The opinion of the court was delivered by: Judge Conner
Presently before the court is defendant's pro se motion (Doc. 166) to vacate, set aside, or correct his sentence pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2255.*fn1 Defendant asserts multiple theories to support his motion to vacate. Specifically, defendant contends that (1) he received ineffective assistance of counsel in violation of his Sixth Amendment rights,*fn2 (see Doc. 167 at 1-17); (2) his guilty plea was not made knowingly and intelligently because the government breached the terms of its plea agreement, (id. at 18); (3) the court erred in enhancing his sentence pursuant to U.S.S.G. § 2K2.1(b)(5), (id. at 26); (4) the court erred in computing his criminal history score pursuant to U.S.S.G. § 4A1.2(c)(1), (id. at 31); and (5) the court erred in determining that his family circumstances did not warrant a downward departure from the guidelines range, (id. at 40). For the reasons that follow, defendant's motion (Doc. 166) will be denied.
I. Statement of Facts & Procedural History
On July 20, 2005, defendant was indicted on one count of being a felon in possession of a firearm, see 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1).On December 8, 2005, defendant was charged by superseding indictment with one count of being a felon in possession of a firearm, one count of possessing a firearm in relation to and in furtherance of a drug trafficking crime, see 18 U.S.C. § 924(c)(1), and two counts of possession with intent to distribute a controlled substance, see 18 U.S.C. § 841(a)(1). On January 17, 2006, defendant entered a plea of not guilty with respect to the superseding indictment. (See Doc. 43). Defendant withdrew his plea of not guilty on August 23, 2006 and entered a plea of guilty to being a felon in possession of a firearm. (See Docs. 95, 105). Defendant was sentenced on May 3, 2007, (see Doc. 136), and judgment was thereafter entered, (see Doc. 137).
Defendant filed a notice of appeal with the Third Circuit Court of Appeals on May 13, 2007. (See Doc. 138). The Third Circuit affirmed the judgment of sentence on September 30, 2008. See United States v. Negii Coffee II, 293 F. App'x 904 (3d Cir. 2008). On November 23, 2009, defendant timely filed the instant motion (Doc. 166) to vacate, set aside, or correct his sentence pursuant to28 U.S.C. § 2255. The motion has been fully briefed and is ripe for disposition.
Defendant alleges that he was denied effective assistance of counsel in violation of the Sixth Amendment, that his guilty plea was not knowing and voluntary because the government breached its plea agreement, and that the court committed various errors during sentencing. The court will address these issues seriatim.
A. Ineffective Assistance of Counsel
Defendant alleges he was denied effective assistance of counsel in violation of his Sixth Amendment rights under the United States Constitution.*fn3 A claim for ineffective assistance of counsel is governed by the two-pronged test set forth in Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984). To prevail on such a contention, a defendant must demonstrate that "(1) counsel's representation fell below an objective standard of reasonableness, and (2) the deficient representation was prejudicial to the petitioner." Id. at 686. When evaluating whether counsel has satisfied the objective standard of reasonableness, courts must be highly deferential toward trial counsel's conduct. See id. at 694. Moreover, counsel cannot be deemed ineffective for failing to raise a meritless claim. See United States v. Saunders, 165 F.3d 248, 253 (3d Cir. 1999). To satisfy the prejudice prong, a party must show that, but for counsel's errors, the outcome of the proceeding would have been different.
See Strickland, 466 U.S. at 694. With this understanding, the court will address defendant's specific contentions.
Defendant first asserts that his counsel was ineffective because he induced defendant to enter a guilty plea by "proffer agreement"*fn4 on the understanding that he would receive a sentence within a range of 46-57 months. The court subsequently imposed a sentence of 100 months. (See Doc. 167 at 3-4). Defendant's contention is directly contradicted by the unequivocal terms of the actual plea agreement he signed,*fn5 (see Doc. 95), as well as his own sworn testimony during his change of plea hearing,*fn6 (see Doc. 108). It is well settled that a guilty plea "constitute[s] a formidable barrier in any subsequent collateral proceedings" because "[s]olemn declarations in open court carry a strong presumption of verity." Blackledge v. Allison, 431 U.S. 63, 74 (1977). Defendant has produced no evidence of record to show that counsel acted improperly during plea negotiations, and his post-hoc accusations of misconduct are contradicted by his own solemn declarations in open court. Trial counsel's conduct was reasonable, and the court rejects defendant's first allegation of ineffective assistance of counsel.
Defendant claims that he was "completely unaware that he could receive any sentence" other than the 46-57 months outlined in the "proffer agreement" and that his guilty plea was therefore involuntary. (See Doc. 167 at 4). As discussed supra, defendant acknowledged in both his written plea agreement and in open court that he was exposed to a sentence up to the ten year statutory maximum. See supra Part II.A.1. Therefore, ...