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Frazier v. United States

January 22, 2009


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Conti, District Judge


Pending before the court is a motion to vacate or set aside judgment of conviction by a person in federal custody pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2255 ("petitioner's motion to vacate") (Docket No. 257 at Criminal No. 02-186) filed by petitioner James Semme Frazier ("petitioner"). Also pending before the court is petitioner's motion to amend motion to vacate ("petitioner's motion to amend") (Docket No. 262). Upon reviewing petitioner's motion to vacate, the government's response to petitioner's motion to vacate (Docket No. 258), petitioner's motion to amend, the government's response to petitioner's motion to amend (Docket No. 263), and petitioner's amendment to petitioner's motion to vacate (Docket No. 264), the court will grant petitioner's motion to amend and will deny petitioner's motion to vacate in part for the reasons set forth herein. With respect to the part not denied, the government shall file a response to the amendment (Docket No. 264), within twenty days from the date of the entry of this opinion.

I. Background

On the night of June 8, 2002, Officer Philip Mercurio ("Officer Mercurio" or Mercurio") and Officer Robert Kavals, while working plain-clothes patrol in a neighborhood known for drug-trafficking, alleged they observed two men engage in a discussion and a hand-to-hand exchange. The officers, thinking the exchange was a possible drug transaction, drove their car toward the men and approached the individual they believed to be the seller. This individual was later identified as petitioner. Mercurio asked to speak with petitioner, and petitioner fled. While fleeing, Mercurio observed petitioner remove a bag of cocaine from his right pocket, which petitioner discarded. Mercurio recovered the bag of cocaine. The officers called for back-up, and law enforcement officials were able to surround petitioner and eventually place him under arrest. After petitioner's arrest, Mercurio identified petitioner, a convicted felon, as the person who had a firearm on May 31, 2002 and fled from the police on that date.

On September 10, 2002, a federal grand jury returned an indictment charging petitioner with possession of a firearm by a convicted felon on or about May 31, 2002, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1) ("Count One") and with possession with intent to distribute five (5) grams or more of a mixture and substance containing a detectable amount of cocaine base, in the form commonly known as crack, a Schedule II controlled substance, on or about June 8, 2002, in violation of 21 U.S.C. §§ 841(a)(1) and 841(b)(1)(B)(iii) ("Count Two"). (Docket No. 1.)

Petitioner filed a motion to suppress (Docket No. 18) and a motion to sever the two counts (Docket No. 17). After a suppression hearing, which was held over two days, May 9 and May 23, 2003, the court denied the motion to suppress and granted the motion to sever (Docket Nos. 27, 32, 33). Petitioner was represented by Federal Public Defender Thomas Livingston ("Livingston") during the suppression hearing and the trial of Count One. Count One was tried before a jury, which on October 2, 2003, returned a verdict of guilty. (Docket No. 67.) Petitioner was represented by Attorney Thomas Farrell during the trial of Count Two. Count Two was tried before a jury, and concluded in a mistrial on November 19, 2004. (Docket No. 127.) After a retrial, a jury on March 18, 2005 returned a verdict of guilty at Count Two. (Docket No. 153.)

On December 2, 2004, petitioner filed a motion to vacate pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2255 with respect to Count One ("Count One § 2255 Motion"). (Docket No. 129.) Counsel was appointed to represent petitioner and on April 27, May 4, and May 25, 2007, a hearing was held on that motion. After the parties submitted proposed findings of fact and conclusion of law, the court denied the motion. The issues raised in the Count One § 2255 Motion related to alleged ineffective assistance of counsel during the suppression hearing. Petitioner's currently-pending motion to vacate pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2255 with respect to Count Two was filed on March 17, 2008, and his motion to amend was filed on August 13, 2008, raising issues of ineffective assistance of counsel, based upon counsel's conduct during the suppression hearing (the motion as amended, "Count Two § 2255 Motion").

The Suppression Hearing

On May 9, 2003 and May 23, 2003, this court held the suppression hearing on petitioner's motion seeking to suppress evidence at each count returned in the indictment. (Docket Nos. 27, 29.) At the hearing, petitioner was represented by Livingston. (Petitioner's proposed findings of fact (Docket No. 254) ("Pet'r's Facts") ¶ 1; Respondent's proposed findings of fact (Docket No. 255) ("Resp't's Facts") ¶ II.B.1; Evid. Hr'g Tr. 5/4/2007 at 15-16.)*fn1

Prior to the suppression hearing, Livingston frequently contacted petitioner concerning the strategy to be employed at the suppression hearing. (Evid. Hr'g Tr. 5/4/2007 at 36, 58.)*fn2 In preparation for the suppression hearing, Livingston visited the scene where Officer Mercurio alleged he observed petitioner engage in a hand-to-hand exchange. (Evid. Hr'g Tr. 5/25/2007 (Docket No. 249) at 28.) In his investigation of the neighborhood and scene of the alleged transaction, Livingston was "trying to figure out with [Officer Mercurio's report], where precisely Mercurio was as another possible basis for impeachment as either lighting conditions or distance or physical objects that would disable him from being able to see this alleged hand-to-hand exchange." (Evid. Hr'g Tr. 5/25/2007 at 22.)

