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Morris v. United States

United States District Court, E.D. Tennessee, Chattanooga

March 21, 2017

BRANDON MORRIS Petitioner,
v.
UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Respondent.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          HARRY S. MATTICE, JR. UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         On March 25, 2013, Petitioner Brandon Morris (“Petitioner”) was sentenced to eighty-seven months' imprisonment for conspiracy to manufacture and distribute twenty-eight grams or more of cocaine base (“crack”), in violation of 21 U.S.C. §§ 846, 841(a)(1), and 841(b)(1)(B). (Doc. 56).[1] He subsequently filed a pro se motion to vacate, set aside, or correct his sentence pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2255 (the “2255 Motion”). (Doc. 65). For the reasons that follow, the Court finds an evidentiary hearing on the 2255 Motion is not necessary, and the 2255 Motion shall be DENIED.

         I. STANDARD of REVIEW

         A. Threshold Standard

         Under 28 U.S.C. § 2255(a), a federal prisoner may make a motion to vacate, set aside, or correct his judgment of conviction and sentence, if he claims that the sentence was imposed in violation of the Constitution or laws of the United States; that the court lacked jurisdiction to impose the sentence; or that the sentence is in excess of the maximum authorized by law, or is otherwise subject to collateral attack. As a threshold standard, to obtain post-conviction relief under § 2255 a motion must allege: (1) an error of constitutional magnitude; (2) a sentence imposed outside the federal statutory limits; or (3) an error of fact or law so fundamental as to render the entire criminal proceeding invalid. Mallett v. United States, 334 F.3d 491, 496-97 (6th Cir. 2003); Moss v. United States, 323 F.3d 445, 454 (6th Cir. 2003).

         A petitioner bears the burden of demonstrating an error of constitutional magnitude which had a substantial and injurious effect or influence on the criminal proceedings. Reed v. Farley, 512 U.S. 339, 353 (1994); Brecht v. Abrahamson, 507 U.S. 619, 637-38 (1993). In order to obtain collateral relief under § 2255, a petitioner must clear a significantly higher hurdle than would exist on direct appeal. United States v. Frady, 456 U.S. 152, 166 (1982).

         Rule 4(b) of the Rules Governing Section 2255 Proceedings in the United States District Courts requires a district court to summarily dismiss a § 2255 motion if “it plainly appears from the face of the motion, any attached exhibits, and the record of the prior proceedings that the moving party is not entitled to relief.” See also Pettigrew v. United States, 480 F.2d 681, 684 (6th Cir. 1973) (“A motion to vacate sentence under § 2255 can be denied for the reason that it states ‘only bald legal conclusions with no supporting factual allegations.'”) (quoting Sanders v. United States, 373 U.S. 1, 19 (1963)). If the motion is not summarily dismissed under Rule 4(b), Rule 8(a) requires the court to determine, after a review of the answer and the records of the case, whether an evidentiary hearing is required. If a petitioner presents a factual dispute, then “the habeas court must hold an evidentiary hearing to determine the truth of the petitioner's claims.” Huff v. United States, 734 F.3d 600, 607 (6th Cir. 2013) (quoting Valentine v. United States, 488 F.3d 325, 333 (6th Cir. 2007)). An evidentiary hearing is not required “if the petitioner's allegations cannot be accepted as true because they are contradicted by the record, inherently incredible, or conclusions rather than statements of fact.” Valentine, 488 F.3d at 333 (quoting Arredondo v. United States, 178 F.3d 778, 782 (6th Cir. 1999)).

         B. Standard for Ineffective Assistance of Counsel

         Petitioner raises several ineffective assistance of counsel issues. Ineffective assistance of counsel is a recognized constitutional violation that, when adequately shown, warrants relief under § 2255. The two-prong test set forth in Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 687 (1984), governs claims of ineffective assistance of counsel raised pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2255. Huff v. United States, 734 F.3d 600, 606 (6th Cir. 2013). That test provides that, to demonstrate a violation of the Sixth Amendment right to effective assistance of counsel, “a defendant must establish that his attorney's performance was deficient and that the deficient performance prejudiced the defense.” Id. (citing Strickland, 466 U.S. at 687).

