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Wilson v. United States

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

July 18, 2017



          Stefan R. Underhill, United States District Judge

         On October 31, 2016, pro se petitioner Landers Wilson, currently imprisoned at Federal Correctional Institution Fort Dix in Fort Dix, New Jersey, filed a motion to vacate, set aside, or correct his sentence (“habeas petition”), pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2255.[1] Petition (doc. 1). Wilson challenges his conviction and sentence, arguing that: (1) there was no factual basis for his guilty plea in violation of Rule 11(b)(3) of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure; (2) the court improperly failed to evaluate Wilson's competence to plead, and accordingly failed to grant Wilson a downward departure for diminished capacity in his Sentencing Guidelines calculations, see U.S.S.G. § 5K2.13; and (3) Wilson's counsel provided him with ineffective assistance of counsel for failing to raise either of those two arguments in the plea colloquy and at sentencing.

         The government asserts that Wilson's arguments are foreclosed by his valid appeal waiver, and moreover that his claims would nevertheless fail on the merits. I agree-based on the entire record and for the reasons set forth in this ruling, there is no need to hold a hearing in this case and Wilson's petition is denied.

         I. Standard of Review

         Section 2255 provides a prisoner in federal custody an opportunity to challenge the legality of his or her sentence. To obtain relief under section 2255, the petitioner must show that his or her prior sentence was invalid because: (1) it was imposed in violation of the Constitution or the laws of the United States; (2) the court lacked jurisdiction to impose the sentence; (3) it exceeded the maximum detention authorized by law; or (4) it is otherwise subject to collateral attack. 28 U.S.C. § 2255(a). The standard is a high one; even constitutional errors will not be redressed through a section 2255 petition unless they have had a “substantial and injurious effect” that results in “actual prejudice” to the petitioner. Brecht v. Abrahamson, 507 U.S. 619, 623 (1993) (internal citations omitted); Underwood v. United States, 166 F.3d 84, 87 (2d Cir. 1999) (applying Brecht's harmless error standard to section 2255 petition).

         A federal prisoner may not use a section 2255 petition to relitigate questions that were expressly or impliedly resolved during a direct appeal, absent “an intervening change of controlling law, the availability of new evidence, or the need to correct a clear error or prevent manifest injustice.” United States v. Becker, 502 F.3d 122, 127 (2d Cir. 2013) (internal citations omitted); see also United States v. Sanin, 252 F.3d 79, 83 (2d Cir. 2001); United States v. Munoz, 143 F.3d 632, 637 (2d Cir. 1998) (“A motion under § 2255 is not a substitute for an appeal.”). A petitioner is also barred from bringing a claim on habeas review that was not properly raised on direct review unless the petitioner is able to show “cause and actual prejudice” or “actual innocence.” See Bousley v. United States, 523 U.S. 614, 622 (1998); Reed v. Farley, 512 U.S. 339, 354 (1994).

         A petitioner may raise a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel that was not raised previously at trial or on appeal. Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984); see also Massaro v. United States, 538 U.S. 500, 504 (2003). A petitioner claiming ineffective assistance of counsel “must show that (1) counsel's performance was objectively deficient, and (2) petitioner was actually prejudiced as a result.” Harrington v. United States, 689 F.3d 124, 129 (2d Cir. 2012) (citing Strickland, 466 U.S. at 687-88 (1984)). That does not mean, however, that every perceived error or questionable decision by counsel entitles a petitioner to relief. There is a “strong presumption that counsel's conduct falls within the wide range of reasonably professional assistance.” Strickland, 466 U.S. at 689. The threshold for an ineffective assistance claim is high, and courts have “declined to deem counsel ineffective notwithstanding a course of action (or inaction) that seems risky, unorthodox, or downright ill-advised.” Tippins v. Walker, 77 F.3d 682, 686 (2d Cir. 1996). “The question is whether an attorney's representation amounted to incompetence under ‘prevailing professional norms, ' not whether it deviated from best practices or most common custom.” Harrington v. Richter, 562 U.S. 86, 88 (2011) (citing Strickland, 466 U.S. at 690).

         Under section 2255, a petitioner is entitled to a hearing “[u]nless the motion and the files and records of the case conclusively show that the prisoner is entitled to no relief.” 28 U.S.C. § 2255(b). “Mere generalities or hearsay statements will not normally entitle the applicant to a hearing . . . . The petitioner must set forth specific facts which he is in a position to establish by competent evidence.” Dalli v. United States, 491 F.2d 758, 760-61 (2d Cir. 1974) (citations omitted). In the absence of supporting facts, the court may resolve a petitioner's claims without a hearing. See id.

         II. Background

         On January 25, 2013, a grand jury returned an indictment charging Wilson with a single count of conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute, and conspiracy to distribute 280 grams or more of a mixture and substance containing a detectable amount of cocaine base in violation of 21 U.S.C. §§ 841(a)(1), 841(b)(1)(A), and 846. See United States v. Wooten, et al., No. 3:13-cv-18 (SRU) (D. Conn. Jan. 25, 2013) (doc. 14). Thirteen other co-defendants were named in the same indictment on various other counts. On July 9, 2013, Wilson was released on bond with special conditions that he participate in a residential substance abuse treatment program operated by the Salvation Army. At the bond hearing, Wilson's counsel noted that Wilson had a mental heath diagnosis that “basically” amounted to depression, for which he had previously self-medicated with substantial substance abuse, and which was then being treated by physicians at his pretrial detention facility with a combination of Zoloft and “Xylo.”[2] Bond Tr. (3:13-cr-18, doc. 510).

         On July 16, 2013, pursuant to a written plea agreement, Wilson pleaded guilty to a lesser-included offense: conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute 28 grams or more of cocaine base in violation of 21 U.S.C. §§ 841(a)(1), 841(b)(1)(B), and 846. (3:13-cr-18, doc. 174). The plea agreement contained an appeal waiver in which Wilson agreed not to collaterally challenge his sentence or conviction if his sentence did not exceed 108 months' imprisonment, a four-year term of supervised release, and a fine of $15, 000.[3] Plea Agreement (3:13-cr-00018, doc. 453). Although the plea agreement included a paragraph referring to written stipulation, no such attachment was included.

         At the plea colloquy, in response to my questions, Wilson stated that his mind was clear, that he understood the proceedings, and that he understood the implications of entering a guilty plea. Plea Tr. at 5-11 (3:13-cr-18, doc. 35). Wilson's counsel also stated that he had no concerns regarding Wilson's competence to plead. Id. at 6.

         The parties noted the omission of the written stipulation referred to in the written plea agreement, and agreed to cross out the paragraph referring to that stipulation in order to avoid confusion. Id. at 26-27. The government subsequently described the evidence on which it would have relied to prove that Wilson had committed the offense of conviction at trial. Id. at 34-37. Wilson's counsel made a minor correction to that account, and Wilson confirmed that the government's account was accurate “for the most part.” Id. at 37. I then discussed the elements of the offense of conviction with Wilson in further detail as follows:

The Court: . . . Did you agree with at least one other person that you would be involved with possession with intent to distribute at least 28 grams of crack cocaine?
The Defendant: Yes.
The Court: All right. So you knowingly and voluntarily did that?
The Defendant: Yes.
The Court: And you understand that the goal of that agreement or conspiracy was to possess with intent to ...

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