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United States v. Gonzales

United States District Court, E.D. Louisiana

July 20, 2018

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
v.
NICANOR GONZALES

         SECTION I

          ORDER & REASONS

          LANCE M. AFRICK UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Before 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.

         I.

         On 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).[1] A grand jury later returned two superseding indictments including the same charge against additional defendants.[2] On January 21, 2016, Gonzales pleaded guilty to the single count in the second superseding indictment.[3] The factual basis to which Gonzales agreed at the time of his plea established the facts set forth below.[4]

         Gonzales 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.

         Behind 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.

         After 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 for them.

         Gonzales 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.

         At 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.[5] 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.[6] This calculation yielded a guideline range of 121 to 151 months.[7] 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 months.[8]

         On April 20, 2017, the Court sentenced Gonzales to a term of imprisonment of 97 months.[9] Gonzales did not appeal his sentence or his conviction. Gonzales filed the instant motion on April 30, 2018.[10] The government does not dispute that Gonzales' motion is timely.[11]

         II. A.

         Gonzales 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.

         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.

         i.

         First, 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.[12] 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.”[13] He further alleges that there was a lack of communication from his counsel that precluded him from effectively participating in his defense.[14]

         Gonzales' 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.[15] Gonzales answered all of the government's questions in the affirmative.[16]

         Likewise, the Court engaged in a lengthy colloquy with Gonzales prior to accepting his plea.[17] 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 not.[18]

         The 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 Honor.[19]

         Furthermore, 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 omitted).

         Gonzales 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' arrest.[20]

         Interestingly, 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.[21] Nevertheless, Gonzales insists that he would have been successful at trial. This argument, as the government observes, stems from Gonzales' misunderstanding of conspiracy law.

         Gonzales 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.”).

         Accordingly, Gonzales has not shown that he had a reasonable chance of obtaining a more favorable result at trial.[22] Thus, he has not demonstrated prejudice, and his ineffective assistance of counsel claim fails.

         ii.

         Second, 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.”[23] Specifically, Gonzales maintains that his counsel should have filed a motion for discovery and a motion to dismiss for lack of jurisdiction.[24]

         Gonzales 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.”[25] 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 meritorious.”[26]

         Additionally, 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.[27] 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 accurate?
DEFENDANT GONZALES: Yes, sir.
MR. JONES: And reflects what's in this document?
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 government's evidence?
DEFENDANT GONZALES: Yes, sir, I do, sir.
THE COURT: Are the U.S. Attorney's statements ...

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