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United States v. Fernandez

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

April 3, 2018




         Before this Court is a motion to correct, vacate, and/or set aside sentence and conviction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §2255, filed by Defendant Edwin Fernandez (“Fernandez” or “Defendant”), based on claims that trial counsel was ineffective: in failing to advise him of how the statements made during the proffer sessions with the Government could be used against him if he stood trial; in arguing the motion to suppress; and in not objecting to the presentence report at the sentencing hearing. [ECF 197]. The Government filed a response opposing the motion, [ECF 199], and Defendant filed a reply. [ECF 202].[1] The issues raised in the motion have been fully briefed and are ripe for disposition. For the reasons stated herein, Defendant's motion is denied.


         The facts and procedural history are known to the parties and will only be discussed to the extent necessary for the disposition of this motion. To provide context to Defendant's motion, the relevant facts are summarized as follows:

Fernandez and several co-defendants were charged by a second superseding indictment with numerous drug offenses involving conspiracy and cocaine. Fernandez filed a motion to suppress the physical evidence. The Government filed a motion in limine to admit, in rebuttal, statements made at the proffer session. On January 5, 2015, the district court[2] conducted an evidentiary hearing on these pretrial motions, and denied Fernandez' motion to suppress and granted the Government's motion. (See ECF 141). Thereafter, on that same day, Fernandez entered into a Zudiak guilty plea to the charges in the second superseding indictment and preserved, under Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 11(a)(2) and with the Government's consent, his right to appeal the denial of the motion to suppress the seizure and search of the two cellular phones. On July 17, 2015, Fernandez was sentenced to a term of 300 months imprisonment followed by 10 years of supervised release, and imposed a special assessment of $800.00.
Fernandez filed a timely appeal to the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit (“Third Circuit”) raising two issues, to wit: whether the district court erred in denying the motion to suppress evidence, and whether the sentence imposed was substantively reasonable. On July 13, 2016, the Third Circuit affirmed the judgment.[3]
On November 7, 2017, Fernandez filed the instant §2255 motion. [ECF 197].[4] On February 26, 2018, the Government filed its response in opposition. [ECF 199].


         Under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (“AEDPA”), a prisoner serving a sentence in federal custody may move to vacate, set aside, or correct his/her sentence under 28 U.S.C. §2255 only on the grounds that the “sentence was imposed in violation of the Constitution or laws of the United States, or that the court was without jurisdiction to impose such sentence, or that the sentence was in excess of the maximum authorized by law, or is otherwise subject to collateral attack . . . .” 28 U.S.C. § 2255(a). However, a motion under §2255 is a collateral challenge that is viewed less favorably than a direct appeal, and “relief under § 2255 is available only when ‘the claimed error of law was a fundamental defect which inherently results in a complete miscarriage of justice, and . . . present[s] exceptional circumstances where the need for the remedy afforded by the writ . . . is apparent.'” United States v. Travillion, 759 F.3d 281, 288 (3d Cir. 2014) (quoting Davis v. United States, 417 U.S. 333, 346 (1974)). If a court finds that the judgment or sentence imposed was not authorized by law, or that there has been such a denial or an infringement of the constitutional rights of the prisoner as to render the judgment vulnerable to collateral attack, the court shall vacate and set the judgment aside and shall either discharge the prisoner, resentence him, grant a new trial, or correct the sentence, as may appear appropriate. 28 U.S.C. § 2255(b).


         As noted, in his motion to correct or vacate the sentence, Defendant essentially argues that three of his trial counsel were ineffective for failing: to properly advise him of the significance of the testimony he offered during the proffer sessions; to successfully argue the motion to suppress; and to persuasively argue against the application of guideline enhancements at sentencing. Although the underlying substance of some of these claims has been presented to and ruled on by the appellate court, this Court will, nonetheless, address each claim.

         When evaluating the effectiveness of trial counsel, this Court must apply the familiar two-prong inquiry articulated in Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984). To prevail on such a claim, a defendant 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. Id. at 687-88; United States v. Otero, 502 F.3d 331, 334 (3d Cir. 2007). Conclusory allegations are insufficient to entitle a defendant to relief under §2255. Blackledge v. Allison, 431 U.S. 63, 74 (1977). The burden is on the defendant in a §2255 motion to prove his claim of ineffective assistance of counsel. Strickland, 466 U.S. at 687.

         In determining whether counsel has satisfied the objective standard of reasonableness set forth in the first prong, courts must be highly deferential toward counsel's conduct. Strickland, 466 U.S. at 689. A strong presumption exists 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). The court must defer to counsel's tactical decisions, avoiding “the distorting effects of hindsight, ” and give counsel the benefit of a strong presumption of reasonableness. Strickland, 466 U.S. at 689; Gov't of the Virgin Islands v. Weatherwax, 77 F.3d 1425, 1431 (3d Cir. 1996). To succeed with an ineffective assistance of counsel claim, “a defendant must overcome the ‘presumption that, under the circumstances, the challenged action might be considered sound trial strategy.'” Bell v. Cone, 535 U.S. 685, 698 (2002) (quoting Strickland, 466 U.S. at 689). “It is only the rare claim of ineffective assistance of counsel that should succeed under the properly deferential standard to be applied in scrutinizing counsel's performance.” United States v. Kaufman, 109 F.3d 186, 190 (3d Cir. 1997) (citations omitted). 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 defendant must show that, but for counsel's errors, the outcome of the proceeding would have been different. See Strickland, 466 U.S. at 694. Prejudice has been defined as a “showing that counsel's errors were so serious as to deprive the defendant of a fair trial, a trial whose result is reliable.” Id. at 687; see also Frey v. Fulcomer, 974 F.2d 348, 358 (3d Cir. 1992) (“[A] petitioner must demonstrate a reasonable probability that, but for the unprofessional errors, the result would have been different.”). A district court need not conduct its analysis of the two prongs in a particular order or address ...

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