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Rucker v. United States

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

November 19, 2019



          Leon Jordan United States District Judge

         Petitioner Angie Michelle Rucker pled guilty to a methamphetamine-distribution conspiracy, a lesser included offense related to one of several counts charged against her in an indictment [Docs. 3, Indictment (sealed), 126, Plea Agreement, 127, Plea Agreement Supplement (sealed), and 153, Minute Entry for Change of Plea, No. 2:16-CR-30].[1] For that offense, Petitioner received 97 months' imprisonment, to be followed by a 4-year term of supervised release [Doc. 255, Judgment, No. 2:16-CR-30].

         Petitioner now brings this pro se motion to vacate, set aside, or correct a sentence under 28 U.S.C. § 2255, a supporting memorandum of law, and an amended § 2255 motion [Docs. 1-2, 4]. The United States has responded in opposition to Petitioner's § 2255 motion and amended motion [Doc. 9], and Petitioner has filed no reply. The matter therefore is ripe for resolution. The Court finds the materials submitted, together with the record of the underlying criminal case, conclusively show that Petitioner is not entitled to relief on the claims asserted. Accordingly, the Court will decide this matter without an evidentiary hearing. See United States v. Todaro, 982 F.2d 1025, 1028 (6th Cir. 1993). For the reasons discussed below, the Court will find that Petitioner's motion to vacate is without merit and, thus, will DENY and DISMISS her § 2255 motion WITH PREJUDICE.


         On March 8, 2016, a federal grand jury issued a 23-count indictment charging Petitioner and ten co-defendants with various offenses [Doc. 3, No. 2:16-CR-30]. Count one charged Petitioner with conspiracy to distribute and to possess with intent to distribute fifty grams or more of methamphetamine, in violation of 21 U.S.C. §§ 841(b)(1)(A) and 846 [Id.]. Some seven months later, Petitioner entered into a plea agreement with the government [Doc. 126, Case. No. 2:16-CR-30]. In that document, Petitioner agreed to plead guilty to a conspiracy to distribute and possess with intent to distribute 5 grams or more of actual methamphetamine, a lesser included offense of Count one, which charged a higher drug amount, i.e., 50 grams or more of methamphetamine [Id. at ¶ 1(a)].

         The Court draws the facts from Petitioner stipulations, which formed the factual basis in her plea agreement [Id. at ¶ 4]. In the plea agreement, Petitioner admitted that, from June of 2015 to March 8, 2016, she was involved in a conspiracy to distribute at least 35 but less than 50 grams of methamphetamine in the Eastern District of Tennessee [Id. at ¶ 4(a)].

         More specifically, Petitioner acknowledged that on five occasions (June 3rd, 5th, and 10th of 2015; September 23, 2015; and January 8, 2016), she sold approximately 0.8, 0.8, 0.7, 0.7 and 0.4 grams of methamphetamine respectively to a confidential informant, with each drug transaction being recorded [Id. at ¶¶ 4(b)-(f)]. On the date of the last transaction, Petitioner's residence was searched, pursuant to a state search warrant, and discovered therein were approximately 2 grams of methamphetamine, small amounts of prescription narcotics and marijuana, a loaded .25 caliber semi-automatic handgun, ammunition, drug ledgers, an operational video surveillance system, and multiple pipes, scales, baggies and other drug paraphernalia [Id. at ¶4(g)].

         During an interview with law enforcement agents the next day, Petitioner admitted that she possessed the firearm for protection; that it was located in her bedroom; that periodically, during the time of the conspiracy, she had sold methamphetamine on a daily basis; that she had multiple suppliers of methamphetamine, one of which supplied her with approximately three to five grams a day from May to July, 2015; and that she herself had supplied methamphetamine to several unindicted co-conspirators [Id. at ¶¶ 4(h)-(i)].

         Petitioner stipulated that it was not clearly improbable that the firearm found during the search of her residence was connected to the drug trafficking offense, that two, two-level enhancements (one under United States Sentencing Guidelines (USSG) § 2D1.1(b)(1) and the other under USSG § 2D1.1(b)(12)) applied to her, and that she conspired to distribute and was accountable, conservatively, for the distribution of at least 35 grams but less than 50 grams of methamphetamine [Id. at ¶ 4(j)]. The parties agreed that, in consideration of Petitioner's guilty plea, the government would move to dismiss the remaining counts at sentencing [Id. at 3]. The plea agreement provided that, in exchange for her guilty plea, Petitioner waived her right to file a direct appeal, with one exception, and her right to file a § 2255 motion or a collateral attack on her conviction or sentence, excluding claims of prosecutorial misconduct or ineffective assistance of counsel [Id. at ¶¶ 11 (a) and (b)].

         On October 25, 2016, two weeks after entry of the plea agreement, Petitioner pled guilty to the methamphetamine conspiracy [Doc. 153, Case. No. 2:16-CR-30]. Thereafter, the United States Probation Office issued a Presentence Investigation Report (“PSR”) to assist the Court in deciding Petitioner's sentence [Doc. 204, PSR (sealed), No. 2:16-CR-30].

         Using USSG § 2D1.1(a)(5) for § 846 offenses involving more than 35 grams but less than 50 grams of actual methamphetamine, the probation officer who prepared the PSR determined that Petitioner's base offense level was 28 [Id. at ¶ 24]. Two levels were added under USSG § 2D1.1(b)(1) for possession of a dangerous weapon and two levels were added under USSG § 2D1.1(b)(12) for maintaining a premises for the purpose of distributing a controlled substance, resulting in an adjusted offense level of 32 [Id. at ¶¶ 25-26, 30]. A two-level and a one-level reduction for acceptance of responsibility yielded a total offense level of 29, which, along with a criminal history category of II, resulted in an advisory Guidelines range of 97 months to 120 months [Id., ¶¶ 32-33, 45, 68]. The PSR noted that Petitioner's statutory sentence was five years to 40 years [Id. at ¶ 62].

