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United States v. Howard

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

May 12, 2017

UNITED STATES
v.
CHARLES HOWARD, III

          OPINION AND ORDER

          Donetta W. Ambrose Senior Judge

         SYNOPSIS

         In this action, Defendant pleaded guilty to two counts, one of violating 18 U.S.C. §§ 922(g)(1) and 924(e), and one of violating 21 U.S.C. §841(a)(1). On December 12, 2014, the Court sentenced him to concurrent terms of imprisonment of 180 months, followed by a term of supervised release. Defendant has filed a pro se Motion to Vacate pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2255.[1]For the following reasons, Defendant's Motion will be denied.

         OPINION

         I. LEGAL STANDARDS

         Relief is available under Section 2255 only under exceptional circumstances, when the claimed errors of law are "a fundamental defect which inherently results in a complete miscarriage of justice, " or "an omission inconsistent with the rudimentary demands of fair procedure." Hill v. United States, 368 U.S. 424, 428, 82 S.Ct. 468, 7 L.Ed.2d 417 (1962). A district court need not hold an evidentiary hearing on a Section 2255 motion if the motion, files, and records show conclusively that the defendant is not entitled to relief. United States v. Ritter, 93 Fed.Appx. 402 (3d Cir. 2004). “To progress to an evidentiary hearing, a habeas petitioner must do more than proffer gauzy generalities or drop self-serving hints that a constitutional violation lurks in the wings”; as a result, vague and conclusory allegations do not justify a hearing. David v. United States, 134 F.3d 470, 478 (1st Cir. 1998). Further, pro se pleadings are to be liberally construed, and I have considered Defendant's submissions accordingly. See United States v. Otero, 502 F.3d 331, 334 (3d Cir. 2007). In this case, a hearing is unnecessary, and the Motion will be disposed of on the record.

         II. DEFENDANT'S MOTION

         Defendant contends that counsel was ineffective in several respects, related to failures to challenge searches of his home and vehicle and to properly deal with Defendant's guilty plea, and for failing to challenge ACCA enhancements. The Government argues that Defendant's Motion is meritless.[2]

         In the context of an ineffective assistance of counsel claim, a court should be "highly deferential" when evaluating an attorney's conduct; there is a "strong presumption" that the attorney's performance was reasonable. Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 689, 104 S.Ct. 2052, 80 L.Ed.2d 674 (1984). "It is...only the rare claim of ineffectiveness of counsel that should succeed under the properly deferential standard to be applied in scrutinizing counsel's performance." United States v. Gray, 878 F.2d 702, 711 (3d Cir. 1989).

         To demonstrate that counsel was ineffective, a defendant must show that counsel's performance fell below "the wide range of professionally competent assistance" and also that the deficient conduct prejudiced defendant. Strickland, 466 U.S. at 687. Counsel's conduct must be assessed according to the facts of the particular case, viewed as of the time of counsel's conduct. Id. at 689. Under the prejudice prong, the pertinent question is "whether there is a reasonable probability that, absent the errors, " the result would have been different. Id. at 695; see also Gray, 878 F.2d at 709-13. The prejudice prong of Strickland rests on "whether counsel's deficient performance renders the result of the . . . proceeding fundamentally unfair, " or strips the defendant of a "substantive or procedural right to which the law entitles him." Id. at 700.

         "It is… only the rare claim of ineffectiveness of counsel that should succeed under the properly deferential standard to be applied in scrutinizing counsel's performance." Gray, 878 F.2d at 711. Accordingly, a guilty plea may be withdrawn based on ineffective assistance of counsel only if "(1) the defendant shows that his attorney's advice was under all the circumstances unreasonable under prevailing professional norms, and (2) the defendant shows that he suffered 'sufficient prejudice' from his counsel's errors." United States v. Maynard, 152 F. App'x 191 (3d Cir. 2005). Moreover, counsel is not ineffective for failing to raise meritless claims. See Parrish v. Fulcomer, 150 F.3d 326, 328 (3d Cir. 1998). Consistent with these principles, when a client is presented with a plea, an attorney's advice “need not be perfect, but it must be reasonably competent. His advice should permit the accused to make an informed and conscious choice." Herring v. Estelle, 491 F.2d 125, 128 (5th Cir. 1974). (citations and internal quotation marks omitted). I am mindful, too, of the "fundamental interest in the finality of guilty pleas." Hill v. Lockhart, 474 U.S. 52, 58, 106 S.Ct. 366, 88 L.Ed.2d 203 (1985).

         In this context, I note that "the representations of the defendant, his lawyer, and the prosecutor at [a plea] hearing, as well as any findings made by the judge accepting the plea, constitute a formidable barrier in any subsequent collateral proceedings. Solemn declarations in open court carry a strong presumption of verity." Blackledge v. Allison, 431 U.S. 63, 73-74, 97 S.Ct. 1621, 52 L.Ed.2d 136 (1977). “A plea of guilty is a statement under oath, not a stopgap option to be discarded when it is no longer useful.” United States v. Ho-Man Lee, No. 13-29, 2015 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 56138, at *33 (D.N.J. Apr. 28, 2015).

         1. ACCA Enhancement [3]

         Defendant received a mandatory minimum sentence, pursuant to his Rule 11(c)(1)(c) agreement and Section 924(e), of 180 months, or fifteen years. He avers that the predicate crimes relied on therefor are, for various reasons, invalid; counsel, he contends, ...


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