         The first prong requires a petitioner to show his attorney's performance was deficient by demonstrating that counsel's “representation fell below an objective standard of reasonableness.” Strickland, 466 U.S. at 688. Stated another way, the petitioner must show “that counsel made errors so serious that counsel was not functioning as the ‘counsel' guaranteed the defendant by the Sixth Amendment.” Id. at 687. The Supreme Court has “declined to articulate specific guidelines for appropriate attorney conduct and instead [has] emphasized that the proper measure of attorney performance remains simply reasonableness under prevailing professional norms.” Huff, 734 F.3d at 606 (alterations in original) (quoting Wiggins v. Smith, 539 U.S. 510, 521 (2003)). A reviewing court must be “highly deferential” to counsel's performance, because

[a] fair assessment of attorney performance requires that every effort be made 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. Because of the difficulties inherent in making the evaluation, a court must indulge a strong presumption that counsel's conduct falls within the wide range of reasonable professional assistance; that is, the defendant must overcome the presumption that, under the circumstances, the challenged action “might be considered sound trial strategy.”

Strickland, 466 U.S. at 689 (quoting Michel v. Louisiana, 350 U.S. 91, 101 (1955)).

         Even if a petitioner is successful in overcoming that presumption, he must still satisfy the second prong of the Strickland test, i.e., prejudice. Thus, a petitioner must show not only that his counsel's representation was objectively unreasonable, but also that he was prejudiced by counsel's deficiency because there exists “a reasonable probability that, but for counsel's unprofessional errors, the result of the proceeding would have been different.” McPhearson v. United States, 675 F.3d 553, 563 (6th Cir. 2012) (quoting Strickland, 466 U.S. at 694).

         Although the Strickland Court emphasized that both prongs must be established in order for the petitioner to meet his burden, it held there is no reason for a court deciding an ineffective assistance claim to approach the inquiry in the same order or even to address both components of the inquiry. Strickland, 466 U.S. at 697. “If it is easier to dispose of an ineffectiveness claim on the ground of lack of sufficient prejudice, which we expect will often be so, that course should be followed.” Id.

         Moreover, absent clear and convincing evidence to the contrary, a defendant is bound by his or her plea agreement and representations made under oath during a plea colloquy. Baker v. United States, 781 F.2d 85, 90 (6th Cir. 1986) (“[W]here the court has scrupulously followed the required procedure, the defendant is bound by his statements in response to that court's inquiry.”) (internal quotation marks and citations omitted). In Blackledge v. Allison, the Supreme Court explained the importance and weight of representations made during the plea hearing, stating:

For the representations of the defendant, his lawyer, and the prosecutor at such a hearing, as well as any findings made by the judge accepting the plea, constitute a formidable barrier in any subsequent collateral proceedings. Solemn declarations in open court carry a strong presumption of verity. The subsequent presentation of conclusory allegations unsupported by specifics is subject to summary dismissal, as are contentions that in the face of the record are wholly incredible.

Blackledge, 431 U.S. 63, 73-74 (1977).

         II. BACKGROUND

         On July 24, 2012, Petitioner was indicted in a multi-count Indictment (Doc. 3) for: (1) Count One: conspiracy to manufacture and distribute twenty-eight grams or more of cocaine base, in violation of 21 U.S.C. §§ 846, 841(a)(1), and 841(b)(1)(B); (2) Counts Two and Three: distribution of cocaine base, in violation of 21 U.S.C. §§ 841(a)(1), and 841(b)(1)(C); (3) Count Four: aiding and abetting the distribution of cocaine base, in violation of 21 U.S.C. §§ 841(a)(1), and 841(b)(1)(C), and 18 U.S.C. § 2; (4) Count Seven: possession of a firearm and ammunition by one previously convicted in court of a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence, in violation of 18 U.S.C. 922(g)(9); and (5) Count Nine: knowingly and intentionally using a building/residence for the purpose of unlawfully manufacturing, storing, and distributing cocaine base, in violation of 21 U.S.C. 856(a)(2). (Doc. 3 at 1-4). The United States also charged that Counts One, Two, Three, Four, and Nine of the Indictment subjected Petitioner to the forfeiture of his residence, the Real Property located at 3711 Sumter ...


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