United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Southern Division
R. DAVID PROCTOR, District Judge.
The court has before it Brian Keith Steele's Motion to Vacate, Set Aside, or Correct Sentence Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2255 (Doc. #1), filed on November 26, 2013. Pursuant to the court's orders of February 6, 2014 (Doc. #3) and March 6, 2014 (Doc. #5), the United States Government filed a Response (Doc. #5) to Steele's Section 2255 Motion on March 25, 2014. In its response, the Government seeks to have the Motion to Vacate (Doc. #1) dismissed in its entirety. Petitioner filed an Addendum to the Government's Response to his Petition (Doc. #8) on July 16, 2014.
Petitioner Steele's Motion to Vacate (Doc. #1) seeks relief on the ground that he received ineffective assistance of counsel during the guilty plea stage of proceedings. (Doc. #1 at 6).
On February 29, 2012, a federal grand jury returned a ten count indictment against Brian Steele. ( See Doc. #1 in Case No.: 2:12-cr-0068-RDP-MHH). On April 11, 2012, Steele was arrested and had an initial appearance. (Docket entry of 4/11/2012 in Case No. 2:12-cr-0068-RDP-MHH). On May 7, 2012, the United States filed an information to establish Steele's prior felony drug conviction which subjected him to a mandatory minimum sentence of twenty years in prison if he was convicted of the penalty section set forth in 21 U.S.C. § 841(b)(1)(A) in Count One. (Doc. #32 in 2:12cr68).
Steele plead guilty to Counts One, Six, Eight, Nine, and Ten of the Indictment. (Doc. #50 in 2:12cr68). On November 27, 2012, Steele was sentenced and remanded to the custody of the Bureau of Prisons for twenty years on Counts One, Six, Seven, Eight, and Ten - separately and concurrently - plus a 60-month consecutive sentence on Count Nine. (Doc. #78 in 2:12cr68). Steele did not appeal this sentence.
A federal prisoner may file a motion to vacate his or her sentence "upon the ground that the sentence was imposed in violation of the Constitution or laws of the United States, or that the court was without personal jurisdiction to impose such a sentence, or that the sentence was in excess of the maximum authorized by law, or is otherwise subject to collateral attack." 28 U.S.C. § 2255, ¶ 1. It is well settled that "to obtain collateral relief, a prisoner must clear a significantly higher hurdle than would exist on direct appeal." United States v. Frady, 456 U.S. 152, 166 (1982). Here, Petitioner seeks relief on the ground that he received ineffective assistance of counsel.
Ineffective assistance of counsel claims are governed by the standard set forth in Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984). In Strickland, the Supreme Court established a two-prong test for adjudicating ineffective assistance of counsel claims. Both prongs of the test must be met for Petitioner to succeed. Id. at 687. First, Steele must show that counsel's performance was deficient, i.e., outside the range of professionally competent assistance. Id. The proper measure of an attorney's performance is "reasonableness under prevailing professional norms." Id. at 688. Unless a petitioner can rebut the "strong presumption that counsel's conduct falls within the wide range of reasonable professional assistance, " he cannot show that counsel's performance was constitutionally deficient. Id. at 689. "The test has nothing to do with what the best lawyers would have done. Nor is the test even what most good lawyers would have done. [The court asks] only whether some reasonable lawyer... could have acted, in the circumstances, as defense counsel acted...." White v. Singletary, 972 F.2d 1218, 1220 (11th Cir. 1992); see also Waters v. Thomas, 46 F.3d 1506, 1514 (11th Cir. 1995) (stating that "perfection is not the standard of effective assistance").
Second, Steele must establish prejudice, such that there is a reasonable probability that, absent counsel's errors, the outcome of the proceeding would have been different. Strickland, 466 U.S. at 687; Chandler v. United States, 218 F.3d 1305, 1312-13 (11th Cir. 2000). "A reasonable probability is a probability sufficient to undermine confidence in the outcome." Strickland, 466 U.S. at 694. Because Petitioner must meet both parts of the test, the court need not address the performance prong if Petitioner cannot meet the prejudice prong, and vice versa. Holladay v. Haley, 209 F.3d 1243, 1248 (11th Cir. 2000).
