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United States v. Scott

United States District Court, E.D. Louisiana

May 28, 2019


         SECTION I

          ORDER & REASONS


         Before the Court is pro se prisoner and petitioner Sonny Scott's (“Scott”) motion[1] to vacate, set aside, or correct his sentence pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2255. For the following reasons, the motion is granted in part, denied in part and deferred in part, in accordance with this order. With respect to most of Scott's claims, no evidentiary hearing is necessary because they are meritless. However, Scott's substantive Fourth Amendment claim, as well as one of his Sixth Amendment claims for ineffective assistance of counsel, which is predicated on the existence of a valid Fourth Amendment challenge, require an evidentiary hearing to further develop the record.


         On April 6, 2017, Scott pled guilty to a one-count superseding bill of information, which charged him with being a felon in possession of a firearm in violation of 18 U.S.C. §§ 922(g)(1) and 924(a)(2); there was no plea agreement.[2] According to the government's factual basis-entered into the record at Scott's rearraignment hearing when he changed his plea to guilty-on January 12, 2017, Drug Enforcement Administration (“DEA”) agents and task force officers were conducting surveillance on suspected drug distributors in an area that they knew from experience to be a common location for drug trafficking.[3]At approximately 10:15 p.m., the agents observed Scott meet with another individual in a parking lot located in the area.[4] Scott departed the area quickly, and shortly thereafter the agents located him at a nearby Taco Bell drive-thru.[5] The agents approached Scott to conduct an investigatory stop, handcuffing him to ensure the agents' safety.[6] During a search of his person, the agents found approximately $250 in cash, three grams of heroin, approximately three grams of cocaine, numerous unidentified and individually wrapped pills, and a loaded .38 caliber special Smith & Wesson firearm.[7]

         On July 13, 2017, following Scott's guilty plea, which was entered and accepted on April 6, 2017, the Court sentenced Scott to a term of imprisonment of 100 months.[8]Scott appealed his sentence, challenging both this Court's decision to depart upward from his advisory guidelines sentencing range and the extent of the departure.[9] The United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed this Court's judgment, and on November 6, 2018, the United States Supreme Court denied Scott's petition for a writ of certiorari.[10] Scott now moves to vacate, set aside, or correct his sentence pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2255.[11]


         Section 2255 is designed to remedy constitutional errors and certain other injuries that could not be brought on direct appeal and would result in injustice if left unaddressed. United States v. Williamson, 183 F.3d 458, 462 (5th Cir. 1999). Accordingly, the law allows a prisoner in federal custody to bring a motion to vacate, set aside, or correct his sentence in the court that imposed the sentence based on four grounds for relief:

the sentence was imposed in violation of the Constitution or laws of the United States, . . . the court was without jurisdiction to impose such sentence, . . . the sentence was in excess of the maximum authorized by law, or [the sentence] is otherwise subject to collateral attack.

28 U.S.C. § 2255(a). The § 2255 proceeding functions as “an independent and collateral inquiry into the validity of [a] conviction.” United States v. Hayman, 342 U.S. 205, 222-23 (1952).

         A defendant may only raise “issues of constitutional or jurisdictional magnitude.” United States v. Shaid, 937 F.2d 228, 232 (5th Cir. 1991), cert. denied, 502 U.S. 1076 (1992) (citing Hill v. United States, 368 U.S. 424, 428 (1962)). Additionally, “[t]he Supreme Court has emphasized repeatedly that a collateral challenge may not do service for an appeal.” Id. at 231 (internal quotation marks omitted). Thus, a defendant generally “may not raise an issue for the first time on collateral review without showing both ‘cause' for his procedural default, and ‘actual prejudice' resulting from the error.” Id. at 232 (quoting United States v. Frady, 456 U.S. 152, 165 (1982)).[12] A motion brought pursuant to § 2255 may only be denied without a hearing “if the motion, files, and records of the case conclusively show that the prisoner is entitled to no relief.” United States v. Bartholomew, 974 F.2d 39, 41 (5th Cir. 1992).


