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United States v. Williams

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

July 14, 2015



Terrence F. McVerry, United States District Judge

Pending before the Court is a MOTION UNDER 28 U.S.C. § 2255 TO VACATE, SET ASIDE, OR CORRECT SENTENCE BY A PERSON IN FEDERAL CUSTODY (ECF No. 1103), filed by counsel for Defendant Allan Williams. The government has filed a response in opposition to the motion (ECF No. 1140). Accordingly, the motion is ripe for disposition. For the reasons that follow, the motion will be denied without a hearing, and no certificate of appealability will be issued.[1]

I. Background

On June 13, 2012, a federal grand jury sitting in the Western District of Pennsylvania returned an 18-count Indictment against Allan Williams (“Williams”) and 19 codefendants in relation to their involvement in drug trafficking. Williams was charged in Count One with conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute and distribute 5 kilograms or more of cocaine in violation of Title 21 U.S.C. § 846.

On March 19, 2013, a federal grand jury sitting in the Western District of Pennsylvania returned a 22-count Superseding Indictment within which the first 15 counts remained the same as charged in the original indictment. Allan Williams was charged only in Count One.

A trial in this action was scheduled to commence on September 2, 2014, against Williams and two codefendants, Brandon Boone and Michael Porter. On the morning of jury selection, however, Williams, who was represented by counsel[2], advised the Court that he intended to change his plea of not guilty to a plea of guilty to a lesser-included offense in Count One of the superseding indictment pursuant to a plea agreement with the government. (Tr., ECF No. 1127 at 4). It was stipulated that the type and quantity of controlled substance attributable to Williams was at least 100 grams, but less than 200 grams of cocaine. Id. The Court conducted a thorough colloquy to assure that Williams’ plea was knowing and voluntary. (Tr., ECF No. 1127). In open court, Williams acknowledged that he had read, discussed with his attorney and understood the plea agreement. Id. at 21. Williams also acknowledged that he had signed page five of the plea agreement and that his signature was placed on the document of his own free will. Id. at 21-22.

Following the change-of-plea hearing, the probation office prepared a Presentence Investigation Report (“PSI”). According to the PSI, Williams’ offense level was 13 (i.e., 16 minus three for acceptance of responsibility), after applying the reductions in § 3E1.1(a) and § 3E1.1(b). Moreover, his criminal history category was III, which resulted in a Guidelines range of incarceration of 18 to 24 months. After a sentencing hearing on January 5, 2015, Williams was ultimately sentenced within the guideline range to 21 months in prison, to be followed by a three-year term of supervised release. (Tr., ECF No. 1128 at 30).

On April 6, 2015, Williams filed the pending § 2255 motion, in which he seeks relief from his conviction and sentence. The Government filed a timely response; and the motion is now ripe for disposition.

II. Legal Standard

A prisoner in federal custody may move to vacate his or her sentence under 28 U.S.C. § 2255(a) if such “sentence was imposed in violation of the Constitution or laws of the United States. 28 U.S.C. § 2255(a). “A prisoner seeking relief on the grounds of ineffective assistance of counsel bears the burden to demonstrate two requirements, ” United States v. Seeley, 574 F.App'x 75, 78 (3d Cir. 2014), which were initially set forth by the Supreme Court of the United States in Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, (1984) superseded on other grounds by Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, Pub.L. No. 104–132, 110 Stat. 1214. In order to prevail on a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel under Strickland, a defendant “must establish that (1) the performance of counsel fell below an objective standard of reasonableness; and, (2) counsel's deficient performance prejudiced the defense.” United States v. Otero, 502 F.3d 331, 334 (3d Cir. 2007) (citing Strickland, 466 U.S. at 688, 694); see also Roe v. Flores–Ortega, 528 U.S. 470, 476–477 (2000) (citing Strickland, 466 U.S. at 688, 694); United States v. Day, 969 F.2d 39, 43 (3d Cir. 1992) (quoting Strickland, 466 U.S. at 694). The United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit has “endorsed the practical suggestion in Strickland [that the Court may] consider the prejudice prong before examining the performance of counsel prong ‘because this course of action is less burdensome to defense counsel.’” United States v. Lilly, 536 F.3d 190, 196 (3d Cir. 2008) (quoting United States v. Booth, 432 F.3d 542, 546 (3d Cir. 2005), which quoted United States v. McCoy, 410 F.3d 124, 132 n. 6 (3d Cir. 2005)); see also Strickland, 466 U.S. at 697 (“If it is easier to dispose of an ineffectiveness claim on the ground of lack of sufficient prejudice, which we expect will often be so, that course should be followed.”).

III. Discussion

The § 2255 petition sets forth grounds for relief based upon counsel’s alleged prejudicial ineffectiveness. Williams alleges that he was coerced into involuntarily and unknowingly entering a plea of guilty in violation of his Fifth and Sixth Amendment rights. In support of his allegation, Williams states that he was convinced by assurances from his counsel that he would not receive a sentence of incarceration should he waive his trial rights and plead guilty.

A. Defendant’s Guilty Plea was Knowing and Voluntary and with the Effective Assistance of Counsel

Williams claims that his guilty plea was coerced by his attorney’s false assurances that his sentence would not include incarceration. Nevertheless, whatever counsel told Williams, no prejudice befell him because he had been fully advised at the time of his plea hearing of his constitutional rights, that his maximum potential exposure was a twenty-year term of imprisonment and that the sentencing court had the discretion to impose a just sentence up to the statutory maximum regardless of any other prediction or expectation. ...

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