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United States v. Singleton

United States District Court, E.D. Louisiana

September 6, 2017


         SECTION I



         Before the Court is pro se petitioner Lance Singleton's (“Singleton”) motion to vacate, set aside, or correct his sentence pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2255. R. Doc. No. 798. For the following reasons, the motion is denied.


         From January 2010 through October 2012, Singleton conspired with several others to distribute and to possess with the intent to distribute heroin and cocaine. R. Doc. No. 401. Singleton typically carried guns in furtherance of the conspiracy's drug trafficking activity. Id. In September 2015, Singleton pleaded guilty to four counts of a sixteen-count superseding indictment charging various drug and firearm violations. R. Doc. No. 400. As part of his guilty plea, Singleton tendered a plea agreement with an appellate and collateral challenge waiver, which stated that he “knowingly and voluntarily . . . [waived] and [gave up] any right to challenge his sentence collaterally.” Id. at 3. This Court sentenced Singleton to a term of imprisonment of 228 months. R. Doc. No. 536.

         Singleton pursued a direct appeal of his sentence on the grounds that his guideline range was improperly calculated. See R. Doc. No. 783. Specifically, he argued that the United States Sentencing Guidelines precluded this Court from applying a two-level dangerous weapon enhancement in calculating his offense level. Id. The Fifth Circuit dismissed the appeal, finding that Singleton waived his right to appeal his sentence. Id.

         Singleton now seeks collateral review of his sentence. R. Doc. No. 798. He also raises several ineffective assistance of counsel claims and argues that the sentencing enhancement applied in his case is unconstitutionally vague in light of recent Supreme Court precedent. Id. The Court considers each of these arguments in turn.


         Singleton has, for the most part, waived his right to collateral review of his sentence. His plea agreement provides:

[T]he defendant, in exchange for the promise(s) and agreement(s) made by the United States in this plea agreement, knowingly and voluntarily . . . [w]aives and gives up any right to challenge his sentence collaterally, including but not limited to any and all rights which arise under Title 28, United States Code, Sections 2255 and 2241, Rule 60 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, Rule 36 of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure, writs of coram nobis and audita querela, and any other collateral challenges to his sentence of any kind . . . The defendant [] retains the right to raise a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel in an appropriate proceeding.

R. Doc. No. 400, at 3. Singleton, his attorney, and the assistant United States attorney signed the agreement on September 21, 2015. Id. at 5. Singleton now argues that his counsel's “failure to inform [him] of the significance of the plea waiver rendered the plea agreement unkowing [sic] and involuntary.” R. Doc. No. 798, at 4. The Court disagrees.

         “A waiver is knowing and voluntary where the defendant indicates at the plea hearing that he has read and understands the plea agreement containing the waiver.” United States v. Donahue, 333 Fed. App'x 897, 898 (5th Cir. 2009) (citing United States v. McKinney, 406 F.3d 744, 746 (5th Cir. 2005)). The defendant must understand that he has a right to collateral review and that he is giving up that right. United States v. Jacobs, 635 F.3d 778, 781 (5th Cir. 2011) (citation and quotation omitted). “[W]hen the record . . . clearly indicates that a defendant has read and understands his plea agreement, and that he raised no question regarding a waiver-of-appeal provision, the defendant will be held to the bargain to which he agreed.” United States v. Portillo, 18 F.3d 290, 293 (5th Cir. 1994).

         On September 21, 2015, Singleton appeared before the Court for rearraignment. See R. Doc. No. 650. At that time, he indicated under oath that he fully understood both the charges against him and the maximum possible sentence he would face if he pleaded guilty. Id. at 16-19. He further attested that he read his plea agreement, that he understood it, that he did not disagree with anything in it, that nothing was left out of it, and that he did not wish to have any of the plea provisions explained to him. Id. at 35. He also stated that he understood he was waiving his right to direct appeal as well as his right to contest his conviction and sentence in any collateral proceeding under § 2255. Id. at 28.

         As the Fifth Circuit observed in dismissing Singleton's direct appeal of his sentence, “Singleton knowingly and voluntarily waived his right to appeal his sentence, as evidenced by the plain language of the plea agreement and the assurances provided by the lengthy plea colloquy with the district court. Singleton does not dispute this.” R. Doc. No. 783, at 3. The plea agreement was abundantly clear, and Singleton accepted it in open court. The Court now holds him to his bargain. Accordingly, Singleton's challenge to his sentence will be dismissed.


         Under the terms of his written plea agreement, Singleton retained the right to raise ineffective assistance of counsel claims. R. Doc. No. 400, at 3. Despite indicating at his rearraignment that he was entirely satisfied with the advice and services of counsel, R. Doc. No. 650, at 23, Singleton now argues that his lawyer's performance was ineffective in three separate respects: (1) “for allowing [him] to sign a plea agreement that contained a waiver of appeal”; (2) “for not doing adequate pre-trial investigation”; and (3) “for not filing a pre-trial motion to dismiss.” R. Doc. No. 798, at 4-5. Each of these arguments is meritless.


         Ineffective assistance of counsel claims are governed by the standard established in Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984). Strickland's two-part test requires a petitioner to prove both deficient performance and resulting prejudice. Strickland, 466 U.S. at 687.

         Deficient performance is established by “show[ing] that counsel's representation fell below an objective standard of reasonableness.” Id. at 688. In applying this standard, a “court must indulge a ‘strong presumption' that counsel's conduct falls within the wide range of reasonable professional assistance because it is all too easy to conclude that a particular act or omission of counsel was unreasonable in the harsh light of hindsight.” Bell v. Cone, 535 U.S. 685, 702 (2002) (quoting Strickland, 466 U.S. at 689). In other words, “judicial scrutiny of counsel's performance must be highly deferential.” Strickland, 466 U.S. at 689.

         A showing of prejudice requires “a reasonable probability that, but for counsel's unprofessional errors, the result of the proceeding would have been different.” Id. at 694. With respect to guilty pleas, the prejudice requirement “focuses on whether counsel's constitutionally ineffective performance affected the outcome of the plea process.” Hill v. Lockhart, 474 U.S. 52, 59 (1985). Thus, in challenging a guilty plea on grounds of ineffective assistance, a petitioner must show “that there is a reasonable probability that, but for counsel's errors, he would not have pleaded guilty and would have insisted on going to trial.” Id.

         The petitioner must satisfy both prongs of the Strickland test in order to be successful on an ineffective assistance claim. See Strickland, 466 U.S. at 687. A court is not required to address these prongs in any particular order. Id. at 697. If it is possible to dispose of an ineffective assistance of counsel claim without addressing both prongs, “that course should be followed.” Id.


         Singleton first argues that his counsel was ineffective for permitting him to enter a plea that included a waiver of appeal with regard to his sentence. R. Doc. No. 798, at 4. He claims his lawyer's advice was erroneous because the Court applied a two-level enhancement to his sentence based on the fact that a firearm was possessed in connection with the offense. Id. However, Singleton can show no error on the part of counsel “that affected [his] understanding of the consequences of pleading guilty.” Cf. Lee v. United States, 137 S.Ct. 1958, 1965 (2017) (holding that a defendant demonstrated a reasonable probability that he would not have pleaded guilty had he ...

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