         Scott asserts two grounds for relief. First, he challenges his conviction by arguing that his trial counsel provided him with ineffective assistance.[13] Second, he argues that the law enforcement officers who arrested him for the instant offense violated his Fourth Amendment rights by subjecting him to an unlawful search.[14]

         In Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984), the Supreme Court articulated a two-part test for determining whether a defendant's assistance of counsel was constitutionally deficient. This test requires the petitioner to show both (1) deficient performance of counsel and (2) resulting prejudice from the deficient performance. Strickland, 466 U.S. at 687. The petitioner must satisfy both prongs of the Strickland test. Id. at 697. A court is not required to address Strickland's two prongs in any particular order. Id. If it is possible to dispose of an ineffective assistance of counsel claim without addressing both prongs, then “that course should be followed.” Id.

         A petitioner can demonstrate deficient performance and establish the first prong by “show[ing] that [his] counsel's representation fell below an objective standard of reasonableness.” Id. at 688. In evaluating an attorney's past performance on his client's behalf, “a court must indulge a strong presumption that counsel's conduct falls within the wide range of reasonable professional assistance.” Id. at 689. In other words, “[j]udicial scrutiny of counsel's performance must be highly deferential.” Id. The Court must take care to avoid casting counsel's every “act or omission” in the “harsh light of hindsight.” Bell v. Cone, 535 U.S. 685, 702 (2002).

         Strickland's second prong requires a petitioner to show that his counsel's deficient performance prejudiced him. Prejudice requires “a reasonable probability that, but for counsel's unprofessional errors, the result of the judicial proceeding would have been different.” Strickland, 466 U.S. at 694. A “reasonable probability” is “a probability sufficient to undermine confidence in the outcome” of the proceeding. Id. In the context of a guilty plea, 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. “[T]he mere possibility of a different outcome is not sufficient. . . .” Crane v. Johnson, 178 F.3d 309, 312 (5th Cir. 1999) (emphasis added). The petitioner “must affirmatively prove, not just allege, prejudice.” Day v. Quarterman, 566 F.3d 527, 536 (5th Cir. 2009) (emphasis added). The Court will address Scott's ineffective assistance of counsel claims in turn.


         First, Scott argues that his attorney failed to negotiate a favorable plea.[15] As an initial matter, although Scott refers to a plea agreement throughout his motion, there was no plea agreement in this matter: the superseding bill of information charged Scott with one count of being a felon in possession of a firearm, and he pled guilty to that count without having ever been offered a plea agreement by the government.[16]

         Under the first prong of the Strickland test, Scott must show that his counsel's purported failure “fell below an objective standard of reasonableness.” 466 U.S. at 688. To the extent Scott argues that his counsel should have attempted to negotiate a plea agreement, his argument fails because “a defendant has no right to be offered a plea agreement.” Robles-Pantoja v. United States, No. 09-88, 2015 WL 13534221, at *4 (W.D. Tex. Sept. 30, 2015) (citing Lafler v. Cooper, 566 U.S. 156, 168 (2012)). Most courts treat Scott's argument as a “non-starter”: because “there is no duty to initiate plea negotiations or request a plea agreement, . . . failing to do so cannot constitute deficient performance under the first prong of Strickland.” Id. (citations omitted).[17]

         Furthermore, Scott does not specify what about his plea was unfavorable; nor does he indicate what information his counsel had access to that would have permitted her to successfully negotiate an agreement which would have been advantageous to him. Finally, Scott does not contend that he was offered a more favorable plea but rejected the offer at the advice of his counsel. His allegation is insufficient to overcome the “strong presumption” that his counsel provided him with reasonable, professional assistance. Id. at 689; cf. United States v. Moya, 676 F.3d 1211, 1214 (10th Cir. 2012) (holding that the defendant's ineffective assistance of counsel claim “lacked any colorable merit, ” in part because he did not allege any facts suggesting that his attorney could have successfully negotiated a plea agreement with the terms that the defendant desired).


