AEDPA, we cannot impose a default time limit for amending a state-court motion for postconviction relief. Nor can we ignore the state court’s conclusion that Morris’s amended Rule 3.850 motion was timely and properly filed.” Finally, the Court stated that “Federalism and comity mean that we cannot set a deadline for state courts to adjudicate state postconviction motions.” Thus, the Court ruled that “Morris’s amended Rule 3.850 motion relates back to his initial motion, tolling the AEDPA limitations period for the time in between.”

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Related legal case

Morris v. Sec’y, Fla. Dep’t of Corr.



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