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United States v. Harris

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

April 22, 2015

ERNEST HARRIS, Civil No. 14-858




This matter is before the Court on a Motion to Vacate, Set Aside or Correct Sentence under 28 U.S.C. § 2255 ("Motion") filed by pro se Defendant Ernest Harris ("Defendant" or "Harris"). (Docket No. 149). Defendant seeks to vacate his nolo contendere plea and sentence of 120 months incarceration for possession of a firearm by a felon in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1) because he contends that he was provided ineffective assistance of counsel. (Docket Nos. 157, 159). Specifically, Defendant asserts that trial counsel was ineffective for failing to seek a mental health examination and competency hearing and for allowing him to enter into a plea without proving his competence. ( Id. ). The Government opposes Defendant's Motion, pointing out that Defendant has not presented any evidence to suggest incompetence and has failed to allege that he was prejudiced by the alleged errors. (Docket Nos. 156, 162).

For the following reasons, the Court agrees with the Government that Defendant's alleged errors are meritless. Accordingly, Defendant's § 2255 Motion is denied.


On August 24, 2011, a federal grand jury returned a two-count indictment against Defendant charging him with unlawful possession of ammunition, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1) (Count One), and unlawful possession of a firearm by a convicted felon, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1) (Count Two). (Docket No. 1). The facts underlying Defendant's arrest and indictment were as follows:

On May 31, 2011, Harris consumed large amounts of drugs and alcohol from about 4:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. in celebration of his birthday. He continued his celebration by meeting some friends at a bar in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. At some point after arriving at the bar, Harris brandished a gun several times as he walked around the bar, sometimes swaying from side to side. His actions were recorded by the bar's video cameras. In response, two patrons inside the bar called 911 and identified Harris as the man who was brandishing the gun.
When Officer Raymond Perry arrived on the scene, Harris was standing outside of the bar with the gun in his hand. With the help of other officers, Officer Perry arrested Harris and seized the gun. Officer Perry testified that Harris uttered nonsensical things to the officers as they arrested him. Officer Perry concluded that Harris was highly intoxicated, and the officers declined to interview him at that time.

United States v. Harris, 751 F.3d 123, 125 (3d Cir. 2014).

Defendant initially pled not guilty to the charges on September 23, 2011. (Docket No. 14). At Defendant's request, the Court held a hearing on December 20, 2011, to determine whether Defendant could plead nolo contendere as to Count Two.[1] (Docket No. 25). During the hearing, Defendant testified that he had been under the influence of marijuana, crack, Xanax, and alcohol on the night in question and that he did not recall anything that had happened at the bar after his arrival. (Docket No. 64 at 25-28, 53). In light of his intoxication, Defendant stated that he could not admit to the Court whether he had knowingly possessed a firearm on that night. ( Id. at 28). However, he acknowledged that he was the person depicted in the video taken from the bar's security camera. ( Id. at 29, 64-65). Officer Perry testified that Harris made several strange statements during his arrest and was too intoxicated to be interviewed at that time. ( Id. at 74-75).

Based on the foregoing, the Court, in agreement with both the Defendant and the Government, determined that a nolo contendere plea was appropriate as to Count Two. ( Id. at 85-86). During the ensuing colloquy, Defendant stated that he had no difficulty communicating with his attorney or with the Court. ( Id. at 89). He also averred that he was not under the influence of drugs or alcohol and was not under the care of a physician, therapist, psychologist or psychiatrist for any ailments which would have affected his ability to understand the proceedings. ( Id. at 90-91). He testified that he had previously been diagnosed with depression by a prison physician but that this diagnosis did not have any impact on his ability to participate in the proceedings. ( Id. at 91). Defendant's counsel also indicated that he believed that Defendant was competent to plead. ( Id. at 92). The Court concluded that Defendant was competent to meaningfully participate in the proceedings based on his demeanor in the courtroom and responses to questions from the Court and counsel. ( Id. ). Indeed, Defendant appeared to be a sophisticated and articulate individual with an acute understanding of the proceedings.

After ensuring that Defendant was competent to plead, the Court queried Defendant to determine whether he had discussed his case with his attorney and whether he was satisfied with the representation provided by counsel. ( Id. at 92-93). Defendant answered each question in the affirmative. ( Id. at 93).

The Court proceeded to advise Defendant of the constitutional rights and protections that he would be giving up by virtue of his nolo contendere plea. ( Id. at 96-99). Defendant indicated that he understood each of those rights and still wished to plead nolo contendere. ( Id. at 99).

Finally, the Court thoroughly advised Defendant of the statutory penalties associated with his charges and the manner by which his sentence would be calculated. Defendant indicated that he was aware that he faced a statutory penalty of up to ten years imprisonment and that he understood the consequences of violating any term of supervised release that might be assessed. ( Id. at 100). He also stated that he understood that while the Sentencing Guidelines would be considered by the Court, they were only advisory and the Court had discretion to sentence him to a term of imprisonment outside of the advisory guidelines so long as such sentence was within the statutory minimum and maximum penalties. ( Id. at 103). Defendant acknowledged that he had discussed the Sentencing Guidelines with his counsel and understood that a sentence would not be imposed until a Presentence Investigation Report ("PIR") could be prepared and presented to the Court and each party for analysis and objections. ( Id. at 103-04). The AUSA informed the Court that he believed Defendant's offense level to be 30 and his criminal history category IV, resulting in an advisory guideline range of 135-168 months, with a statutory maximum of 120 months. ( Id. at 105). The AUSA also noted that, if Defendant received an adjustment for acceptance of responsibility, the guideline range ...

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