         Scott next argues that his plea was involuntary and unintelligent because his counsel persuaded him to plead guilty by promising him that he would receive a different sentence than the sentence the Court actually imposed.[18] However, Scott's assertion defies his own testimony during his rearraignment. At the hearing, the Court gave an extensive explanation of the charge Scott faced, the maximum sentence that could be imposed in the event of a conviction or a guilty plea with respect to such charge, the rights to which Scott was entitled, and the consequences of waiving those rights by changing his plea. The Court also explained that the sentence he would receive would depend on a number of factors, as illustrated by the following exchange:

THE COURT: Have the sentencing guidelines applicable to your case been explained to you by your counsel?
THE COURT: Do you understand that, although the Court has an obligation to calculate the applicable sentencing guideline range and consider that range, the guidelines are advisory and not binding on the Court?
THE COURT: Do you understand the Court may depart from the guideline range under certain circumstances and [that] there are numerous factors the Court considers [when] fashioning an appropriate sentence?
SCOTT: Yes.[19]

         Later in the hearing, the Court pointedly asked Scott whether anyone had told him that he would receive a particular sentence.

THE COURT: Has anyone, including your attorney, told you what sentence you might receive if I accept your guilty plea?
SCOTT: No.[20]
THE COURT: Do you understand that any discussions between [you and] your attorney or anyone else about sentencing guidelines are merely rough estimates, and the Court is not bound by those discussions?

         The record reflects that, on the date Scott pled guilty, he understood that the Court was the ultimate decisionmaker as to his sentence and that, in turn, Scott was not guaranteed any precise sentence. “Ordinarily a defendant will not be heard to refute his testimony given under oath when pleading guilty.” United States v. Fuller, 769 F.2d 1095, 1099 (5th Cir. 1985) (quoting United States v. Sanderson, 595 F.2d 1021, 1021 (5th Cir. 1979). There is nothing in the record to suggest that Scott only pled guilty as the result of a promise that he would receive a specific sentence. In fact, when asked whether he had been influenced or persuaded to plead guilty because of a promise of leniency, he said, “No.”[21] And when asked whether he was pleading guilty because he was, in fact, guilty of the crime charged in the superseding bill of information, he answered, “Yes.”[22] The Court finds Scott's challenge unavailing.


         Scott also argues that his counsel failed to adequately explain his plea to him and that she failed to provide him with enough time to review and consider the plea.[23]For example, he asserts that he was “rushed into trying to understand [the] plea” and that his counsel did not ensure that Scott understood his rights.[24] Scott argues that, as late as the date on which he was sentenced, he vocalized to the Court that he did not fully understand his plea.[25] Again, the record reflects otherwise.

         During his rearraignment, after the Court described each of the rights that Scott was waiving or giving up by pleading guilty, Scott was questioned about whether he understood the consequences of his plea.

THE COURT: Do you understand if I accept your plea of guilty, you would not be entitled to a trial and the government would not be required to prove you're guilty?
THE COURT: Do you understand if you plead guilty and I accept the guilty plea, you would be waiving and giving up your right to trial and all the other rights I just explained to you?
THE COURT: Do you fully understand if I accept your guilty plea, there will be no trial and I will simply enter a judgment of guilty and sentence you on the basis of your guilty plea?
THE COURT: Are you willing to waive and give up your right to trial by jury or judge?
SCOTT: Yes.[26]

         Scott also indicated that he was satisfied with his counsel's assistance leading up to his decision to plead guilty:

THE COURT: Have you had sufficient time to discuss with your attorney the facts of your case and any possible defenses you may have?
THE COURT: Are you entirely satisfied with the advice and services of your counsel?
SCOTT: Yes.[27]

         Moreover, Scott's plea was not particularly complex or difficult to understand. He was charged with a single count, alleging that he illegally possessed a firearm. At his rearraignment, the Court explained to Scott the charged offense as it was described in the superseding bill of information-namely that he was found in possession of a firearm, having been previously convicted of two felonies.[28]

         Scott represented to the Court that he understood the charge against him and what the government would have to prove at trial to convict him.[29] Thus, even assuming that Scott could prove that his counsel's performance fell below an objective standard of reasonableness, he cannot establish that he suffered any resulting prejudice. The Court explained to Scott the nature and consequences of his plea, and he affirmed his understanding of the Court's explanations. Scott cannot now ...

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