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Aiken v. Taylor

United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Eastern Division

December 14, 2017

JEREMY L. AIKEN, Petitioner,
v.
WILLIAM TAYLOR, Respondent.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          VIRGINIA EMERSON HOPKINS, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         This is a petition for writ of habeas corpus filed by pro se petitioner, Jeremy Lujan Aiken, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2241 and the saving clause of 28 U.S.C. § 2255(e). (Doc. 1). Petitioner, who is incarcerated at FCI Talladega, challenges his June 13, 2005 conviction in the Western District of North Carolina for possession with intent to distribute cocaine base. (Id. at 1; Doc. 2 at 3). This matter is fully briefed and ripe for adjudication. (See Docs. 7, 13). As explained below, the petition is due to be dismissed for lack of jurisdiction.

         I. BACKGROUND

         In 2004, a grand jury indictment in the Western District of North Carolina charged Petitioner with: (1) possession with intent to distribute more than 50 grams of cocaine base under 21 U.S.C. §§ 841(a) and (b)(1)(A) (“Count I”); (2) possession with intent to distribute more than 5 grams of cocaine base under 21 U.S.C. §§ 841(a) and (b)(1)(B) (“Count II”); and (3) two counts of being a felon in possession of a firearm under 18 U.S.C. § 922(g) (“Count III”, “Count IV”). (See Doc. 2 at 3; Doc. 7 at 3-4). The prosecution subsequently filed a notice indicating Petitioner had a “prior felony drug offense” justifying enhanced penalties under 21 U.S.C. § 851. (See Doc. 2 at 3; Doc. 7 at 4). Petitioner eventually pled guilty to Counts I and IV. (See Doc. 2 at 3; Doc. 7 at 4). As to Count I, the plea agreement acknowledged the statutory maximum sentence was life and the mandatory minimum sentence was either 10 or 20 years, depending on whether Petitioner had been found guilty of a prior felony drug offense. (See Doc. 7 at 4). The plea agreement stipulated “the amount of cocaine base . . . was at least 50 grams but less than 150 grams.” (See id.). The agreement also noted the possibility that the prosecution would file a substantial-assistance motion under U.S.S.G. § 5K1.1 and 18 U.S.C. § 3553(e). (See id.).

         Petitioner pled guilty in accordance with the agreement, and a pre-sentence report (“PSR”) was prepared. (See Doc. 7 at 4). The PSR noted Petitioner qualified as a career offender based on “two sets of convictions:” (1) drug convictions; and (2) convictions for felony robbery with a dangerous weapon. (Id. at 5). The PSR's calculation of the sentence was based on Petitioner's status as a career offender, including the applicable 20 year mandatory minimum sentence for Count I. (See Id. at 4-5). The PSR yielded an advisory sentence range of 262 to 327 months. (See id. at 5). During the sentencing hearing, the prosecution-citing Petitioner's assistance and cooperation-moved for a downward departure, yeilding a sentence range of 210 to 262 months. (Id. at 5-6). The sentencing court granted the prosecution's downward departure motion, imposing a 224 month sentence on Count I and a concurrent 120 month sentence on Count IV. (Id. at 6; Doc. 2 at 3-4).

         Petitioner appealed, and the Fourth Circuit affirmed. United States v. Aiken, 165 F. App'x 272 (4th Cir. 2006); (See Doc. 7 at 6). On October 19, 2007, Petitioner filed a motion to vacate pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2255, alleging ineffective assistance of counsel. (See Doc. 1 at 2). The sentencing court dismissed the § 2255 motion as untimely. (See id.; Doc. 7 at 6). On May 21, 2014, Petitioner filed a second § 2255 motion, which the sentencing court dismissed as successive. (See Doc. 7 at 6; Doc. 2 at 4). Petitioner also filed a motion under 18 U.S.C. § 3582, seeking a sentence reduction pursuant to U.S.S.G. Amendment 782. (See Doc. 2 at 4). The sentencing court denied the motion due to Petitioner's status as a career offender. (See id.). Petitioner sought reconsideration, advancing the same arguments presented in the instant petition. (See id.). The sentencing court denied the motion as seeking relief unavailable via 18 U.S.C. § 3582. (See id.).

