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United States v. Sharper

United States District Court, E.D. Louisiana

July 9, 2019

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
v.
DARREN SHARPER

         SECTION: “H”

          ORDER AND REASONS

          JANE TRICHE MILAZZO, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Before the Court is Defendant Darren Sharper's Petition for Relief under 28 U.S.C. § 2255 (Doc. 557). For the following reasons, the Petition is DENIED.

         BACKGROUND

         On December 12, 2014, the Government charged Defendant Darren Sharper with distributing controlled substances to three women with the intent to commit rape, a crime of violence.[1] On May 29, 2015, Sharper entered a plea of guilty pursuant to Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 11(c)(1)(C) in exchange for a sentence of 108 months in prison.[2] After considering the Presentence Investigation Report and for reasons stated on the record, the Court rejected the 11(c)(1)(C) agreement.

         The Court then gave Sharper the opportunity to withdraw his guilty plea. He did not do so. Instead, he entered into a plea agreement pursuant to Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 11(c)(1)(B).[3] This Court ultimately sentenced Sharper to 220 months in prison.

         As part of his plea agreement, Sharper waived his right to directly appeal his sentence.[4] He nonetheless directly appealed his sentence to the Fifth Circuit on the grounds that he did not, in fact, waive his right to appeal his sentence and that this Court erred when calculating the appropriate Sentencing Guidelines for Sharper's sentence. The Government moved to dismiss Sharper's appeal based on Sharper's waiver, and the Fifth Circuit granted the motion.

         On July 31, 2018, Sharper timely filed the instant Petition seeking post-conviction relief under 28 U.S.C. § 2255. Sharper essentially argues that this Court should vacate his 220-month sentence because his attorneys allegedly did not tell him that he was waiving his right to appeal the sentence as part of his plea agreement. Specifically, Sharper alleges the following:

Petitioner was denied his right to effective assistance of counsel as provided by the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution when trial counsel failed to ensure that his guilty plea was knowingly and validly made, by failing to adequately counsel him on his plea agreement, failing to preserve his rights for direct appeal, and failing to object to the trial court's participation in plea negotiations.

         The Government opposes Sharper's Petition.

         LEGAL STANDARD

         I. 28 U.S.C. § 2255

         28 U.S.C. § 2255(a) provides a prisoner four grounds upon which he may seek relief from his sentence: (1) “that the sentence was imposed in violation of the Constitution or laws of the United States;” (2) “that the court was without jurisdiction to impose such sentence;” (3) “that the sentence was in excess of the maximum authorized by law;” or (4) that the sentence “is otherwise subject to collateral attack.”[5] If a court finds that any of the four grounds exist, the court “shall vacate and set the judgment aside and shall discharge the prisoner or resentence him or grant a new trial or correct the sentence as may appear appropriate.”[6] Nevertheless, “[r]elief under § 2255 is ‘reserved for transgressions of constitutional rights and for a narrow range of injuries that could not have been raised on direct appeal and would, if condoned, result in a complete miscarriage of justice.'”[7] “A district court may deny a § 2255 motion without conducting any type of evidentiary hearing if ‘the motion and the files and records of the case conclusively show that the prisoner is entitled to no relief.'”[8]

         II. Ineffective assistance of counsel

         “The Sixth Amendment requires effective assistance of counsel at critical stages of a criminal proceeding, ” which includes “during sentencing in both noncapital and capital cases.”[9] But “the right to counsel does not guarantee error-free counsel.”[10] The Supreme Court in Strickland v. Washington established a two-part test to determine when a defendant's right to effective assistance of counsel has been violated.[11] “To demonstrate that counsel was constitutionally ineffective, a defendant must show that [1] counsel's representation ‘fell below an objective standard of reasonableness' and [2] that he was prejudiced as a result.”[12]

