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United States v. Conroy

United States District Court, Western District of Pennsylvania

October 22, 2014

DOMINIC CONROY, Respondent. Criminal Action No. 06-425


Maurice B. Cohill, Jr., Senior United States District Court Judge

Pending before the Court is Dominic Conroy's ("Conroy") August 20, 2014 Motion to Vacate, Set Aside, or Correct Sentence by a Person in Federal Custody under 28 U.S.C. § 2255 [ECF No. 45]. On October 9, 2007 Judge Gary L. Lancaster sentenced Conroy to 300 months of incarceration for sexual exploitation of a minor. This sentence was to run concurrent to the state court sentence that Conroy was serving at Case No. 200613617 in the Court of Common Pleas of Allegheny (PA) County [ECF No. 40 and 41]. On October 19, 2007 Conroy filed a Motion for Extension of Time to file a Notice of Appeal [ECF No. 42]. Judge Lancaster granted the Motion and extended the time for Conroy to file an Appeal to November 21, 2007. Conroy never filed a direct appeal.

Conroy now seeks to have the Court vacate or set aside Judge Lancaster's sentence for a new plea and sentence hearing despite the fact that Conroy signed a plea agreement [ECF No. 49-1] waiving his right to take a direct appeal, as well as his right to collaterally attack his conviction by way of a motion pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2255. Nevertheless, Conroy claims that he should be granted a new plea and sentencing hearing due to the following two assertions:

1. Counsel was ineffective for failing to present mitigating evidence in the form of an expert report with regard to the offense.
2. Counsel was ineffective for failing to move to dismiss charges where the Petitioner was previously prosecuted in state court on the same matter.

The Government filed a Response in Opposition [ECF No. 49]to Conroy's Motion to Vacate providing several bases for denying Conroy's Motion: (1) Conroy signed an enforceable plea agreement waiving his right to attack the sentence; (2) Conroy did not take a direct appeal and, therefore, his claims are foreclosed by a procedural bar; (3) Conroy's Motion is untimely as it exceeds the 1 year time limit to challenge a conviction; and (4) Conroy's claims of ineffective assistance of Counsel lack merit. The Government asserts that Conroy's claims fail as a matter of law and the Court should refuse to issue a Certificate of Appealability.

I. Standard of Review

Section 2255 of Title 28 of the United States Code provides a means of collaterally attacking a sentence imposed after a conviction. See U.S. v. Cannistraro, 734 F.Supp 1110, 1119 (D. N.J. 1989), aff'd 919 F.2d 137 (3d. Cir. 1990), cert den'd 500 U.S. 916 (1991). Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2255, a federal prisoner may move the sentencing court to vacate, set aside or correct a sentence "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. . . " 28 U.S.C. § 2255(a). Relief under this provision is "generally available only in 'exceptional circumstances' to protect against a fundamental defect which inherently results in a complete miscarriage of justice or an omission inconsistent with the rudimentary demands of fair procedure." U.S. v. Gordon. 979 F.Supp. 337, 339 (E.D. Pa. 1997) (citing Hill v. U.S.. 368 U.S. 424, 428 (1962)).

A district court considering a Section 2255 motion "must accept the truth of the movant's factual allegations unless they are clearly frivolous on the basis of the existing record, " U.S. v. Booth. 432 F.3d 542, 545 (3d Cir. 2005) (quoting Virgin Islands v. Forte. 865 F.2d 59, 62 (3d Cir. 1989)), and a court '"abuses its discretion if it fails to hold an evidentiary hearing when the flies and records of the case are inconclusive as to whether the movant is entitled to relief" Booth. 432 F.3d at 546 (citing U.S. v. McCoy. 410 F.3d 124, 134 (3d Cir. 2005)). However, the final disposition of a Section 2255 motion lies with the discretion of the trial judge, see Virgin Islands v. Nicholas, 759 F.2d 1073, 1075 (3d Cir. 1985), and a district court may summarily dismiss a Section 2255 motion where the motion, files, and records "show conclusively that the movant is not entitled to relief" U.S. v. Mason. 2008 WL 938784, 1 (E.D. Pa. 2008) (citing Forte. 865 F.2d at 62).

"Section 2255 generally may not be employed to relitigate questions which were raised and considered on direct appeal." U.S. v. DeRewal. 10 F.3d 100, 105 n. 4 (3d Cir. 1993) (internal quotations omitted). Moreover, "if a petitioner has failed to raise an objection at the time of trial and has also failed to raise the issue on direct appeal, then collateral review of that claim is procedurally barred unless the petitioner is able to show 'cause' excusing his procedural default and 'actual prejudice' resulting from the alleged error or violation." Henry v. U.S.. 913 F.Supp. 334, 335 (M.D. Pa. 1996), aff'd 96 F.3d 1435 (3d Cir. 1996); see also U.S. v. Essig, 10 F.3d 968, 979 (3d Cir. 1993) (holding that the "cause and prejudice" standard set forth in U.S. v. Frady, 456 U.S. 152 (1982) "applies to § 2255 proceedings in which a petitioner seeks relief from alleged errors in connection with his sentence that he has not directly appealed"); Massaro v. United States, 538 U.S. 500, 504 (2003) (holding that an "ineffectiveness" claim can be brought in a collateral proceeding under § 2255 regardless of whether the same issue could have been addressed on direct appeal); DeRewal, 10 F.3d at 104. Finally, the collateral remedy available to prisoners under § 2255 "does not encompass all claimed errors in conviction and sentencing." United States v. Addonizio, 442 U.S. 178, 185 (1979). "The Court has held that an error of law does not provide a basis for collateral attack unless the claimed error constituted 'a fundamental defect which inherently results in a complete miscarriage of justice'." Id. (quoting Hill. 368 U.S. at 428).

Ill Legal Analysis

A. Procedural Issues a. Knowing and Voluntary Waiver.

The Government responded to both of Conroy's claims by stating that the claims are procedurally defaulted or waived. More specifically, the Government stated that Conroy is barred from raising either claim due to the collateral attack waiver in his plea agreement and by the fact that Conroy never filed a direct appeal and has sorely missed the deadline for filing any appeal by no less than 6 years. Furthermore, Conroy's Motion to Vacate provides no legitimate basis for exception to the procedural bars.

With regard to Conroy's plea agreement waiver, "A criminal defendant may knowingly and voluntarily waive many of the most fundamental protections afforded by the Constitution." U.S. v. Khattak, 273 F.3d 557, 561 (3d Cir. 2001) (citing U.S. v. Mezzanatto, 513 U.S. 196, 201 (1995)). Such waivers are enforceable "provided that they are entered into knowingly and voluntarily and their enforcement does not work a miscarriage of justice." U.S. v. Mabry, 536 F.3d 231, 237 (3d. Cir. 2008), cert, den'd. 129 S.Ct. 2789 (2009) (citing Khattak. 273 F.3d at 561). A court has "an independent obligation to conduct an evaluation of the validity of a collateral waiver." Mabry. 536 F.3d at 238. Specifically, we must examine (1) the "knowing and voluntary nature" of the waiver, based on what occurred and what the defendant contends, and (2) whether the enforcement of the waiver would work a "miscarriage of justice." See Id. at 237. "Whereas a defendant bears the burden of presenting an argument that would render his waiver unknowing or involuntary, a court has an affirmative duty both to ...

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