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Cortez-Contreras v. United States

United States District Court, S.D. Alabama, Southern Division

February 14, 2018




         Juan Carlos Cortez-Contreras, a federal prisoner proceeding pro se, has filed a Motion to Vacate, Set Aside, or Correct Sentence under 28 U.S.C. § 2255 (Doc. 33[1]) and supporting brief (Doc. 34). The motion has been referred to the undersigned Magistrate Judge, who is authorized under S.D. Ala. GenLR 72(a)(1) and (2)(R) to require responses, issue orders to show cause and any other orders necessary to develop a complete record, and to prepare a report and recommendation to the District Judge as to appropriate disposition of these proceedings brought under 28 U.S.C. § 2255, in accordance with 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1) and Rules 8(b) and 10 of the Rules Governing Section 2255 Proceedings for the United States District Courts. See S.D. Ala. GenLR 72(b); (6/19/2017 electronic reference).

         As ordered under Rule 4(b) of the Rules Governing Section 2255 Proceedings (see Doc. 35), the Government has timely filed a response (Doc. 37) in opposition to Cortez-Contreras's § 2255 motion. Though given the opportunity, Cortez-Contreras has not submitted a reply to the response, and the deadline to do so, August 29, 2017, has passed. (See Doc. 35).[2]

         Having reviewed the parties' submissions in accordance with Rule 8(a) of the Rules Governing Section 2255 Proceedings, the undersigned finds that an evidentiary hearing is not warranted and that Cortez-Contreras's § 2255 motion (Doc. 33) is due be DENIED and DISMISSED with prejudice.

         I. Background

         On July 27, 2016, the grand jury of this district returned a 2-count indictment against Cortez-Contreras. (Doc. 1 filed “07/27/2016”). On September 19, 2016, Cortez-Contreras, represented by appointed counsel and pursuant to a written plea agreement (Doc. 21), pled guilty to Count 1 of the indictment, which charged an offense illegal reentry after deportation or removal in violation of 8 U.S.C. §§ 1326(a) and (b)(2). (See Doc. 22).

         The final Presentence Investigation Report (“PSR”) (Doc. 28) prepared by the U.S. Probation Office assigned Cortez-Contreras a total offense level of 21 and a criminal history category of III, resulting in a guideline imprisonment range of 46 to 57 months. On December 7, 2016, the Court sentenced Cortez-Contreras to 46 months of imprisonment, to be followed by 3 years of supervised release and immediate delivery to immigration authorities for possible deportation, and $100 special assessment. (See Doc. 31). Cortez-Contreras took no direct appeal of his conviction or sentence.

         II. Legal Standards

         Title 28 U.S.C. § 2255 “permits a federal prisoner to bring a collateral challenge by moving the sentencing court to vacate, set aside, or correct the sentence.” Winthrop-Redin v. United States, 767 F.3d 1210, 1215-16 (11th Cir. 2014). Specifically, § 2255 provides:

A prisoner in custody under sentence of a court established by Act of Congress claiming the right to be released 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 jurisdiction to impose such sentence, or that the sentence was in excess of the maximum authorized by law, or is otherwise subject to collateral attack, may move the court which imposed the sentence to vacate, set aside or correct the sentence ... If the court finds that the judgment was rendered without jurisdiction, or that the sentence imposed was not authorized by law or otherwise open to collateral attack, or that there has been such a denial or infringement of the constitutional rights of the prisoner as to render the judgment vulnerable to collateral attack, 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.

28 U.S.C. § 2255(a)-(b).

         “Once the defendant's chance to appeal has been waived or exhausted, ” a court is “entitled to presume he stands fairly and finally convicted, especially when, as here, he already has had a fair opportunity to present his federal claims to a federal forum.” United States v. Frady, 456 U.S. 152, 164 (1982). “[A] collateral challenge, such as a § 2255 motion, may not be a surrogate for a direct appeal.” Lynn v. United States, 365 F.3d 1225, 1232 (11th Cir. 2004) (per curiam) (citing Frady, 456 U.S. at 165 (collecting cases)). “Because collateral review is not a substitute for a direct appeal, the general rules have developed that: (1) a defendant must assert all available claims on direct appeal, and (2) relief under 28 U.S.C. § 2255 is reserved for transgressions of constitutional rights and for that narrow compass of other injury that could not have been raised in direct appeal and would, if condoned, result in a complete miscarriage of justice.” Id. at 1232 (internal citations, quotations, and footnote omitted).