         Petitioner asserts he was erroneously sentenced as a career offender. (Doc. 1 at 6-7). Petitioner's contention is based on United States v. Simmons, 649 F.3d 237 (4th Cir. 2011). (Doc. 1 at 6-7; Doc. 2 at 6). In Simmons, the Fourth Circuit held that, in order for a prior felony to serve as a predicate offense for sentencing enhancement purposes, the conviction must expose the defendant to the possibility of more than one year imprisonment. Simmons, 649 F.3d at 243.[1] Under North Carolina's structured sentencing regime, the maximum sentence Petitioner faced on his prior drug offenses was 10 months. (Doc. 2 at 6-7). Accordingly, Petitioner contends the federal sentencing court erred in finding his prior North Carolina drug convictions rendered him a career offender under the Guidelines. (Id.). Petitioner asks this Court to take jurisdiction over his claims under the saving clause and transfer this matter to the sentencing court. (Id. at 2).

         II. DISCUSSION

         The general habeas statute authorizes “district courts . . . within their respective jurisdictions” to grant writs of habeas corpus to prisoners who are “in custody in violation of the Constitution or laws or treaties of the United States.” 28 U.S.C. § 2241. When a prisoner seeks post-conviction relief based on a challenge to the validity of a federal conviction or sentence, he generally must do so by filing a § 2255 motion “to vacate, set aside or correct the sentence” in the sentencing court. 28 U.S.C. § 2255(a); see Antonelli v. Warden, USP Atlanta, 542 F.3d 1348, 1351 (11th Cir. 2008); McGhee v. Hanberry, 604 F.2d 9, 10 (5th Cir. 1979). Thus, in most cases a prisoner cannot seek a writ of habeas corpus under § 2241 to assert a claim attacking a federal sentence or conviction. See Antonelli, 542 F.3d at 1351.

         However, under the saving clause of 28 U.S.C. § 2255(e), a federal court may grant habeas relief under § 2241 where the “remedy by [§ 2255] motion is inadequate or ineffective to test the legality of [the] detention.” 28 U.S.C. § 2255(e); see Gilbert v. United States, 640 F.3d 1293, 1305-06 (11th Cir. 2011) (en banc). If a federal prisoner satisfies his burden of demonstrating the requirements of the saving clause are met, he may assert the claim in a § 2241 habeas application, which must be filed in the district of confinement. See Fernandez v. United States, 941 F.2d 1488, 1495 (11th Cir. 1991). Whether the saving clause applies is a jurisdictional inquiry which must be decided before addressing the merits of a claim. See McCarthan v. Dir. of Goodwill Indus.-Suncoast, Inc., 851 F.3d 1076, 1099 (11th Cir. 2017) (en banc).

         The instant petition appears to presume that Fourth Circuit law governs this matter. (See Doc. 2 at 4). Respondents do not address this contention, although they largely rely on Eleventh Circuit law. (See generally Doc. 7; Doc. 19). There is authority holding that § 2241 petitions challenging a federal conviction are governed by the law of the circuit in which the sentencing court sat. See Hernandez v. Gilkey, 242 F.Supp.2d 549, 554 (S.D. Ill. 2001); Chaney v. O'Brien, No. 07-0012, 2007 WL 1189641, at *3 (W.D. Va. April 23, 2007), aff'd, 241 F. App'x 977, 977, at *1 (4th Cir. 2007). As explained below, this court need not decide which law applies because Petitioner's claims fail under both Eleventh Circuit and Fourth Circuit law.

         Under Fourth Circuit law, § 2255 is only inadequate or ineffective to test the legality of a conviction when:

(1) at the time of conviction, settled law of this circuit or the Supreme Court established the legality of the conviction; (2) subsequent to the prisoner's direct appeal and first § 2255 motion, the substantive law changed such that the conduct of which the prisoner was convicted is deemed not to be criminal; and (3) the prisoner cannot satisfy the gatekeeping provisions of § 2255 because the new rule is not one of constitutional law.

In re Jones, 226 F.3d 328, 333-34 (4th Cir. 2000). Here, Petitioner cannot satisfy the second requirement of the Jones test. Simmons did not decriminalize the conduct leading to ...


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