United States District Court, E.D. Louisiana
ORDER & REASONS
M. AFRICK UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
the Court is petitioner Nicanor Gonzales'
(“Gonzales”) motion to vacate, set aside, or
correct his sentence pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2255. For
the following reasons, Gonzales' motion is denied.
March 19, 2015, Gonzales was charged in a one-count
indictment with conspiring to distribute and possess with
intent to distribute five kilograms or more of cocaine
hydrochloride and one kilogram or more of heroin, in
violation of 21 U.S.C. §§ 841(a)(1) and
841(b)(1)(A). A grand jury later returned two
superseding indictments including the same charge against
additional defendants. On January 21, 2016, Gonzales pleaded
guilty to the single count in the second superseding
indictment. The factual basis to which Gonzales agreed
at the time of his plea established the facts set forth
was a body shop owner and drug trafficking associate of Edwin
Martinez (“Martinez”), a high-level cocaine and
heroin trafficker from Houston, Texas. Martinez was known for
purchasing multiple kilogram quantities of cocaine and heroin
from a number of sources and selling the drugs to a number of
distributors in Houston, who, in turn, sold multiple kilogram
quantities of the cocaine and heroin in the Eastern District
of Louisiana and elsewhere with Martinez's knowledge.
Gonzales' body shop was another body shop owned by Paul
Norris (“Norris”). On October 27, 2014, Norris
and his friend, Rambo, visited Gonzales' home. Norris
told Gonzales that Rambo wanted to purchase cocaine
hydrochloride and asked Gonzales to provide Rambo with three
kilograms of the drug. Gonzales agreed to provide the drugs
and contacted Martinez to procure them. Martinez subsequently
delivered the drugs to Gonzales' body shop.
receiving the drugs from Martinez, Gonzales contacted Norris
and Rambo to arrange for a pickup. Norris and Rambo visited
Gonzales' body shop, retrieved the drugs, and departed.
Shortly thereafter, Norris returned and informed Gonzales
that Rambo had left with the drugs without remitting payment
contacted Martinez and told him of the situation. Martinez
traveled to Gonzales' body shop and confronted Norris.
Martinez pointed a gun at Norris and demanded payment for the
drugs. Martinez then forced Norris into his vehicle. Around
the same time, Houston police were dispatched to the area to
respond to reports of a possible kidnapping and armed
robbery. Officers arrived and arrested Gonzales and others.
sentencing, Gonzales and the government stipulated that the
drug conspiracy to which Gonzales pleaded guilty involved at
least five kilograms but less than fifteen kilograms of
cocaine hydrochloride. Gonzales' offense, therefore, carried
a mandatory minimum sentence of ten years imprisonment and a
maximum sentence of life imprisonment. See 21 U.S.C.
§ 841(b)(1)(A). The United States Probation Office
calculated Gonzales' total offense level as being 29 with
a criminal history category of VI. This calculation yielded a
guideline range of 121 to 151 months. Pursuant to United States
Sentencing Guideline § 5K1.1, the government filed a
motion for a reduced sentence based on Gonzales'
substantial assistance, and it sought a sentence of 85
April 20, 2017, the Court sentenced Gonzales to a term of
imprisonment of 97 months. Gonzales did not appeal his sentence or
his conviction. Gonzales filed the instant motion on April
30, 2018. The government does not dispute that
Gonzales' motion is timely.
asserts several claims of ineffective assistance of counsel.
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. Id. at 687.
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.
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.
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.
Gonzales argues that his counsel was ineffective in failing
to advise him of the relevant circumstances and likely
consequences of pleading guilty as opposed to proceeding to
trial. Gonzales states that his counsel
“failed to consult and explain the general strategy and
prospects of success and the likely result in the sentence he
would receive.” He further alleges that there was a
lack of communication from his counsel that precluded him
from effectively participating in his defense.
arguments are refuted by the record. At his re-arraignment,
Gonzales was asked by the government whether he recognized
the plea agreement in his case; whether he had an opportunity
to read and review it; whether he read every single page;
whether he reviewed it and discussed it with his attorney;
and whether he signed it. Gonzales answered all of the
government's questions in the affirmative.
the Court engaged in a lengthy colloquy with Gonzales prior
to accepting his plea. Throughout that exchange, Gonzales
indicated that he understood the terms of the plea his
agreement and that he entered his plea knowingly and
voluntarily. The Court specifically asked Gonzales if there
was anything in the plea agreement that he would like the
Court to explain to him, and he indicated that there was
following exchange also occurred:
THE COURT: Now, Mr. Gonzales . . . have each
of you had sufficient time to discuss with your attorney the
facts of your case and any possible defenses you may have?
