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Untied States v. Lawton

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

March 26, 2018

DEXTRICK LAWTON, Defendant/Petitioner.


          Alan N. Bloch United States District Judge

         Petitioner Dextrick Lawton, on August 15, 2016, filed a pro se Motion to Vacate, Set Aside, or Correct Sentence pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2255 (Doc. No. 246) and memorandum of law in support thereof (Doc. No. 247). Upon consideration of this motion and memorandum, and upon further consideration of the Government's response thereto (Doc. No. 256), filed on December 29, 2016, and Petitioner's reply to the Government's response (Doc. No. 260), filed on February 22, 2017, the Court denies Petitioner's motion for the reasons set forth below.

         I. Background

         On or about November 28, 2012, an indictment was returned by the Grand Jury charging Petitioner with conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute and/or distribute heroin, in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 846. After Petitioner initially pled not guilty, the parties began engaging in plea negotiations. On or around September 13, 2013, a formal written plea offer was presented by the Government to Petitioner's counsel at the time, Mark Moser. As part of the plea offer, the Government would agree not to file an information pursuant to 21 U.S.C. § 851 indicating that Petitioner had a prior controlled substance offense as a basis for increased punishment. The parties would stipulate that the type and quantity of controlled substance attributable to Petitioner for purposes of Section 2D1.1 of the United States Sentencing Guidelines was 1 to 3 kilograms of heroin. The parties would further agree that the appropriate sentence in this case was a term of imprisonment of 15 years, to be followed by a term of supervised release of 5 years, no fine, and a special assessment of $100.00. Pursuant to Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 11(c)(1)(C), Petitioner would retain the right to withdraw his guilty plea if the Court did not accept the agreed-upon sentence.

         On October 22, 2013, while the plea offer was still pending, the District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania held a hearing at Petitioner's request to determine whether new counsel should be appointed based on Petitioner's claim that he was dissatisfied with the representation provided by Mr. Moser.[1] At this hearing, Judge Diamond preliminarily determined to allow Mr. Moser to withdraw as counsel and to appoint a new attorney to represent Petitioner. However, when Government counsel subsequently appeared at the hearing, he indicated that the Government would see a change in counsel as a delay tactic, would withdraw the pending plea offer, and would consider bringing additional charges against Petitioner. Specifically, Government counsel indicated that he would consider filing a notice pursuant to 21 U.S.C. § 851 that Petitioner had a prior felony drug offense that would increase Petitioner's mandatory minimum sentence from 10 years to 20 years, which was in excess of the proposed sentence in the plea offer. Further, Government counsel explained that he would consider filing a superseding indictment alleging that the heroin involved in the alleged conspiracy had caused the death of Brian Smith. Such an allegation, if proven, would have subjected Petitioner to a mandatory sentence of life imprisonment pursuant to 21 U.S.C. § 841(b)(1)(A).[2] Because these new charges would have substantially increased Petitioner's criminal liability, he discussed with Mr. Moser whether to continue with new counsel and risk losing the plea offer and facing the new charges, or whether to keep Mr. Moser as counsel and accept the offer. After some discussion, Petitioner decided to keep Mr. Moser as counsel, accept the plea offer, and plead guilty to the charge in the indictment. Accordingly, the Court scheduled a change of plea hearing for November 12, 2013, which was subsequently continued to December 4, 2013.

         At the December 4, 2013 hearing, Petitioner indicated that he wished to accept the plea offer and change his plea to one of guilty. Judge Diamond therefore conducted a colloquy pursuant to Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 11. During the part of the colloquy when Government counsel summarized the evidence against Petitioner, Petitioner became upset and declined to agree to the accuracy of the summary. He asked for, and received, an opportunity to discuss with Mr. Moser whether he wanted to continue the proceeding and plead guilty.[3]Petitioner, after consulting with Mr. Moser, elected to continue and the Court entered a plea of guilty. A sentencing hearing was scheduled for April 9, 2014.