The strategy developed by petitioner and Livingston for the suppression hearing consisted of challenging the credibility of Officer Mercurio. Officer Mercurio was the arresting officer who testified at the suppression hearing. The strategy involved using credible evidence to contradict the officer's testimony and establish a factual basis for suppression. The strategy could also be useful to elicit inconsistent statements to impeach the officer at trial. (Evid. Hr'g Tr. 5/4/2007 at 38.) A collateral aspect of that strategy was to elicit a credibility determination from the court. (Pet'r's Facts ¶ 6; Resp't's Facts ¶¶ II.D.4, 6, 14, II.E.6, 9, 17, 18; Evid. Hr'g Tr. 5/4/2007 at 64-65.)

On May 9, 2003, immediately prior to the commencement of the suppression hearing, the government provided Mr. Livingston Jencks*fn3 material consisting of police reports written by Officer Mercurio regarding the May 31, 2002 (Count One) and June 8, 2002 (Count Two) incidents. (Pet'r's Facts ¶ 2; Resp't's Facts ¶¶ 14, 15.) Livingston did not request a continuance or recess to review the police reports. (Pet'r's Facts ¶ 4.) Mr. Livingston reviewed the police reports before the hearing and reviewed those reports with petitioner in court. (Evid. Hr'g Tr. 5/25/2007 at 21.)

After the Jencks material was received, the defense strategy at the suppression hearing expanded to include an argument that the identification of petitioner by Officer Mercurio for purposes of Count One was fruit of the poisonous tree of the alleged illegal stop being challenged with respect to Count Two. (Evid. Hr'g. Tr. 5/4/2007 at 62.)

At the suppression hearing, Livingston cross-examined Officer Mercurio regarding the duration and quality of his observation of petitioner during the May 31, 2002 encounter. (Supp. Tr. (Docket No. 28) 5/9/2003 at 29-36.) Livingston also cross-examined Officer Mercurio regarding the factual circumstances regarding the entire May 31, 2002 event, including the recovery of a cell phone dropped by the actor during the May 31, 2002 event, and that the actor involved in the May 31, 2002 event had his hair braided in corn rows. (Id. at 27-36, 52-53.) Livingston questioned Officer Mercurio during cross-examination with respect to the identification procedures giving rise to the June 14, 2002 police report identifying petitioner as the actor from the May 31, 2002 event. (Id. at 44-54.)

The facts surrounding the June 8, 2002 encounter were likewise the subject of cross-examination of Officer Mercurio by Livingston, with particular focus upon whether a hand-to- hand transaction took place between petitioner and an unknown individual and whether there was physical contact between Officer Mercurio and petitioner prior to petitioner's flight from police on the night in question. (Id. at 36-42.)

During cross-examination of Officer Mercurio, Livingston attempted to impeach the witness by eliciting testimony that would be contradicted by the testimony of the witnesses Livingston would call, consistent with the strategy for the suppression hearing developed by petitioner and Livingston. (Evid. Hr'g Tr. 5/4/2007 at 63; Evid. Hr'g Tr. 5/25/07 at 27-28. 14.) Livingston made use of the police reports he received that morning as Jencks material during his cross-examination of Officer Mercurio at the suppression hearing. (Id. ¶¶ II.E.4, 6, 9, 14; Supp. Tr. 5/9/2003 at 44-52.)

Livingston's cross-examination of Officer Mercurio did not focus on other occasions when Officer Mercurio allegedly lied about individuals dropping contraband because Livingston knew that petitioner would testify -- as he did -- at the suppression hearing that he actually dropped the contraband. (Evid. Hr'g Tr. 5/25/2007 at 26-27.)

Officer Mercurio testified at the suppression hearing about using binoculars to observe petitioner on June 8, 2002. (Supp. Tr. 5/9/2003 at 23.) Mr. Livingston did not question Officer Mercurio during the suppression hearing about the police report not referring to his using binoculars. (Evid. Hr'g Tr. 5/25/2007 at 25-26.) The police report, however, referred to surveillance being conducted which is not inconsistent with the use of binoculars. (Id.)

At the suppression hearing, petitioner testified about the June 8, 2002 incident. Petitioner stated that he did not engage in a hand-to-hand transaction on that night. (Supp. Tr. 5/9/2003 at 78.) He admitted, however, that as he was fleeing Officer Mercurio, he discarded the contents of his pockets, which included crack cocaine. (Id. at 82-83.) In connection with petitioner's testimony, Livingston moved for the admission of Defendant's Exhibit B, which was a photograph of the block on which Mercurio alleged to have witnessed a hand-to-hand transaction. (Id. at 88.) The photograph was admitted. Using the photograph, Livingston questioned petitioner with respect to the location of the alleged hand-to-hand transaction:

Q: As best you can estimate, in terms of thirds or quarters or halves, how far down was the house where you were when the police approached you, if the starting point is the corner of the alley in 7500, and the next intersection which we have identified as Braddock Avenue, ...

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