The opinion of the court was delivered by: Chief Judge Kane
Before the Court is Petitioner Anthony Cooper's ("Cooper") pro se motion to vacate, set aside or correct his sentence under 28 U.S.C. § 2255. (Doc. No. 159.) The motion is now ripe for disposition. For the reasons that follow, the Court will deny Cooper's motion.
On January 27, 2005, a four-count indictment was filed charging Cooper and coconspirators Euclides Rosado and Dave Reina with drug related offenses. (Doc. No. 5.) On May 18, 2006, Cooper signed a plea agreement with the Government stipulating that he would plead guilty to Count IV of the indictment, charging Cooper with criminal conspiracy to distribute 500 grams or more of cocaine HCL and 1.5 kilograms or more of crack cocaine in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 846. (Doc. No. 99 ¶ 1.) As part of the deal, the Government agreed not to require Cooper to plead to a specific quantity of drugs he was responsible for distributing, capping his potential term of imprisonment at 20 years. (Id.)
On June 15, 2006, Cooper appeared before the Court to enter a plea of guilty pursuant to this plea agreement. (Doc. No. 108.) Though it was stipulated in the plea agreement that the Government would not require Cooper to admit a drug quantity, Cooper's counsel requested that Count IV be formally amended:
I'm just wondering if we should amend this count. I'm somewhat uncomfortable with the drug amounts being in here, even though we're agreeing, because it's essentially almost like we're pleading to a different count. . . . [I]f we could agree maybe just to amend it to delete reference to the 500 grams and the 1.5 kilograms and just say that he's pleading to conspiracy to manufacture, distribute, and possess with the intent to distribute a mixture or substance containing a detectable amount of cocaine HCL and a mixture or substance containing a detectable amount of cocaine base. (Transcript, Change of Plea and Motion Hearing, at 8:9-21 (hereinafter "Plea Tr.").) Noting that the proposed amendment incorporated the intent of the plea agreement, the Government concurred in this motion and the amendment was granted by the Court. (Id. at 8:22-25.) Cooper proceeded to plead guilty to this offense.
On November 21, 2006, Cooper appeared before the Court for sentencing. Though he had not admitted to distributing a specific amount of drugs at his change of plea hearing, drug quantity remained an issue for purposes of calculating Cooper's guideline sentencing range. See U.S.S.G. § 2D1.1(c) (Nov. 1, 2006). Accordingly, after hearing evidence and argument on the issue, the Court found that Cooper was responsible for at least 3,557 grams of crack cocaine. (Transcript, Sentencing Hearing, at 89:5-8 (hereinafter "Sentencing Tr.").) The Court then calculated Cooper's offense level as 35 and criminal history category as IV, yielding an advisory guideline range of 235 to 240 months. Considering the factors set forth in 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a), the Court ultimately sentenced Cooper to a 200 month term of imprisonment.*fn1 (Doc. No. 136.)
Cooper appealed through counsel, alleging several errors with his sentence. See United States v. Cooper, 266 F. App'x 163 (3d Cir. 2008). Cooper also submitted a supplemental pro se brief alleging an additional error:
The district court . . . erred . . . after making factual determinations by a preponderance of the evidence and improperly using those facts to impermissibly increase Appellant's offense level and impose a resulting sentence that plainly exceeds the otherwise prescribed statutory maximum penalty allowable by law . . . . (Doc. No. 160 at 5.) The Third Circuit rejected Cooper's claims and upheld his sentence. Cooper, 266 F. App'x. at 167. Cooper then timely filed the present motion to vacate under 28 U.S.C. § 2255.
Under 28 U.S.C. § 2255, a federal prisoner may move the sentencing court to vacate, set aside, or correct the prisoner's sentence on the grounds 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 . . . . 28 U.S.C. § 2255. In evaluating a § 2255 motion, "the court must accept the truth of the movant's factual allegations unless they are clearly frivolous on the basis of the existing record." United States v. Booth, 432 F.3d 542, 545-46 (3d Cir. 2005) (quoting Government of the Virgin Islands v. Forte, 865 F.2d 59, 62 (3d Cir. 1989)). Cooper has challenged his conviction and sentence on two grounds under § 2255. The Court will evaluate these contentions in turn.
A. Ineffective Assistance on Appeal
Cooper's first challenge is that his appellate counsel failed to raise meritorious claims on appeal regarding the validity of his guilty plea:
On appellate review counsel failed to challenge the validity of the guilty plea where the record of the Rule 11 proceedings indicated that Petitioner was not provided with real notice of the true nature of the charge to which he pled and where there was an inadequate factual basis to support the guilty plea. (Doc. No. 159 at 5.)
To assess whether Cooper's counsel was constitutionally ineffective, the Court applies the standard set out by the Supreme Court in Strickland ...