Once a petitioner files a § 2255 motion, “[u]nless the motion and the files and records of the case conclusively show that the prisoner is entitled to no relief, the court shall ... grant a prompt hearing thereon, determine the issues and make findings of fact and conclusions of law with respect thereto.” [28 U.S.C.] § 2255(b). A petitioner is entitled to an evidentiary hearing if he “alleges facts that, if true, would entitle him to relief.” Aron[ v. United States], 291 F.3d [708, ] 715[ (11th Cir. 2002)] (quoting Holmes v. United States, 876 F.2d 1545, 1552 (11th Cir. 1989)). “[A] petitioner need only allege-not prove-reasonably specific, non-conclusory facts that, if true, would entitle him to relief.” Id. at 715 n.6. However, a district court need not hold a hearing if the allegations are “patently frivolous, ” “based upon unsupported generalizations, ” or “affirmatively contradicted by the record.” Holmes, 876 F.2d at 1553 (quoting United States v. Guerra, 588 F.2d 519, 520- 21 (5th Cir. 1979)); see, e.g., Lynn v. United States, 365 F.3d 1225, 1239 (11th Cir. 2004) (“Because the ... affidavits submitted by Lynn amount to nothing more than mere conclusory allegations, the district court was not required to hold an evidentiary hearing on the issues and correctly denied Lynn's § 2255 motion.”).

Winthrop-Redin, 767 F.3d at 1216 (footnote omitted). Accord, e.g., Diveroli v. United States, 803 F.3d 1258, 1263 (11th Cir. 2015). The Court must “liberally construe pro se filings, including pro se applications for relief pursuant to § 2255.” Winthrop-Redin, 767 F.3d at 1215.

         III. Analysis

         A. Grounds for Relief

         Cortez-Contreras asserts two grounds for relief under § 2255, both alleging ineffective assistance of trial counsel at sentencing. The Sixth Amendment gives criminal defendants the right to effective assistance of counsel. U.S. Const., amend. VI; Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 684-86 (1984). “[F]ailure to raise an ineffective-assistance-of-counsel claim on direct appeal does not bar the claim from being brought in a later, appropriate proceeding under § 2255.” Massaro v. United States, 538 U.S. 500, 509 (2003). Indeed, “in most cases a motion brought under § 2255 is preferable to direct appeal for deciding claims of ineffective assistance.” Id. at 504. See also United States v. Curbelo, 726 F.3d 1260, 1267 (11th Cir. 2013) (“An ineffective assistance claim should usually be raised in a motion under 28 U.S.C. § 2255.” (citing United States v. Patterson, 595 F.3d 1324, 1328 (11th Cir. 2010))), cert. denied, 134 S.Ct. 962 (2014).

         “To establish an ineffective assistance of counsel claim, a defendant must show that (1) ‘counsel's representation fell below an objective standard of reasonableness' and (2) that such failure prejudiced him in that ‘there is a reasonable probability that, but for counsel's unprofessional errors, the result of the proceeding would have been different.' ” United States v. Pease, 240 F.3d 938, 941 (11th Cir. 2001) (per curiam) (quoting Strickland, 466 U.S. at 687-88, 694). “‘Conclusory allegations of ineffective assistance are insufficient.'” Wilson v. United States, 962 F.2d 996, 998 (11th Cir. 1992) (per curiam) (quoting United States v. Lawson, 947 F.2d 849, 853 (7th Cir. 1991)). Moreover, “[b]ecause both parts of the test must be satisfied in order to show a violation of the Sixth Amendment, the court need not address the performance prong if the defendant cannot meet the prejudice prong, or vice versa.” Holladay v. Haley, 209 F.3d 1243, 1248 (11th Cir. 2000) (citation omitted). See also Osley v. United States, 751 F.3d 1214, 1222 (11th Cir. 2014) (“A habeas petitioner claiming ineffective assistance of counsel must carry his burden on both Strickland prongs, and a court need not address both prongs if the defendant has made an insufficient showing on one.”); Johnson v. Alabama, 256 F.3d 1156, 1176 (11th Cir. 2001) (“The petitioner bears the burden of proof on the ‘performance' prong as well as the ‘prejudice' prong of a Strickland claim, and both prongs must be proved to prevail.”). “The Strickland test is not easily met; … ‘the cases in which habeas petitioners can properly prevail on the ground of ineffective assistance of counsel are few and far between.' ” Johnson, 256 F.3d at 1176 (quoting Waters v. Thomas, 46 F.3d 1506, 1511 (11th Cir. 1995) (en banc) (citation omitted))).

