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Johnson v. United States

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

March 31, 2016



ROBERT N. CHATIGNY, District Judge.

Petitioner Wheeler Johnson, a federal inmate, brings this action under 28 U.S.C. § 2255 seeking to vacate his drug conspiracy conviction. Mr. Johnson claims that his conviction was imposed in violation of his Sixth Amendment right to effective assistance of counsel. The government urges that the petition should be dismissed without a hearing because petitioner's claims have either been waived or are without merit. I agree and therefore deny the petition.

I. Background

After several days of a jury trial, Mr. Johnson pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to distribute five kilograms or more of cocaine, in violation of 21 U.S.C. §§ 846, 841(a)(a), and 841(b)(1)(A). During the plea colloquy, Mr. Johnson admitted that he joined a conspiracy in the New London area to distribute five kilograms of cocaine between 2007 and 2009. The government's case against Mr. Johnson included intercepted calls and text messages regarding drug transactions; 1.2 kilograms of cocaine found by agents in a hidden compartment in one of Mr. Johnson's vehicles seized pursuant to a warrant; testimony by a cooperating witness regarding arrangements Mr. Johnson made to procure several kilograms of cocaine from a source in New York; and evidence connecting Mr. Johnson to three kilograms of cocaine found in a co-conspirator's car.

Mr. Johnson's plea agreement included a provision waiving appeal and collateral attack if the sentence imposed did not exceed 168 months' imprisonment. The Court reviewed this waiver and other important provisions of the plea agreement with Mr. Johnson during the change of plea hearing. Prior to sentencing, Attorney Conrad O. Seifert withdrew from representing Mr. Johnson, and Attorney Michael R. Hasse was appointed as substitute counsel. Mr. Johnson was sentenced to the mandatory minimum of 120 months' imprisonment.

After Mr. Johnson filed his § 2255 petition pro se, he moved for and was granted appointed counsel in this habeas case. At Mr. Johnson's request, the Court appointed substitute counsel, Attorney John T. Walkley, who continues to represent Mr. Johnson.

II. Discussion

Mr. Johnson asserts that he is entitled to relief under 28 U.S.C. § 2255 because he received ineffective assistance of counsel. The petition lists a number of different claims of ineffective assistance that can be grouped into three categories: Attorney Seifert's conduct before the trial and plea; Attorney Seifert's advice regarding the plea agreement; and Attorney Hasse's conduct regarding a possible appeal. Because these claims are either waived or without merit, an evidentiary hearing is not required, and the petition is denied.

A. Guilty Plea and Waiver

The government argues that many of Mr. Johnson's claims are precluded by his guilty plea and the collateral attack waiver in his plea agreement. I agree that the arguments regarding Attorney Seifert's conduct before the trial have been waived and therefore do not consider these claims on the merits.

A defendant who is represented by counsel and enters an unconditional guilty plea cannot later assert claims based on events that occurred prior to entering that plea. Parisi v. United States, 529 F.3d 134, 138 (2d Cir. 2008). A plea agreement that includes a valid waiver of appeal rights similarly precludes the defendant from challenging pre-plea events. Id.

Because guilty pleas and appeal waivers must be valid to have this preclusive effect, they do not bar a petitioner from challenging his or her plea as not knowing or voluntary. See United States v. Cabrera, 563 F.Appx. 861, 862 (2d Cir. 2014) (explaining that claims related to "the plea agreement process" can be asserted despite plea waiver). Thus, a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel can survive a guilty plea or appeal waiver only if the petitioner asserts that counsel's ineffectiveness rendered the plea invalid. Parisi, 529 F.2d at 138-39; Sharpley v. United States, 355 F.Appx. 488, 490 (2d Cir. 2009) ("[T]hough the underlying plea agreement's waiver of appeal and collateral attack would ordinarily preclude review, a defendant who has not received reasonably effective assistance from counsel in deciding to plead guilty cannot be bound by that plea.").

In his petition, Mr. Johnson contends that Attorney Seifert was ineffective because he did not challenge the seizure warrant or the inventory search that led agents to discover cocaine in one of Mr. Johnson's vehicles. Mr. Johnson argues that these Fourth Amendment issues are tied to the validity of the guilty plea because the evidence recovered from that search "weighed heavily in [petitioner]'s consequent decision to plead guilty." Pet. at 10. However, Mr. Johnson entered an unconditional guilty plea that included an appeal waiver, and that plea was valid. Change of Plea Tr., 309-cr-247(RNC), ECF No. 528, at 29-30 (accepting guilty plea after finding that it was "knowing and voluntary" and "supported by an adequate factual basis"). Mr. Johnson is therefore precluded from raising these claims in a § 2255 proceeding because they concern pre-plea events, not the advice he received regarding the plea agreement or the process by which he decided to accept that agreement. See Rodriguez v. United States, No. ...

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