DEFENDANT GONZALES: Yes, sir, Your Honor.
. . .
THE COURT: Are you each entirely satisfied
with the advice and services of your counsel?
DEFENDANT GONZALES: Yes, sir, Your
Gonzales has failed to establish prejudice because he has not
“demonstrate[d] that going to trial under the one-count
indictment would have given him a reasonable chance of
obtaining a more favorable result.” United States
v. Batamula, 823 F.3d 237, 240 (5th Cir. 2016). In this
regard, “[t]he court's prediction about whether the
defendant had a reasonable chance of obtaining a more
favorable result should be made objectively, without regard
for the idiosyncrasies of the particular
decisionmaker.” Id. (internal quotations
declares that he would have been successful at trial, but he
offers little, if anything, in support of this argument. Had
Gonzales proceeded to trial, the government likely would have
called Martinez to testify as to Gonzales' involvement in
the conspiracy. At the trial of Gonzales' co-defendants,
who were ultimately convicted, Martinez testified that he
stored nine kilograms of cocaine in Gonzales' body shop
and that Gonzales was involved in the drug transaction
involving the sale of three kilograms of cocaine to Rambo,
the same transaction that led to Gonzales'
Gonzales does not dispute that the transaction with Rambo
occurred. In fact, throughout his memorandum, he states that
he was, indeed, involved in the transaction. Nevertheless,
Gonzales insists that he would have been successful at trial.
This argument, as the government observes, stems from
Gonzales' misunderstanding of conspiracy law.
repeatedly states that he would have been successful at trial
because he was only involved in the one transaction in Texas
and he had no direct connection with the larger conspiracy in
Louisiana. Gonzales' argument is misplaced. His role in a
drug transaction, in which he readily admits to
participating, is precisely what makes him liable for
criminal conspiracy. See United States v. Basey, 816
F.2d 980, 997 (5th Cir. 1987) (“Well settled is the
principle that a party to a continuing conspiracy may be
responsible for a substantive offense committed by a
co-conspirator, even though that party does not participate
in the substantive offense or have any knowledge of it. Once
the conspiracy and a particular defendant's knowing
participation in it has been established beyond a reasonable
doubt, the defendant is deemed guilty of substantive acts
committed in furtherance of the conspiracy by any of his
criminal partners. This principle has been repeatedly applied
by this circuit in cases involving drug conspiracies and
substantive drug violations.”).
Gonzales has not shown that he had a reasonable chance of
obtaining a more favorable result at trial. Thus, he has
not demonstrated prejudice, and his ineffective assistance of
counsel claim fails.
Gonzales argues that his counsel was ineffective in failing
to file any substantive pretrial motions to “determine
the strength of [the government's]
case-in-chief.” Specifically, Gonzales maintains that
his counsel should have filed a motion for discovery and a
motion to dismiss for lack of jurisdiction.
alleges that his counsel's “lack of
compliance” rendered him “unable to obtain the
[d]iscovery that he needed to be fully informed so that he
could make an informed decision on whether to plead guilty or
proceed to trial.” Gonzales, however, does not indicate
what specific discovery his counsel should have sought nor
what such discovery would have revealed. Gonzales also does
not allege that the government actually failed to provide his
counsel with discovery materials. As noted by the government,
Gonzales articulates no “facts to support his
contention that such a motion was necessary or
at Gonzales' re-arraignment hearing, the Court asked
Assistant United States Attorney Andre Jones
(“Jones”) to describe the government's
evidence with respect to Gonzales. Jones then read the
factual basis, which stated the evidence that the United
States believed it would have proved beyond a reasonable
doubt had Gonzales proceeded to trial. Gonzales agreed to the
factual basis in the following exchange:
MR. JONES: [Mr. Gonzales, ] have you had an
opportunity to read and review this four-page factual basis?
DEFENDANT GONZALES: Yes, I have, sir.
MR. JONES: And you heard what I read into
the record just now?
DEFENDANT GONZALES: That is correct.
MR. JONES: And is what I read true and
DEFENDANT GONZALES: Yes, sir.
MR. JONES: And reflects what's in this
DEFENDANT GONZALES: That is right, sir.
. . .
THE COURT: . . . Mr. Gonzales, do you wish
to ask or have your attorney ask the U.S. Attorney any
question about the factual basis?
DEFENDANT GONZALES: No.
THE COURT: Have you heard the evidence and
facts that detail the charge against you?
DEFENDANT GONZALES: Yes, sir, I have, sir.
THE COURT: Do you understand the
DEFENDANT GONZALES: Yes, sir, I do, sir.
THE COURT: Are the U.S. Attorney's