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Daniels v. United States

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

March 1, 2016

RICHARD DANIELS, Petitioner,
v.
UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Respondent.

RULING ON PETITIONER'S MOTION UNDER § 2255

Janet Bond Arterton, U.S.D.J.

Petitioner Richard Daniels filed this habeas corpus petition [Doc. # 1] under 28 U.S.C. § 2255 on October 26, 2016, alleging that his trial counsel rendered ineffective assistance. The Government opposes [Doc. # 4] the petition. For the following reasons, Mr. Daniels's motion is denied in part and held under advisement in part.

I. Background

On January 5, 2011, Mr. Daniels was indicted for one count of conspiracy to distribute and to possess with intent to distribute one kilogram or more of heroin and 28 grams or more of cocaine base, in violation of 21 U.S.C. §§ 841(a)(1), (b)(l)(A)(i), and (b)(1)(B)(iii) and 21 U.S.C. § 846, and one count of conspiracy to maintain a drug-involved premises within 1, 000 feet of a school and a housing facility, in violation of 21 U.S.C. §§ 846 and 860. United States v. Daniels, No. 3:11cr1 [Doc. # 1] (D. Conn.). On December 13, 2011, the Government offered Mr. Daniels a plea agreement, pursuant to which it would have sought a sentence of 140 to 175 months' imprisonment[1] (See Ex. 1 to § 2255 Pet. at 4.) Mr. Daniels rejected the offer.

On January 4, 2012, the grand jury returned a superseding indictment that increased the quantity of cocaine base alleged from 28 grams to 280 grams. Daniels, No. 3:11cr1 [Doc. # 347]. The Government offered Mr. Daniels a new plea agreement on April 12, 2012, pursuant to which it would have sought a sentence of 135 to 168 months' imprisonment.[2] (See Ex. 2 to § 2255 Pet. at 4.) Mr. Daniels again rejected the offer. On July 3, 2012, the Government offered a final plea agreement, pursuant to which it would have sought a sentence of 108 to 135 months' imprisonment.[3] (See Ex. 3 to § 2255 Pet. at 4.) Mr. Daniels rejected the offer.

On August 1, 2012, the Court held a Frye hearing, during which the following colloquy took place:

The Court: Let's, because we have had this transition and because we are really very near to trial, let's make sure there is no misunderstanding on what is offered and what is being rejected so that we don't have the unhappy situation later on of a defendant - defendants saying they didn't understand what the offer was and had they understood it they would have taken it. So, let's make sure we have no misunderstandings here.... Ms. Dayton: Currently, . . . [the three defendants are] all charged in a mandatory minimum of ten years and a maximum of life conspiracy count. . . . Mr. Daniels, again, is facing a ten to life mandatory minimum. Pursuant to plea negotiations with his attorneys, we had offered to again let him plead to a lesser included offense where he would be allowed to attempt to argue down to 60 months. His guidelines are around 108 months. . . . Again, after trial, based upon role enhancement and firearm enhancement, we expect his guidelines to be above 15 years, your Honor.

(Frye Hr'g Tr., Ex. 1 to Gov't's Opp'n at 10, 11, 14.) Following this colloquy, Mr. Daniels affirmed that he understood the terms of the plea agreement; he had discussed the agreement with his counsel; and he had decided not to accept the agreement and to proceed to trial. (Id. at 14.)

Mr. Daniels was later convicted of one count of conspiracy to distribute and to possess with intent to distribute one kilogram or more of heroin and 280 grams or more of cocaine base and one count of conspiracy to maintain a drug-involved premises. Daniels, No. 3:11cr1 [Doc. # 544]. At sentencing, the Government sought a sentence within the Guidelines range, calculated by Probation to be 324 to 405 months' imprisonment. Id. [Doc. ## 668, 706]. Mr. Daniels, through his attorney, challenged several of the enhancements sought by the Government and requested a below-Guidelines sentence in the range of 121 to 151 months. Id. [Doc. # 698]. The Court found the Guidelines range to be 324 to 405 months' imprisonment. Id. [Doc. # 774] at 42. Nonetheless, the Court departed downward and sentenced Mr. Daniels to 228 months' imprisonment. Id. at 71.

II. Legal Standard

Section 2255 allows prisoners in federal custody to move for their sentences to be vacated, set aside, or corrected if their "sentence was imposed in violation of the Constitution or laws of the United States, or . . . the court was without jurisdiction to impose such sentence, or . . . the sentence was in excess of the maximum authorized by law, or is otherwise subject to collateral attack." 28 U.S.C. § 2255(a). A petitioner claiming ineffective assistance must prove that: (1) "counsel's representation fell below an objective standard of reasonableness;" and (2) "any deficiencies in counsel's performance [were] prejudicial to the defense." Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 688 & 692 (1984). A court assessing such a claim "must be highly deferential" to counsel, must make "every effort... to eliminate the distorting effects of hindsight, to reconstruct the circumstances of counsel's challenged conduct, and to evaluate the conduct from counsel's perspective at the time, " and must "indulge a strong presumption that counsel's conduct falls within the wide range of reasonable professional assistance." Id. at 689.

The two-part Strickland test applies to claims of ineffective assistance of counsel in the context of plea negotiations, including challenges to the rejection of a plea offer. See Lafler v. Cooper, 132 S.Ct. 1376, 1384 (2012) (applying Strickland to claim that counsel was ineffective in advising petitioner to reject plea offer); Cf. Hill v. Lockhart, 474 U.S. 52, 57 (1985) (applying Strickland to claim that attorney misinformed petitioner regarding plea offer leading petitioner to accept guilty plea). To succeed on such a claim

a defendant must show that but for the ineffective advice of counsel there is a reasonable probability that the plea offer would have been presented to the court (i.e., that the defendant would have accepted the plea and the prosecution would not have withdrawn it in light of intervening circumstances), that the court would have accepted its terms, and that the conviction or sentence, or both, under the ...

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