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United States of America v. Erik Islas

February 9, 2011


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


Before the court is the petition for writ of habeas corpus filed by Erik Islas. For the reasons set forth below, I will dismiss the petition in its entirety and refrain from issuing a certificate of appealability.

I. FACTS*fn1

On February 13, 2001, Erik Islas was arrested after police pulled him over driving a truck containing approximately 370 pounds of marijuana. He was ultimately charged with taking part in a conspiracy to transport marijuana from Arizona to Philadelphia and other cities in the Northeast United States. On May 16, 2001, a Grand Jury in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania returned a superceding indictment against Islas and seven co-defendants, charging him with conspiracy to distribute marijuana and with three counts of possession of marijuana with intent to distribute. Islas's case was assigned to the Honorable Clarence Newcomer.

Following issuance of the indictment, Islas filed a motion to suppress the statements he made to police following his arrest. On February 24, 2003, the day set for trial, Judge Newcomer held a hearing on Islas's motion to suppress. At that hearing, after the testimony of a number of witnesses, Islas announced his intention to plead guilty. Pursuant to an agreement with the government, he pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to distribute marijuana pursuant to 21 U.S.C. § 846 and one count of possession with intent to distribute more than 100 kilograms of marijuana pursuant to 21 U.S.C. § 841(a)(1). On June 22, 2005, Judge Newcomer sentenced Mr. Islas to 225 months' incarceration and a five year term of supervised release, a sentence within the applicable guideline range of 188 to 235 months. Mr. Islas was represented by Neil Jokelson, Esq. at all relevant times.

Mr. Islas appealed his conviction and sentence, and on May 30, 2008, the Third Circuit affirmed the District Court's judgment in an unpublished opinion. See United States v. Islas, 279 Fed.Appx. 169 (3d Cir. May 30, 2008). Mr. Islas filed a timely pro se petition for writ of habeas corpus under 28 U.S.C. § 2255. He raises three claims: (1) that his guilty plea was "unlawfully induced or not made voluntarily or with understanding of the nature of the charge and the consequences of the plea"; (2) that his conviction was obtained by the unconstitutional failure of the government to disclose favorable evidence to the defense; and (3) ineffective assistance of counsel.*fn2


Mr. Islas filed his petition pro se. Pro se pleadings are traditionally construed quite liberally. However, a pro se petitioner is not excused from the duty to prove a "set of facts in support of his claim which would entitle him to relief." Haines v. Kerner, 404 U.S. 519, 521, 92 S.Ct. 594 (1972). A prisoner in custody may move the sentencing Court to "vacate, set aside, or correct" a sentence imposed "in violation of the Constitution or laws of the United States." 28 U.S.C. § 2255. Section 2255 permits habeas relief for an error of law or fact constituting a "fundamental defect which inherently results in a complete miscarriage of justice." United States v. Eakman, 378 F.3d 294, 298 (3d Cir. 2004) (citing United States v. Addonizio, 442 U.S. 178, 184, 99 S.Ct. 2235 (1979)).

Section 2255 provides that "[u]nless the motion and the files and records of the case conclusively show that the prisoner is entitled to no relief, the court shall . . . grant a prompt hearing thereon, determine the issues and make findings of fact and conclusions of law with respect thereto." 28 U.S.C. § 2255(b). Conversely, a court may dismiss a Section 2255 motion where the records and files show conclusively that the movant is not entitled to relief. United States v. Nahodil, 36 F.3d 323, 326 (3d Cir. 1994).

"Habeas review is an extraordinary remedy and will not be allowed to do service for an appeal." Bousley v. United States, 523 U.S. 614, 621, 118 S.Ct. 1604 (1998). Therefore, a habeas petitioner is procedurally barred from asserting a claim in a § 2255 petition that he could have, but failed to raise in his direct appeal. See United States v. Frady, 456 U.S. 152, 165, 102 S.Ct. 1584 (1982). Once claims have been procedurally defaulted, the petitioner can only overcome the procedural bar by showing "cause" for the default and "actual prejudice" from the alleged error or that he is "actually innocent." Id. at 167. "In this context, 'cause' consists of 'something external to the petitioner, something that cannot be fairly attributable to him,' and 'prejudice' means that the alleged error 'worked to [the petitioner's] actual and substantial disadvantage.'" United States v. Rodriguez, 153 F. Supp. 2d 590, 594 (E.D.Pa. 2001) (citing Coleman v. Thompson, 501 U.S. 722, 753, 111 S.Ct. 2546 (1991) and Frady, 456 U.S. at 170, 102 S.Ct. 1584).

Importantly, however, a defendant need not demonstrate cause and prejudice when he raises a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel. See United States v. DeRewal, 10 F.3d 100, 104 (3d Cir.1993). Ineffective assistance of counsel claims are generally not considered on direct appeal and are best brought by the defendant in a collateral attack such as this. United States v. Thornton, 327 F.3d 268, 272 (3d Cir. 2003). Therefore, claims properly dismissed as procedurally defaulted because they were not raised on direct appeal are appropriately considered in connection with an ineffective assistance of counsel claim. See DeRewal, 10 F.3d at 104-05. A defendant seeking relief under § 2255 on an ineffective assistance of counsel claim must show that: (1) counsel's representation fell below an objective standard of reasonableness under prevailing professional norms; and (2) the defendant suffered prejudice as a result - meaning, but for counsel's deficient performance, the result of the proceeding would have been different, i.e. the deficiency deprived the defendant of "a trial whose result is reliable." Id.; Sistrunk v. Vaughn, 96 F.3d 666, 670 (3d Cir. 1996) (citing Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 694, 104 S.Ct. 2052, 80 L.Ed.2d 674 (1984)).

A habeas petitioner is also barred from asserting, in a section 2255 petition, "questions which were raised and considered on direct appeal." DeRewal, 10 F.3d at 105 n.4; see also United States v. Palumbo, 608 F.2d 529, 533 (3d Cir. 1979). Moreover, "[o]nce a legal argument has been litigated and decided adversely to a criminal defendant at his trial and on direct appeal, it is within the discretion of the district court to decline to reconsider those arguments if raised again in collateral proceedings under 28 U.S.C. § 2255." United States v. Orejuela, 639 F.2d 1055, 1057 (3d Cir. 1981).


A. Claim One - Islas's Guilty Plea Was Not ...

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