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Huff v. United States

United States District Court, M.D. Alabama, Northern Division

April 2, 2019

WENDY LATRICE HUFF, Petitioner,
v.
UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Respondent.

          RECOMMENDATION OF THE MAGISTRATE JUDGE

          SUSAN RUSS WALKER UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         Before the court is petitioner Wendy Latrice Huff's pro se motion under 28 U.S.C. § 2255 to vacate, set aside, or correct sentence by a person in federal custody. Doc. No.1.[1]

         I. INTRODUCTION

         On March 5, 2015, Huff pled guilty to a felony information charging her with conspiracy to commit mail fraud, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 371, and aggravated identity theft, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1028A.[2] The plea agreement contained an appeal/post-conviction waiver with exceptions for claims of ineffective assistance of counsel and prosecutorial misconduct. Following a sentencing hearing on July 21, 2016, the district court sentenced Huff to 48 months in prison, consisting of 24 months on the conspiracy count and 24 months on the identity theft count, with the terms to run consecutively. Huff took no appeal.

         In January 2017 Huff filed this § 2255 motion asserting that her counsel was ineffective for failing to (1) explain to her the nature of the mail-fraud conspiracy charge to which she pled, (2) explain to her why she was sentenced based on the same loss amount as her coconspirator James Battle, (3) request a “minor role” reduction at sentencing, and (4) request a lower sentence where her coconspirator Battle received the same sentence she received. Doc. No. 1 at 4.

         The government filed a response arguing that all of Huff's claims are without merit. Doc. No. 4. Huff filed a reply to the government's response. Doc. No. 8. After considering the parties' submissions, the record, and the applicable law, the court finds that Huff's § 2255 motion should be denied without an evidentiary hearing. Rule 8(a), Rules Governing Section 2255 Proceedings in the United States District Courts.

         II. DISCUSSION

         A. General Standard of Review

         Because collateral review is not a substitute for direct appeal, the grounds for collateral attack on final judgments under 28 U.S.C. § 2255 are limited. A prisoner may secure relief under § 2255 if the court imposed a sentence that (1) violated the Constitution or laws of the United States, (2) exceeded its jurisdiction, (3) exceeded the maximum authorized by law, or (4) is otherwise subject to collateral attack. See 28 U.S.C. § 2255; United States v. Phillips, 225 F.3d 1198, 1199 (11th Cir. 2000); United States v. Walker, 198 F.3d 811, 813 n.5 (11th Cir. 1999). “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.'” Lynn v. United States, 365 F.3d 1225, 1232 (11th Cir. 2004) (citations omitted).

         B. Ineffective Assistance of Counsel

         A claim of ineffective assistance of counsel is evaluated against the two-part test announced in Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984). First, a petitioner must show that “counsel's representation fell below an objective standard of reasonableness.” Id. at 689. Second, 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.” Id. at 694. See Chandler v. United States, 218 F.3d 1305, 1313 (11th Cir. 2000).

         Scrutiny of counsel's performance is “highly deferential, ” and the court indulges a “strong presumption” that counsel's performance was reasonable. Chandler, 218 F.3d at 1314 (internal quotation marks omitted). The court will “avoid second-guessing counsel's performance: It does not follow that any counsel who takes an approach [the court] would not have chosen is guilty of rendering ineffective assistance.” Id. (internal quotation marks and brackets omitted). “Given the strong presumption in favor of competence, the petitioner's burden of persuasion-though the presumption is not insurmountable-is a heavy one.” Id.

         As noted, under the prejudice component of Strickland, a 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.” Strickland, 466 U.S. at 694. A “reasonable probability is a probability sufficient to undermine confidence in the outcome.” Id. The prejudice prong does not focus only on the outcome; rather, to establish prejudice, the petitioner must show that counsel's deficient representation rendered the result of the trial fundamentally unfair or unreliable. See Lockhart v. Fretwell, 506 U.S. 364, 369 (1993) (“[A]n analysis focusing solely on mere outcome determination, without attention to whether the result of the proceeding was fundamentally unfair or unreliable, is defective.”). “Unreliability or unfairness does not result if the ineffectiveness of counsel does not deprive the defendant of any substantive or procedural right to which the law entitles him.” Id. at 372.

         Unless a petitioner satisfies the showings required on both prongs of the Strickland inquiry, relief should be denied. Strickland, 466 U.S. at 687. Once a court decides that one of the required showings has not been made, it need not decide whether the other one has been. Id. at 697; Duren v. Hopper, 161 F.3d 655, 660 (11th Cir. 1998).

         1. Failure to Explain Mail-Fraud Conspiracy Charge

          In conclusory fashion, Huff claims that her counsel was ineffective for failing to explain to her the nature of the mail-fraud conspiracy charge to which she pled guilty. Doc. No. 1 at 4. By this claim, Huff appears to contend that her guilty plea was not entered knowingly and intelligently.

         The two-part standard of Strickland applies to ineffective-assistance claims arising out of the guilty plea process. Hill v. Lockhart, 474 U.S. 52');">474 U.S. 52, 57 (1985). Where a petitioner challenges the validity of his guilty plea based on the alleged ineffective assistance of counsel, the petitioner must establish that counsel's performance was deficient (i.e., was professionally unreasonable) and that counsel's deficient performance “affected the outcome of the plea process” (i.e., was prejudicial). Id. at 58-59. To establish prejudice in this context, a petitioner “must show that there is a reasonable probability that, but for counsel's errors, he would … have pleaded [not] guilty and would … have insisted on going to trial.”[3] Id. at 59.

         In an affidavit addressing Huff's claim, Huff's former counsel states:

Ms. Huff was explained the factual basis for the charge of conspiracy to commit mail fraud on numerous occasions. I explained the basis for the mail fraud charge at the time she agreed to plea to the information; at the time she entered into the plea agreement; during the time we discussed the presentence report; and in preparation for sentencing. I am otherwise at a loss as to why Ms. ...

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