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United States v. Williams

April 26, 2010


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Padova, J.


Before the Court is Eric Williams's Motion to Vacate, Set Aside or Correct Sentence pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2255. For the following reasons, we deny the Motion.


The two-count Indictment in this case charged Williams with possession of a firearm by a convicted felon, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1), and possession of ammunition by a convicted felon, also in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1). Williams was tried before a jury in February and March of 2006. Prior to trial, Williams entered into a written stipulation that he had a prior felony conviction. However, on the first day of trial, against the advice of his counsel, Williams withdrew that stipulation, restoring as one of the elements for the Government to prove that he had a prior felony conviction. (A. 32.) Consequently, the Government requested that the Court order Williams to submit to fingerprinting, explaining that it intended to prove that Williams had prior felony convictions by presenting the testimony of a fingerprint examiner that the newly-taken fingerprints matched those obtained at the time of Williams's arrests that resulted in such convictions. (A. 321.) The Court granted the Government's request and ordered Williams to submit to fingerprinting during the lunch recess. (A. 335.) Williams, however, refused to submit to the fingerprinting. (Id.)

Upon returning from the lunch recess and being told that Williams had not complied with the order, the Court expressed discomfort with forcing Williams to submit to fingerprinting and began discussing alternative ways for the Government to establish Williams's identity as the individual who had been convicted of the prior felonies. (A. 340-41, 347, 358-59.) At the same time, the Court stated that it would not "let this case go out the window because the defendant refuses to have his fingerprints taken." (A. 349.) In the end, based on the Government's representation that the fingerprints were important to its establishing Williams's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, and upon concluding that it had the power to order the fingerprints taken, the Court reaffirmed its order that Williams submit to fingerprinting. (A. 363-66.) Thereafter, the fingerprints were taken and the Government used them at trial to establish that Williams had been convicted of prior felonies. (See N.T. 3/2/06, at 134-36.) At the conclusion of the trial, the jury found Williams guilty of both counts of the Indictment.

On September 7, 2006, the District Court sentenced Williams to a 15-year term of imprisonment, five years of supervised release, a $2,500 fine, and a $200 special assessment. In calculating the sentence, the Court relied, in part, on a finding that Williams qualified as an armed career criminal pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 924(e), because he had three prior convictions, two for violent crimes and one for a serious drug offense. Defense counsel argued that Williams's prior drug conviction should not qualify as a serious drug offense under the Armed Career Criminal Act, because Williams was charged with possession with intent to distribute both marijuana and cocaine, and his guilty plea may have only pertained to the marijuana, which alone would not qualify as a serious drug offense. (N.T. 9/7/06, at 5-7.) However, the Court rejected this argument, observing that the state court had imposed a one to ten-year sentence for the drug charge, which would only be permissible for a cocaine conviction (id. at 7), because the maximum statutory penalty for a marijuana offense (in the quantity charged) was just five years. 35 Pa. Cons. Stat. Ann. § 780- 113(a)(30), (f)(2).

Williams appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, arguing, among other things, that the District Court erred in enhancing his sentence under the Armed Career Criminal Act based upon a prior conviction for a "serious drug offense" that was not established in the sentencing record. The Third Circuit rejected Williams's claims and affirmed his conviction on January 17, 2007. See United States v. Williams, 290 F. App'x 475 (3d Cir. 2008). Williams filed the instant Motion to Vacate, Set Aside, or Correct Sentence pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2255 on November 3, 2009, and he filed a Memorandum in Support of his Motion on February 18, 2010.


Williams has moved for relief pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2255, which provides as follows:

A prisoner in custody under sentence of a court established by Act of Congress claiming the right to be released upon the ground that the sentence was imposed in violation of the Constitution or laws of the United States, or that the court was without jurisdiction to impose such sentence, or that the sentence was in excess of the maximum authorized by law, or is otherwise subject to collateral attack, may move the court which imposed the sentence to vacate, set aside or correct the sentence. 28 U.S.C. § 2255(a). "Section 2255 does not provide habeas petitioners with a panacea for all alleged trial or sentencing errors." United States v. Rishell, Civ. A. Nos. 97-294-1, 01-486, 2002 WL 4638, at *1 (E.D. Pa. Dec. 21, 2001). In order to prevail on a Section 2255 motion, the movant's claimed errors of law must be constitutional, jurisdictional, "a fundamental defect which inherently results in a complete miscarriage of justice," or "an omission inconsistent with the rudimentary demands of fair procedure." Hill v. United States, 368 U.S. 424, 428 (1962).


In the instant Motion, Williams argues that his counsel was constitutionally ineffective for two reasons. First, he argues that his two trial attorneys were ineffective for failing to object to various aspects of the Court's handling of the fingerprinting issue. Second, he argues that both trial and appellate counsel were ineffective for failing to argue that one of the three prior state court convictions that gave rise to his status as an armed career criminal was not a "serious drug offense," which could be considered for statutory armed career criminal status. Both of these claims are meritless.

In Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984), the United States Supreme Court held that criminal defendants have a Sixth Amendment right to "reasonably effective" legal assistance. Id. at 687. To prove constitutionally inadequate representation, a criminal defendant must demonstrate both that (1) his attorney's performance was deficient, i.e., that the performance was unreasonable under prevailing professional standards, and (2) that he was prejudiced by the attorney's performance. Id. Prejudice is proven if "there is a reasonable probability that, but for counsel's unprofessional errors, the result ...

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