         “The test for ineffectiveness is not whether counsel could have done more; perfection is not required.” Waters, 46 F.3d at 1518. Accord, e.g., Burt v. Titlow, 134 S.Ct. 10, 18 (2013) (“[T]he Sixth Amendment does not guarantee the right to perfect counsel; it promises only the right to effective assistance…”). “A lawyer can almost always do something more in every case. But the Constitution requires a good deal less than maximum performance.” Atkins v. Singletary, 965 F.2d 952, 960 (11th Cir. 1992).

In evaluating the first, or “performance, ” prong of Strickland, “[j]udicial scrutiny of counsel's performance must be highly deferential.” [Strickland, 466 U.S.] at 689, 104 S.Ct. at 2065. Because retrospective evaluation of a lawyer's performance can be difficult, “a court must indulge a strong presumption that counsel's conduct falls within the wide range of reasonable professional assistance; that is, the defendant must overcome the presumption that ... the challenged action might be considered sound trial strategy.” Id. (internal quotations omitted). A petitioner must identify specific acts or omissions that were not the result of reasonable professional judgment, and a court should deem these acts or omissions deficient only if they “were outside the wide range of professionally competent assistance.” Id. at 690, 104 S.Ct. at 2066. Simply put, the deference afforded an attorney's decision is great and the bar for proving a Sixth Amendment violation is high. In light of the “strong presumption in favor of competence, ” we have held that in order to prove deficient performance, “a petitioner must establish that no competent counsel would have taken the action that his counsel did take.” Chandler v. United States, 218 F.3d 1305, 1315 (11th Cir. 2000) (en banc).
Under the second, or “prejudice, ” prong of Strickland, a petitioner must “affirmatively prove prejudice” by showing that counsel's errors “actually had an adverse effect on the defense.” 466 U.S. at 693, 104 S.Ct. at 2067. This requires a showing of more than “some conceivable effect on the outcome of the proceeding.” Id. Instead, the petitioner “must show that there is a reasonable probability that, but for counsel's unprofessional errors, the result of the proceeding would have been different. A reasonable probability is a probability sufficient to undermine confidence in the outcome.” Id. at 694, 104 S.Ct. at 2068. Although this standard is difficult to meet, it is significant that a petitioner must show only a reasonable probability that the outcome would have been different; he “need not show that counsel's deficient conduct more likely than not altered the outcome in the case.” Id. at 693, 104 S.Ct. at 2068. When evaluating this probability, “a court hearing an ineffectiveness claim must consider the totality of the evidence before the judge or jury.” Id. at 695, 104 S.Ct. at 2069.

Brownlee v. Haley, 306 F.3d 1043, 1059-60 (11th Cir. 2002).

         Cortez-Contreras's first claim is that his counsel was ineffective for failing to object to the PSR's use of the 2015 Guidelines Manual in calculating his offense level. More specifically, he claims that counsel should have objected to the PSR's use of the 2015 Manual's version of United States Sentencing Guideline § 2L1.2, the pertinent guideline for calculating the offense level for his conviction under 8 U.S.C. § 1326. (See Doc. 28 at 5, ¶ 17 (“The 2015 Guidelines Manual, incorporating all guideline amendments, was used to determine the defendant's offense level. U.S.S.G. §1B1.11.”)). In its response, the Government acknowledges that U.S.S.G. § 2L1.2 was “substantially altered” by revisions effective November 2016, and it concedes that “the new guideline should have been used since sentencing occurred in December 2016.” (Doc. 37 at 4). However, the Government argues that Cortez-Contreras was not prejudiced by this error because his total offense level would have been the same under the version of § 2L1.2 effective November 2016. The Government is correct.

         Under either version of § 2L1.2(a), Cortez-Contreras's base offense level was 8. The 2015 version of ...

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