         After the plea proceeding, Mr. Moser requested to withdraw and have new counsel appointed for Petitioner, and Petitioner renewed his request for the same. After a January 14, 2014 hearing, Judge Diamond granted the request and appointed Mark Sindler to represent Petitioner during the sentencing process. Attorney Sindler, on March 30, 2014, filed on Petitioner's behalf a Motion to Withdraw Guilty Plea (Doc. No. 159) and brief in support thereof (Doc. No. 160), arguing that the plea entered by Petitioner on December 4, 2013, had not been knowing and voluntary because of the ineffectiveness of Petitioner's prior counsel, Mr. Moser. On April 29, 2014, Judge Diamond denied this motion. After a short continuance, the sentencing hearing was held on May 21, 2014, at which time Judge Diamond again declined to allow Petitioner to withdraw his plea of guilty. The Court imposed the sentence to which the parties had agreed in the plea agreement, i.e., 180 months' imprisonment to be followed by 5 years' supervised release. After obtaining new counsel, Maria Pulzetti, Petitioner subsequently appealed and challenged his conviction and sentence on a number of grounds, including that his guilty plea was not knowing and voluntary. On January 11, 2016, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed Petitioner's appeal based on the waiver of his right to appeal his conviction or sentence contained in the plea agreement.

         On August 15, 2016, Petitioner, acting pro se, filed the present motion pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2255. On August 17, 2016, in accordance with United States v. Miller, 197 F.3d 644 (3d Cir. 1999), the Court issued an Order advising Petitioner that the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (“AEDPA”) prohibits consideration of a second or successive habeas petition absent certification from the Third Circuit that certain exceptional circumstances exist. With that in mind, Petitioner was ordered to advise the Court as to how he wished to proceed in this case, and specifically, whether he wished to have his motion ruled upon as filed and lose the ability to file successive petitions absent Third Circuit certification, or whether he wished to withdraw the motion and file one all-inclusive Section 2255 petition within the one-year statutory period of the AEDPA. Petitioner responded with a request that the Court rule on his motion as filed, and the Court proceeded accordingly. The Court will address the claims raised in Petitioner's motion below.

         II. Discussion

         Pro se pleadings are held to less stringent standards than formal pleadings drafted by lawyers. See Haines v. Kerner, 404 U.S. 519, 520 (1972); Holley v. Department of Veterans Affairs, 165 F.3d 244, 247 (3d Cir. 1999). However, even a pro se plaintiff must be able to prove a “‘set of facts in support of his claim which would entitle him to relief.'” Haines, 404 U.S. at 520-21 (quoting Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41, 45-46 (1957)).

         As noted, Petitioner brings his pro se motion pursuant to Section 2255. This statute permits a “prisoner in custody under sentence of a court established by Act of Congress claiming the right to be released upon the ground that the sentence was imposed in violation of the Constitution or laws of the United States . . . [to] move the court which imposed the sentence to vacate, set aside or correct the sentence.” 28 U.S.C. § 2255(a). An evidentiary hearing is not required on a Section 2255 motion if “the motion and the files and records of the case conclusively show that the prisoner is entitled to no relief.” 28 U.S.C. § 2255(b).

         In his motion and supporting brief, Petitioner raises claims alleging ineffective assistance of counsel, as well as several additional substantive claims.[4] While his motion and brief are not entirely clear on the matter, it appears that his ineffective assistance claims are intertwined with the other alleged grounds for relief. Nonetheless, for the reasons that follow, the Court finds no merit in Petitioner's claims and finds that the record conclusively shows that he is not entitled to relief under Section 2255 on any of the grounds that he alleges.[5]

         A. Claims of Ineffective Assistance of Counsel

         A defendant seeking relief under Section 2255 on the grounds of ineffective assistance of counsel “must show both that: (1) counsel's representation fell below an objective standard of ‘reasonableness under prevailing professional norms;' and (2) the defendant suffered prejudice as a result-that is, there is a reasonable probability that, but for counsel's deficient performance, the result of the proceeding would have been different.” Sistrunk v. Vaughn, 96 F.3d 666, 670 (3d Cir. 1996) (citing Strickland v. Washington, 466 ...

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