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Wright v. United States

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

June 4, 2019

CHARLES EUGENE WRIGHT, Petitioner,
v.
UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Respondent.

          RECOMMENDATION OF THE MAGISTRATE JUDGE

          WALLACE CAPEL, JR. CHIEF UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         Before the court is Charles Eugene Wright's 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 August 20, 2015, Wright appeared before this court and pled guilty under a plea agreement to receiving child pornography in interstate commerce, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 2252A(a)(2) & (b)(1), and possession of child pornography in interstate commerce, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 2252(a)(5)(B) & (b)(2). The plea agreement contained a waiver provision whereby Wright relinquished his right to appeal and collaterally attack his conviction and sentence except on grounds of ineffective assistance of counsel and prosecutorial misconduct. On December 9, 2015, the district court sentenced Wright to 84 months in prison for each count, the terms to run concurrently. Wright took no direct appeal.

         On December 13, 2016, Wright, proceeding pro se, filed this § 2255 motion presenting claims that his counsel rendered ineffective assistance by failing to (1) have a psychological evaluation of Wright conducted prior to his guilty plea; (2) consult with him regarding his right to appeal; (3) challenge the indictment for multiplicity and double jeopardy violations; (4) investigate or challenge inaccurate information in the indictment; and (5) challenge the warrantless search of Wright's computer. Doc. No. 1; Doc. No. 2 at 9-26.

         On August 4, 2017, Wright amended his § 2255 motion to add a claim that the magistrate judge who took his guilty plea lacked the statutory and constitutional authority to accept his guilty plea. Doc. No. 24.

         After consideration of the parties' submissions and the record, the court concludes that Wright's § 2255 motion should be denied and this case dismissed with prejudice.

         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 is entitled to 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 Claims

         A claim of ineffective assistance of counsel must be 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 requisite 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 Obtain Psychological Evaluation before Guilty Plea

         Wright says his counsel was ineffective for failing to have a psychological evaluation of Wright conducted prior to his guilty plea. See Doc. No. 2 at 5-6 & 8; Doc. No. 16 at 4; Doc. No. 18 at 3-4. Although Wright's argument here is unclear, he appears to suggest that such a psychological evaluation would have uncovered evidence that he was incompetent to understand the legal proceedings that resulted in his guilty plea, meaning his guilty plea was unknowing and involuntary. See Doc. No. 16 at 4; Doc. No. 18 at 3-4.

         After Wright's change of plea hearing and before sentencing, Wright was referred to two psychologists for mental health evaluations. See Doc. Nos. 8-7 & 8-8. Wright's counsel used these evaluations as exhibits and evidence during Wright's sentencing hearing to argue that Wright was a low-risk offender. See Doc. No. 8-6 at 9-10. Neither doctor who evaluated Wright opined that Wright was not competent.

         “Incompetency means ‘suffering from a mental disease or defect rendering [a defendant] mentally incompetent to the extent that he is unable to understand the nature and consequences of the proceedings against him or to assist properly in his defense.'” Battle v. United States, 419 F.3d 1292, 1298 (11th Cir. 2005) (quoting 18 U.S.C. § 4241(a)). The record yields no support for Wright's claim of incompetency. The presentence investigation report (“PSI”) prepared in Wright's case indicates that Wright “reported no history of mental or emotional problems, and no history of treatment for such problems, as corroborated by [Wright's sister].” See Doc. No. 10-2 at 12, ¶ 52. Although the mental health evaluations performed before Wright's sentencing indicated that he had below-average cognitive abilities, there is no indication from the record that Wright could not understand the proceedings against him. The evidence suggests that, during the proceedings, Wright consulted with his lawyer and exhibited no irrational behavior. The record shows Wright to have been alert and coherent. At the change of plea hearing, the magistrate judge questioned Wright to determine his competency to enter an informed guilty plea and found that Wright was fully competent to do so, that he understood the charges against him, that he understood the consequences of his plea, and that his plea was knowing and voluntary. See Doc. No. 8-4 at 15. Nothing indicated that Wright did not have “sufficient present ability to consult with his lawyer with a reasonable degree of rational understanding” or that he did not have a “rational as well as factual understanding of the proceedings against him.” See United States v. Dusky, 362 U.S. 402 (1960).

         To show entitlement to an evidentiary hearing on a competency claim, a petitioner must present “clear and convincing evidence creating a real, substantial and legitimate doubt as to his competence to stand trial.” Johnston v. Singletary, 162 F.3d 630, 637 (11th Cir. 1998) (quoting Medina v. Singletary, 59 F.3d 1095, 1106 (11th Cir. 1995)). “This standard of proof is high; and ‘the facts must positively, unequivocally, and clearly generate the legitimate doubt.'” Battle, 419 F.3d at 1299 (quoting Medina, 59 F.3d at 1106). To prevail on such a claim, the petitioner must prove by a preponderance of the evidence that he was in fact incompetent to stand trial. Johnston, 162 F.3d at 637 n.7; see also Battle, 419 F.3d at 1298-99; Medina, 59 F.3d at 1106.

         Wright fails to present facts that positively, unequivocally, and clearly generate a legitimate doubt about his competency to assist in his defense, stand trial, or enter a valid (i.e., knowing and voluntary) guilty plea. Further, he presents no facts to support any inference that he was mentally incompetent at the time of his offense.[2] He merely asserts that he did not have the benefit of a “psychological or competency evaluation prior to the plea colloquy.” Doc. No. 2 at 5-6. Consequently, Wright has not demonstrated that his counsel's failure to pursue the issue of his competency or to have him psychologically evaluated prior to entry of his guilty plea fell below an objective standard of reasonableness or that he was prejudiced by his counsel's actions. Strickland, 466 U.S. at 687-89. Nor is Wright entitled to an evidentiary hearing to explore this issue. An evidentiary hearing is not a fishing expedition for facts as yet unsuspected but is instead “an instrument to ...


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