The Supreme Court has held that Strickland's two-part test also applies to "challenges to guilty pleas based on ineffective assistance of counsel." Hill v. Lockhart, 474 U.S. 52, 58 (1985). In Hill, the Court held that to establish prejudice, "the defendant 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." Hill, 474 U.S. at 59. The context of the case's scope and the circumstances of counsel's representation also matter. Thus, "counsel owes a lesser duty to a client who pleads guilty than to one who decides to go to trial, and in the former case counsel need only provide his client with an understanding of the law in relation to the facts, so that the accused may make an informed and conscious choice between accepting the prosecution's offer and going to trial." Wofford v. Wainwright, 748 F.2d 1505, 1508 (11th Cir.1984). "To impart such an understanding to the accused, counsel must, after making an independent examination of the facts, circumstances, pleadings and laws involved, offer his informed opinion as to the best course to be followed in protecting the interests of his client." Id. Of course, the court also plays an important role in ensuring that criminal defendants make knowing, voluntary, and informed decisions about whether to plead guilty or proceed to trial. See, e.g., Fed. R. Crim. P. 11(b).
A. Burden of Proof
Petitioner argues that he never would have agreed to the guilty plea had counsel "properly" informed him of the law in relation to the facts of the case "and would have instead either went to trial or negotiated a favorable agreement." (Doc. #2 at 8). He argues that he didn't understand what the Government would have to prove as to Counts One and Nine because his attorney never explained the intricacies of those counts to him.
1. Count One
As to Count One, which charged Petitioner with Conspiracy to Possess with the Intent to Distribute 280 grams of cocaine base and 5 kilograms of cocaine hydrochloride in violation of 21 U.S.C. §§ 846 and 841(a), Petitioner argues that his counsel failed to inform him as to the elements of conspiracy. (Doc. #2 at 10) (citing United States v. Payne, 750 F.2d 844 (11th Cir. 1985)). More specifically, Steele argues that his attorney failed to explain the following: the essence of a conspiracy is an agreement to commit a common objective; two parties can engage in a drug transaction without forming a conspiracy; a person cannot conspire with a government informer who secretly intends to frustrate the purpose of the conspiracy; and there was no benefit to the Government's plea agreement. ( See Doc. #2 at 10-11).
During the court's plea colloquy with Petitioner, however, the following exchanges occurred which demonstrate Petitioner's argument to be without merit:
THE COURT: Mr. Cross, have you had adequate time to consider any possible defense with respect to your client, to consider and investigate the charges against him, and to discuss all those matters with him?
MR. CROSS: Yes, Your Honor, I have.
THE COURT: And, Mr. Steele, have you had adequate time to consult with your attorney concerning the charges pending against you and any defenses you may have to those charges?
DEFENDANT: Yes, sir.
THE COURT: Are you fully satisfied with the representation and advice that you received from your attorney, Mr. Cross, in this case?
DEFENDANT: Yes, sir.
(Doc. #87 at 4-5 in Case No. 2:12cr68-RDP-MHH).
THE COURT: All right. What I want to give you now is an explanation of the charges. I'm going to start with Count 1. That is the conspiracy count. It alleges that you and others conspired to possess with the intent to distribute some 280 grams or more of a mixture and substance containing a detectable amount of cocaine base, otherwise known as crack cocaine, and five kilograms or more of a mixture and substance containing a detectable amount of cocaine hydrochloride, that is, cocaine powder. That charge in Count 1 is a conspiracy and is a felony offense.
In order to convict you of that offense, the government would have to prove the following facts: That two or more people in some way or manner agreed to try to accomplish a shared and unlawful plan to possess a mixture and substance containing a detectable amount of crack cocaine and a mixture and substance containing a detectable amount of powder cocaine.
Second, that you knew the unlawful purpose of the plan and willfully joined in it. And third, that the object of the unlawful plan was to possess with the intent to distribute and/or distribute 280 grams or more of a mixture and substance containing a detectable amount of crack cocaine and five kilograms or more of a mixture and substance containing a detectable amount of powder cocaine.
You can be convicted as a conspirator even without knowing all the details of the unlawful plan or the names and identities of all the other alleged conspirators. And if you only played a minor part in the plan but had a general understanding of the unlawful purpose of the plan, that is sufficient to convict you if you willfully joined in the plan on at least one occasion.
Do you understand the charges against you ...