         Neither party objected to the PSR [Docs. 220, 236, No. 2: 16-CR-30]. As observed earlier, the Court sentenced Petitioner to 97 months' imprisonment-the lowest sentence in her Guidelines range-and dismissed the remaining counts upon motion of the government [Doc. 249, Minute Entry for Sentencing, No. 2:16-CR-30]. Judgment entered on February 6, 2017 [Doc. 255, No. 2:16-CR-30].

         In keeping with the appeal waiver in the plea agreement, Petitioner did not file a direct appeal. Instead, Petitioner submitted this timely pro se § 2255 motion to vacate on August 21, 2017, alleging several claims of ineffective assistance of counsel; a sui generis claim, i.e., a one-of-a-kind claim that does not fit within a recognized category of constitutional or statutory claims; and, in her amended § 2255 motion, a request for a sentence reduction [Docs. 1, 4].


         A. Motions to Vacate

         To obtain relief under 28 U.S.C. § 2255, a petitioner must demonstrate “(1) an error of constitutional magnitude; (2) a sentence imposed outside the statutory limits; or (3) an error of fact or law . . . so fundamental as to render the entire proceeding invalid.” Short v. United States, 471 F.3d 686, 691 (6th Cir. 2006) (quoting Mallett v. United States, 334 F.3d 491, 496-97 (6th Cir. 2003)). To warrant relief under 28 U.S.C. § 2255 because of constitutional error, the error must be one of constitutional magnitude which had a substantial and injurious effect or influence on the proceedings. Brecht v. Abrahamson, 507 U.S. 619, 637 (1993) (citation omitted) (§ 2254 case); Jefferson v. United States, 730 F.3d 537, 549 (6th Cir. 2013) (applying Brecht test to § 2255 motion). A petitioner “must clear a significantly higher hurdle than would exist on direct appeal” to secure collateral relief. United States v. Frady, 456 U.S. 152, 166 (1982); Regalado v. United States, 334 F.3d 520, 528 (6th Cir. 2003) (citing Frady, 456 U.S. at 166).

         “[A] pro se petitioner's section 2255 motion is entitled to a generous construction.” Fields v. United States, 963 F.2d 105, 109 (6th Cir. 1992). Nevertheless, when a movant files a § 2255 motion, she must set forth facts which entitle her to relief. Green v. Wingo, 454 F.2d 52, 53 (6th Cir. 1972); O'Malley v. United States, 285 F.2d 733, 735 (6th Cir. 1961). A motion that merely states general conclusions of law without substantiating allegations with facts is without legal merit. Loum v. Underwood, 262 F.2d 866, 867 (6th Cir. 1959); United States v. Johnson, 940 F.Supp. 167, 171 (W.D. Tenn. 1996).

         B. Ineffective Assistance of Counsel

         When a § 2255 movant claims she was denied her Sixth Amendment right to effective assistance of counsel, a court must presume that counsel provided effective assistance, and the movant bears the burden of showing otherwise. Mason v. Mitchell, 320 F.3d 604, 616-17 (6th Cir. 2003). To meet that burden, a movant must prove that specific acts or omissions by her attorney were deficient and that the attorney failed to provide “reasonably effective assistance, ” Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 687 (1987), which is measured by “prevailing professional norms, ” Rompilla v. Beard, 545 U.S. 374, 380 (2005). “[T]he constitutional right at issue here is ultimately the right to a fair trial, not to perfect representation.” Smith v. Mitchell, 348 F.3d. 177, 201 (6th. Cir. 2003) (citing Strickland).

         Second, a petitioner must demonstrate “a reasonable probability that, but for [counsel's acts or omissions], the result of the proceedings would have been different.” Strickland, 466 U.S. at 694. “A reasonable probability is a probability sufficient to undermine confidence in the outcome, ” id., and “requires a substantial, not just conceivable, likelihood of a different result.” Cullen v. Pinholster, 563 U.S. 170, 189 (2011) (citation and internal quotation marks omitted). The prejudice test is modified in the context of a guilty plea-a petitioner “must show that there is a reasonable probability that, but for counsel's errors, [s]he would not have pleaded guilty and would have insisted on going to trial.” Hill v. Lockhart, 474 U.S. 52, 59 (1985). Yet, “[a]n error by counsel, even if professionally unreasonable, does not warrant setting aside the judgment of a criminal proceeding if the error had no effect on the judgment.” Strickland, 466 U.S. at 691; see also Smith v. Robbins, 528 U.S. 259, 285-86 (2000). Furthermore, if “it is easier to dispose of an ineffectiveness claim on the ground of lack of sufficient prejudice . . . that course should be followed.” Strickland, 466 U.S. at 697.

         A petitioner alleging ineffective assistance of counsel bears a heavy burden of proof. Pough v. United States, 442 F.3d 959, 966 (6th Cir. 2006). “Surmounting Strickland's high bar is never an easy task and the strong societal interest in finality has ‘special force with respect to convictions based on guilty pleas.'” Lee v. United States, 137 S.Ct. 1958, 1967 (2017) (quoting United States v. Timmreck, 441 U.S. 780, 784 (1979) (internal citation omitted).

         III. ...

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