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United States v. Leon

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

November 14, 2019



          Donetta W. Ambrose, U.S. District Court Senior Judge

         In this action, Defendant pleaded guilty, via Rule 11(c)(1)(C), to one Count of violating 21 U.S.C. §§ 846, 18 U.S.C. § 2. On February 26, 2018, he was sentenced to a term of imprisonment of 180 months, with credit for time served from the date of his arrest in Mexico, believed to have occurred on January 7, 2016, followed by a term of supervised release. No. appeal was taken. On March 5, 2019, Defendant filed a Motion to Vacate pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2255. Following Miller notice, Defendant made no additional filing, and the Court issued a briefing schedule.[1] The Government filed its response, and the Motion is ripe for disposition.


         I. SECTION 2255

         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). 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.


         Defendant, a native Spanish speaker, asserts ineffective assistance of counsel stemming from a breakdown in communication between Defendant, counsel, and the interpreter. Defendant contends that counsel intentionally used miscommunication between counsel and the interpreter to deceive Defendant into signing the plea. He claims he was instructed to answer in the affirmative to all questions at the plea colloquy, and that the interpreter misled and misinformed him. He claims that he was not advised about mandatory minimum sentences, was misinformed about the plea deal, was not given information regarding how to obtain a bilingual lawyer, and had no opportunity to use the plea deal as leverage for a treaty transfer.

         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. A defendant must show that "counsel made errors so serious that counsel was not functioning as the 'counsel' guaranteed the defendant by the sixth amendment." Id. at 686. 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." Strickland, 466 U.S. at 700.

         "[T]he representations of the 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]bsent clear and convincing evidence to the contrary, a court must presume the veracity of a defendant's statements made while under oath in open court." Morris v. United States, No. 04-1570, 2008 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 31295, at *14 (D. Del. Apr. 16, 2008). Consistent with these principles is 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).

         During Defendant's October 23, 2017 change of plea proceeding, the following exchanges occurred:

Court: For the record, we do have a certified translator here. If there's anything that I say that you do not understand, please ask me to repeat it and I will, or to explain further, I will.
Defendant: Yes, your ...

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