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United States v. Doss

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

May 3, 2017



          Christopher C. Conner, Chief Judge

         The court sentenced defendant Darnell Lamont Doss ("Doss") to 151 months' imprisonment for drug trafficking. (Doc. 99). Presently before the court is Doss's pro se motion (Doc. 108) to vacate, set aside, or correct his sentence pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2255. Doss asserts that he was denied effective assistance of counsel in violation of the Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution. The motion will be denied.

         I. Factual Background & Procedural History

         On December 19, 2012, a grand jury returned an indictment charging Doss with possession of a firearm by a convicted felon in violation of 18 U.S.C. §§ 922(g)(1) and 924(e); possession of cocaine and cocaine base with intent to distribute in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 841(a); and possession of a firearm during and in relation to a drug trafficking crime in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 924(c)(1)(a). (Doc. 1). Doss initially pled not guilty. (Doc. 9). On January 15, 2013, the court appointed attorney John F. Yaninek ("Attorney Yaninek") to represent Doss. (Doc. 12).

         The grand jury returned a superseding indictment on February 26, 2014, adding a second count of possession with intent to distribute cocaine base. (Doc. 35). Doss pled not guilty to all five counts. (Doc. 43). During arraignment proceedings, Doss maintained that the court lacked jurisdiction over his natural body. (Doc. 75 at 5:15-5:18).

         On October 23, 2014, Doss executed a written plea agreement wherein he agreed to plead guilty to one count of possession with intent to distribute cocaine base. (Doc. 78). Doss acquiesced that he fully understood and voluntarily agreed to the plea agreement. (Id. at 24). Pursuant to the plea agreement, Doss waived any right to challenge his conviction and sentence via direct appeal. (Id. at 21). The agreement did not include a waiver of Doss's right to a collateral attack under 28 U.S.C. § 2255. (Id.) The court explained the appellate waiver provision to Doss at his plea hearing, whereupon Doss reaffirmed his consent to this provision as well as the entirety of the written plea agreement. (Doc. 119 at 14:9-15:25).

         On December 16, 2014, the court denied Doss's motion seeking to discharge counsel and to continue pro se. (Docs. 85-86). The court based its decision on a finding that Doss was unable to adequately represent himself. (Doc. 86). Attorney Yaninek continued to represent Doss throughout sentencing. (See Doc. 99). The presentence report determined that Doss was a career offender, resulting in a Sentencing Guidelines range of 151 to 188 months' imprisonment. (Doc. 89). On March 13, 2015, Attorney Yaninek filed a detailed sentencing memorandum on Doss's behalf. (Doc. 96). Therein, he sought a downward variance from the career offender Guidelines. (Id. at 12).

         On March 17, 2015, the court held a sentencing hearing and provided Doss the opportunity of allocution. (Doc. 120 at 9:11-13:16). The court declined to vary from the career offender range, citing Doss's consistent and pervasive history of violent and drug-related offenses. (Id. at 20:22-21:5). Before the conclusion of the hearing, Attorney Yaninek informed the court that he had advised Doss it would be against his interests to file a direct appeal due to the appellate waiver and Third Circuit case law. (Id. at 25:22-26:8). The court sentenced Doss to 151 months' imprisonment. (Doc. 99).

         On March 22, 2016, Doss filed the instant motion (Doc. 108) to vacate, set aside, or correct sentence under 28 U.S.C. § 2255. The motion is fully briefed and ripe for disposition.[1]

         II. Standard of Review

         Under 28 U.S.C. § 2255, a federal prisoner may move the sentencing court to vacate, set aside, or correct the prisoner's sentence. 28 U.S.C. § 2255. Courts may afford relief under § 2255 on a number of grounds including, inter alia, "that the sentence was imposed in violation of the Constitution or the laws of the United States." 28 U.S.C. § 2255(a); see also R. Governing § 2255 Cases 1(a). The statute provides that, as a remedy for an unlawfully-imposed sentence, "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). The court accepts the truth of the defendant's allegations when reviewing a § 2255 motion unless those allegations are "clearly frivolous based on the existing record." United States v. Booth, 432 F.3d 542, 545 (3d Cir. 2005). A court is required to hold an evidentiary hearing when the motion "allege[s] any facts warranting § 2255 relief that are not clearly resolved by the record." United States v. Tolliver, 800 F.3d 138, 141 (3d Cir. 2015) (quoting Booth, 432 F.3d at 546).

         A collateral attack based on ineffective assistance of counsel is governed by the two-pronged test set forth in Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984). To prevail on this claim, a petitioner must demonstrate (1) that counsel's representation fell below an objective standard of reasonableness based on prevailing professional norms and (2) that the deficient representation was prejudicial. See id. at 687-88. Conclusory allegations are insufficient to entitle a petitioner to relief under § 2255. See Sepulveda v. United States, 69 F.Supp.2d 633, 639-40 (D.N.J. 1999) (citing Blackledge v. Allison, 431 U.S. 63, 74 (1977)).

         In determining whether counsel has satisfied the objective standard of reasonableness in accordance with the first prong, courts must be highly deferential toward counsel's conduct. Strickland, 466 U.S. at 689. There is a strong presumption that counsel's conduct falls within the wide range of reasonable professional assistance. See United States v. Gray, 878 F.2d 702, 710 (3d Cir. 1989). Only a "rare claim" of ineffectiveness of counsel should succeed "under the properly deferential standard to be applied in scrutinizing counsel's performance." Id. at 711 (citing Strickland, 466 U.S. at 689-90). Counsel will not be deemed ineffective for failing to raise a meritless claim. See United States v. Sanders, 165 F.3d 248, 253 (3d Cir. 1999).

         To satisfy the prejudice prong, the petitioner must show that, but for counsel's errors, the outcome of the proceeding would have been different. See Strickland, 466 U.S. at 694. The district court need not conduct its analysis of the two prongs in a particular order or address both prongs of the inquiry if a defendant makes an insufficient showing in one. See id. at 697; United States v. Lilly, 536 F.3d 190, 196 (3d Cir. 2008).

         III. Discussion

         Doss contends that Attorney Yaninek provided ineffective counsel by failing to: (1) file a notice of direct appeal; (2) abide by Doss's requests pertaining to the sentencing memorandum; (3) seek a continuance of sentencing; and (4) raise certain issues at the sentencing hearing. (Doc. 108). The court will address Doss's claims seriatim.

         A. Failure to File Notice of Appeal

         When a defendant has raised an ineffective assistance claim based upon counsel's failure to file an appeal, the court must typically conduct a particularized Strickland analysis in accordance with Roe v. Flores-Ortega, 528 U.S. 470 (2000). See Harrington v. Gillis, 456 F.3d 118, 125 (3d Cir. 2006). In Flores-Ortega, the Supreme Court held that defense counsel must consult with their client about an appeal in situations where a rational defendant would want to appeal or where the defendant actually expressed interest in appealing. Flores-Ortega, 528 U.S. at 480. The Court defined "consult" as "advising the ...

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