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United States of America v. Charles Smith

November 15, 2011


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Judge Caputo


Petitioner Charles Smith is an inmate at the Federal Correction Institution in Fort Dix, New Jersey. Presently before the Court is Smith's Motion to Vacate, Set Aside, or Correct a Sentence by a Person in Federal Custody pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2255. (Doc. 50). The Petition is fully briefed and ripe for disposition. As the Motion falls outside the one-year statute of limitations for Section 2255, the Court will dismiss Smith's Motion unless he can satisfy the Court that equitable tolling of the statute of limitations is warranted.


On November 1, 2005, Petitioner was indicted by a federal grand jury on ten counts related to traveling in interstate commerce with the intent to engage in illegal sexual conduct with minors, in violation of Title 18, United States Code, §§ 2423(a), (b), and (e), and 2422(b). (Indictment, Doc. 1). On July 21, 2006, Smith pleaded guilty to count seven of the indictment, charging him with travel in interstate commerce for the purpose of engaging in illicit sexual conduct pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 2423(b).*fn1 (Plea, Doc. 27). Petitioner was sentenced to a term of imprisonment of one hundred twenty (120) months by United States District Judge Thomas Vanaskie on January 5, 2007, and he appealed on January 16, 2007. (Judgment, Doc. 35; Doc. 36). On February 26, 2008, the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit affirmed the District Court's Judgment, finding that Smith had "knowingly and voluntarily plead[ed] guilty to the offense charged." U.S. v. Smith, No. 07-1144, 266 Fed.Appx. 214, 216 (3d Cir. 2008). Smith did not petition the United States Supreme Court for certiorari.

On March 9, 2011, Smith filed his Motion to Vacate pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2255. In his Motion, he makes four claims of ineffective assistance of counsel and newly-discovered evidence: (1) that defense counsel failed to adequately investigate or present evidence of Petitioner's psychological problems or mental deficiencies; (2) that Smith's awareness of his "borderline mentality" constitutes newly-discovered evidence, but that his attorney could have easily determined as much for sentencing purposes; (3) that Smith's attorney failed to secure an agreed-upon downward departure for acceptance of responsibility; and (4) that counsel failed to investigate or present evidence of impotency that would have been crucial in Smith's defense. (Doc. 50 at 10-11).

On March 11, 2011, the Court directed Smith to make a "Miller" election, informing him that his Section 2255 claim would either be ruled on as filed, possibly foreclosing future avenues of relief, or allowing him an opportunity to withdraw and re-file the Motion. See United States v. Miller, 197 F.3d 644, 652 (3d Cir.1999). Smith elected to have the Court review his Petition as filed, but included a supplemental Addenda to Motion. (Doc. 54).

I. Standard of Review

"Motions pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2255 are the presumptive means by which federal prisoners can challenge their convictions or sentences that are allegedly in violation of the Constitution." Okereke v. United States, 307 F.3d 117, 120 (3d Cir. 2002). Section 2255 allows prisoners to collaterally attack their sentence by moving "the court which imposed the sentence to vacate, set aside or correct the sentence." 28 U.S.C. § 2255(a). In order to prevail on a § 2255 motion, a petitioner must show "(1) an error of constitutional magnitude; (2) a sentence imposed outside the statutory limits; or (3) an error of fact or law that was so fundamental as to render the entire proceeding invalid." Mallett v. United States, 334 F.3d 491, 496-97 (6th Cir.2003). The remedy is intended only where "the claimed error of law was 'a fundamental defect which inherently results in a complete miscarriage of justice.'" Davis v. United States, 417 U.S. 333, 346 (1974) (quoting Hill v. United States, 368 U.S. 424, 428 (1962)).

Section 2255(b) generally entitles a petitioner to a hearing on their motion: Unless the motion and the files and records of the case conclusively show that the prisoner is entitled to no relief, the court shall cause notice thereof to be served upon the United States attorney, grant a prompt hearing thereon, determine the issues and make findings of fact and conclusions of law with respect thereto. If the court finds that the judgment was rendered without jurisdiction, or that the sentence imposed was not authorized by law or otherwise open to collateral attack, or that there has been such a denial or infringement of the constitutional rights of the prisoner as to render the judgment vulnerable to collateral attack, the court shall vacate and set the judgment aside and shall discharge the prisoner or resentence him or grant a new trial or correct the sentence as may appear appropriate. 28 U.S.C. § 2255(b). Whether to conduct such a hearing is within the discretion of the district court. U.S. v. Clive, Criminal No. 05-0383, 2008 WL 3889726 at *3 (W.D. Pa. Aug. 19, 2008). Rule 4 of the Rules Governing Section 2255 Proceedings for the United States District Courts instructs that if "it plainly appears from the motion, any attached exhibits, and the record of prior proceedings that the moving party is not entitled to relief, the judge must dismiss the motion." In such instances, an evidentiary hearing is not required. Gov't of Virgin Islands v. Nicholas, 759 F.2d 1073, 1075 (3d Cir. 1985).

II. Statute of Limitations

Section 2255 has a one-year statute of limitations that is subject to equitable tolling in exceptional circumstances. Yao v. U.S., No. 10-3145, 2011 WL 4712203 at *3 (E.D. Pa. Oct. 7, 2011) (citing Holland v. Florida, 130 S.Ct. 2549 (2010)). Equitable tolling is only appropriate where "principles of equity would make the rigid application of a limitation period unfair." Miller v. New Jersey State Dep't of Corrections, 145 F.3d 616, 618 (3d Cir. 1998) (citation omitted); McAleese v. Brennan, 483 F.3d 206, 219 (3d Cir. 2007). Specifically, it applies where: "(1) the defendant has actively misled the plaintiff, (2) the plaintiff has in some extraordinary way been prevented from asserting his rights, or (3) the plaintiff has timely asserted his rights mistakenly in the wrong forum." United States v. Crute, 169 Fed. Appx. 105, 108 (3d Cir. 2006) (citation omitted). Equitable tolling should be invoked "only sparingly," United States v. Midgley, 142 F.3d 174, 179 (3d Cir. Pa. 1998) (citing Irwin v. Dep't of Veterans Affairs, 498 U.S. 89, 96 (1990)), and is appropriate solely where a "petitioner has 'in some extraordinary way . . . been prevented from asserting his or her rights,'" Miller, 145 F.3d at 618 (quoting Oshiver v. Levin, Fishbein, Sedran & Berman, 38 F.3d 1380, 1387 (3d Cir. 1994). A lack of familiarity with law is not sufficient, U.S. v. Kimbrew, No. 07-163, 2010 WL 2773149 at *2 (July 13, 2010), nor is attorney malfeasance alone, Schlueter v. Varner, 384 F.3d 69, 77 (3d Cir. 2004). Finally, an untimely petitioner must show that they were nevertheless diligent--"excusable neglect is not sufficient." Id.

The one year statute of limitation period is measured from the latest of:

(1) the date on which the judgment of conviction becomes final;

(2) the date on which the impediment to making a motion created by governmental action in violation of the Constitution or laws of the United States is removed, if the movant was prevented ...

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