         “When evaluating the first Strickland criterion, [the Court] ‘must indulge a strong presumption that counsel's conduct falls within the wide range of reasonable professional assistance.'”[13] Courts “must make ‘every effort . . . to eliminate the distorting effects of hindsight, to reconstruct the circumstances of counsel's challenged conduct, and to evaluate the conduct from counsel's perspective at the time.'”[14] Overall, “judicial scrutiny of counsel's performance must be highly deferential.”[15]

         “To establish Strickland prejudice a defendant must ‘show that there is a reasonable probability that, but for counsel's unprofessional errors, the result of the proceeding would have been different.'”[16] “A failure to establish either deficient performance or resulting prejudice defeats the [defendant's] claim.”[17]

         LAW AND ANALYSIS

         Defendant Sharper alleges that his Sixth Amendment right to effective counsel was violated on the ground that his trial counsel: (1) “failed to ensure that his guilty plea was knowingly and willingly made;” (2) failed to “adequately counsel him on his plea agreement;” (3) failed to “preserve his rights for direct appeal;” and (4) failed to “object to the trial court's participation in plea negotiations.[18]

         A lawyer does not act unreasonably-and thus does not provide ineffective assistance of counsel-when the record shows that a defendant admitted in open court to understanding the terms of his plea agreement and to having reviewed the agreement with his counsel.[19] Sharper admitted in open court on two separate occasions that he understood the terms of his plea agreement and that he had reviewed the terms of it with his counsel. The first instance occurred during Sharper's rearraignment on May 29, 2015. Sharper's attorneys, Kyle Schonekas and Billy Gibbens, attended the hearing. On that day, Sharper swore to tell the truth in court.[20] The following statements were made during the Court's colloquy with Sharper at the rearraignment:

THE COURT: Did you have any difficulty reviewing the paperwork associated with this case?
THE DEFENDANT: No, ma'am.[21]
. . .
THE COURT: Do you fully understand that by pleading guilty you are waiving your right to appeal and contest your sentence in any post-conviction proceedings except under those very limited circumstances outlined in the plea agreement?
THE DEFENDANT: Yes, ma'am.[22]
. . .
THE COURT: Mr. Sharper, are you pleading guilty because you are, in fact, guilty?
THE DEFENDANT: Yes, ma'am.[23]
. . .
THE COURT: Have you had an opportunity to discuss with your attorney the facts of your case and any possible defenses you may have?
THE DEFENDANT: Yes, ma'am.
THE COURT: Are you satisfied with the advice and services of your attorneys?
THE DEFENDANT: Yes, ma'am.[24]

         At one point, the Court asked Mark Miller, an Assistant United States Attorney, to summarize the plea agreement between the Government and Sharper. Miller noted that the agreement provided that Sharper “waived certain appellate rights, post-conviction rights, limited specifically as the Court has indicated during the Court's previous colloquy.”[25] Later on, the following statements were made:

THE COURT: Mr. Sharper, do you have any questions regarding the plea agreement?
THE DEFENDANT: No, ma'am.[26]
. . .
THE COURT: Do you fully understand the consequences of your plea of guilty?
THE DEFENDANT: Yes, ma'am.
THE COURT: Are you pleading guilty because you are, in fact, guilty?
THE DEFENDANT: Yes, ma'am.
THE COURT: Are you pleading guilty voluntarily and of your own free will?
THE DEFENDANT: Yes, ma'am.[27]

         At the time of his rearraignment, the record shows that Sharper knew the terms of his plea agreement and that his attorneys worked closely with him in counseling him throughout his case.

         Slightly complicating this issue of Sharper's knowledge is the fact that the Court rejected the 11(c)(1)(C) agreement that the Government and Sharper presented to this Court at Sharper's rearraignment. Nevertheless, Sharper ultimately pleaded guilty pursuant to an agreement that incorporated all the same provisions of Sharper's original agreement with one notable substitution: the provision regarding 11(c)(1)(C) had been swapped for one referencing ...


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