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United States v. Brown

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

June 6, 2017



          SYLVIA H. RAMBO United States District Judge.

         Presently before the court is Defendant's motion to vacate his guilty plea and sentence pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2255 for ineffective assistance of counsel. For the reasons stated herein, the motion will be denied.

         I. Background

         On September 26, 2012, a grand jury returned a two-count sealed Indictment charging Defendant Elijah Ulysses Brown, Jr. (“Defendant”) with violations of 18 U.S.C. §§ 922(g), (j), and 924(e) in connection with his illegal possession of a stolen firearm. (See Doc. 1.) Defendant entered a plea of not guilty (Doc. 15) on October 1, 2012, and on October 4, 2012, the court appointed attorney Dean E. Reynosa to represent him. (Doc. 34.) Defendant was dissatisfied with Attorney Reynosa's representation, however, and requested via letter on three separate occasions between March 13, 2013 and April 10, 2013 (Docs. 89, 100, 116) for the removal of Attorney Reynosa from his case and for appointment of substitute counsel. The court denied Defendant's requests for substitute counsel (Docs. 108 & 117) and instead allowed him to proceed pro se. After yet another request for substitute counsel (see Doc. 118), the court appointed Attorney Robert J. Daniels, Jr. (Doc. 119).

         In anticipation of trial, Defendant filed a motion to suppress the handgun that was recovered during a warrantless search as well as statements he made to police during the search. (Doc. 162.) A suppression hearing was held on April 24, 2014, and the court subsequently denied the motion, ruling that both the statement and gun were admissible for purposes of trial.

         On May 2, 2014, Defendant entered into a plea agreement in which he agreed to plead guilty to a one-count Felony Information (Doc. 178), and the court accepted his guilty plea on May 14, 2014 (Doc. 190). The plea agreement provided Defendant the right to appeal any sentence in excess of 144 months. A sentencing hearing was held on November 24, 2014, and although the United States requested a 120-month term of imprisonment, the court found that Defendant was an Armed Career Criminal, placing the Advisory Guidelines range at 180-210 months. The court departed from the guidelines, however, and sentenced Defendant to a 150-month term of imprisonment. (See Doc. 209.) Defendant appealed both his sentence and the court's refusal to suppress evidence, and requested that new counsel be appointed to pursue his appeal. (See Docs. 211, 212, 214.) The Third Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed this court's rulings as to both the suppression and sentence. (Docs. 251 & 254.)

         On September 23, 2016, Defendant filed a motion to vacate his guilty plea and sentence pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2255 on the basis that his legal counsel was ineffective. (Doc. 265.) After some difficulty locating Defendant for service of the United States' opposition, the motion has been fully briefed (Docs. 265-1 & 270) and is now ripe for disposition.

         II. Legal Standard

         A defendant in a criminal matter may challenge his conviction or sentence on the basis that his legal counsel was ineffective pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2255. In order to establish ineffective assistance of counsel, a defendant must prove both that his attorney's performance fell below an objective standard of reasonableness and that the deficient performance prejudiced the defense to the degree that it deprived the defendant of a fair trial. See Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 687 (1984). A court “must assess the reasonableness of counsel's conduct on the facts of the particular case, and as of the time of counsel's conduct.” Taylor v. Horn, 504 F.3d 416, 430 (3d Cir. 2007) (citing Strickland, 466 U.S. at 690). The defendant bears a heavy burden of showing that “there is a reasonable probability that, but for counsel's unprofessional errors, the result of the proceeding would have been different.” United States v. Delbridge, 504 F. App'x 145, 151 (3d Cir. 2012) (quoting Strickland, 466 U.S. at 694).

         III. Discussion

         In the instant motion to vacate his sentence, Defendant argues that his counsel was ineffective because he failed to properly prepare or investigate Defendant's case, or to advise Defendant regarding the penalties he faced as a result of his plea agreement, including possible classification as an Armed Career Criminal. Defendant further argues that the denial of his request to be represented by a third attorney amounted to a constructive denial of counsel. The court will address each argument in turn.

         A. Whether Counsel Properly Prepared and Investigated the Case

         As Defendant's second appointed counsel, Attorney Daniels filed a motion to suppress and conducted a corresponding hearing, which preserved the issue for Defendant on appeal. In addition, Attorney Daniels negotiated a more favorable plea agreement than what had been offered to Defendant's first appointed counsel, and included a conditional appeal waiver which permitted Defendant to appeal both the denial of his motion to suppress as well as any sentence in excess of 144 months.[1] Although Defendant now claims that Attorney Daniels should have called additional witnesses at the suppression hearing, nothing in Defendant's assertions demonstrate that Attorney Daniels acted unprofessionally or unreasonably, nor that the outcome of the suppression hearing would have been different had Attorney Daniels called additional witnesses. As the Supreme Court has stated, “[t]he Sixth Amendment guarantees reasonable competence, not perfect advocacy judged with the benefit of hindsight.” Yarborough v. Gentry, 540 U.S. 1, 6 (2003) (citations omitted); see also Strickland, 466 U.S. at 690 (counsel is “strongly presumed” to make decisions in the exercise of professional judgment). Thus, the court finds that Attorney Daniels properly prepared and investigated Defendant's case, and therefore did not provide ineffective assistance of counsel on this basis.

         B. Whether Counsel Properly Advised Defendant of Potential Penalties ...

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