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United States v. Link

United States District Court, E.D. Virginia, Alexandria Division

October 11, 2016

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
v.
JAMES THOMAS LINK Civil Action No. 1:16-cv-688

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          T. S. Ellis, III United States District Judge.

         At issue in this 18 U.S.C. § 2255 habeas petition is whether defendant's convictions and sentences for two counts of brandishing a firearm during a crime of violence should be vacated on the basis of (i) an alleged "sentencing miscalculation, " or (ii) the Supreme Court's decision in Johnson v. United States, 135 S.Ct. 2551 (2015), which invalidated the residual clause of 18 U.S.C. § 924(e). For the reasons that follow, the petition must be denied.

         I.

         On March 12, 2014, defendant James Thomas Link pled guilty to two counts of brandishing a firearm during a "crime of violence"-namely, armed bank robbery-in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 924(c).[1] On the first § 924(c) count, defendant was sentenced to 102 months' imprisonment. On the second § 924(c) count, defendant was sentenced to a consecutive term of 318 months' imprisonment, for a total term of 420 months of incarceration.

         Two years later, defendant, proceeding pro se, has moved pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2255 to vacate and set aside his sentences and convictions. Defendant asserts two grounds for his motion: (i) that a "sentencing miscalculation" occurred, resulting in the imposition of an "incorrect sentence" under the terms of defendant's plea agreement, and (ii) that the Supreme Court's decision in Johnson v. United States, 135 S.Ct. 2551 (2015), operates to invalidate § 924(c)'s residual clause and thus, by extension, defendant's § 924(c) convictions. The government disagrees, contending (i) that defendant's "sentencing miscalculation" claim is not cognizable under § 2255 and is barred by the doctrine of procedural default, and (ii) that defendant's convictions and sentences are based not on § 924(c)'s residual clause, but on § 924(c)'s force clause, a provision unaddressed and unaffected by the Supreme Court's decision in Johnson.

         Because the matter has been fully briefed and the facts and law are fully set forth in the existing record, neither oral argument nor an evidentiary hearing would aid the decisional process. Accordingly, the matter is now ripe for disposition. For the reasons stated below, defendant's motion must be denied.

         A.

         Defendant's sworn Statement of Facts accompanying his plea agreement describes a crime spree in which defendant, along with co-defendants James Larry McNeal and Alphonso Importantly, § 2255(b) provides that a hearing is unnecessary where, as here, "the motion and the files of the case conclusively show that the prisoner is entitled to no relief T.1" 18 U.S.C. § 2255(b). Stoddard, robbed or attempted to rob four banks in Maryland and Northern Virginia from October to December, 2013. The spree began on October 29, 2013, when defendant attempted an armed bank robbery at the Wells Fargo Bank branch located at 110 Congressional Lane in Rockville, Maryland. That day, McNeal drove defendant and Stoddard to the Wells Fargo Bank branch. Defendant and Stoddard entered the bank through the front door, which defendant then propped open with a sand-filled sock. Once inside the bank, defendant displayed a handgun and shouted, "Everyone get down and don't push the button." Stoddard jumped over the teller counter and unsuccessfully tried to take cash from the teller drawers. As Stoddard jumped back over the counter to leave, defendant fired one round from his handgun into the bank ceiling. The two then fled.

         The very next day, October 30, 2013, McNeal drove Stoddard and defendant to the Bank of Georgetown branch located at 1850 Towers Crescent Plaza in Vienna, Virginia. After defendant and Stoddard entered the bank, Stoddard vaulted over the counter toward the victim teller, demanding, "Give me the money." For his part, defendant displayed a handgun, pointing the weapon at the floor in view of the victim teller while telling Stoddard, "Get the money, " and "Let's go, come on let's go." Stoddard grabbed cash from the teller drawers and placed it in a black, plastic shopping bag. Stoddard and defendant then fled the bank on foot with $3, 449 in cash.

         Roughly four weeks later, on November 25, 2013, defendant and his accomplices struck again. This time, McNeal drove Stoddard and defendant to the Wells Fargo Bank branch located at 2213 North Glebe Road in Arlington, Virginia. After defendant and Stoddard entered the bank lobby, defendant, brandishing a firearm, ordered the bank's customers and employees to lie down on the floor. At the same time, Stoddard jumped the teller counter and, brandishing a gun, ordered the employees behind the counter to lie down. Stoddard then stuffed $19, 001 in cash into his bag. As defendant and Stoddard left the bank with that money, they pushed past an 82-year-old woman, knocking her to the ground.

         Defendant capped off the year and this spree with one more bank robbery. On New Year's Eve, December 31, 2013, McNeal picked up defendant and Stoddard and drove to the Wells Fargo Bank branch located at 951 South George Mason Drive in Arlington, Virginia. After defendant and Stoddard entered the bank, defendant produced a handgun and Stoddard jumped over the counter. Stoddard then took approximately $47, 913 in cash from the teller drawers and stuffed it into his bag. Defendant and Stoddard fled from the bank on foot, entered the vehicle with McNeal, but failed in their attempt to drive away because they were apprehended.

         B.

         On February 27, 2014, a federal grand jury indicted defendant on seven counts, including conspiracy in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 371 (Count 1), armed bank robbery in violation of 18 U.S.C. §§ 2, 2113(a) & (d) (Counts 2, 4, and 6), and brandishing a firearm during a crime of violence in violation of § 18 U.S.C. § 924(c)(1)(A)(ii) (Counts 3, 5, and 7). United States v. James Thomas Link, l:14-cr-76 (E.D. Va. Feb. 27, 2014) (Indictment). For each § 924(c) count, the indictment specifically identified the predicate "crime of violence" as the preceding § 2113 bank robbery count. For instance, Count 4 alleged that on November 25, 2013, defendant committed a bank robbery, in violation of § 2113(a) & (d). In turn, Count 5 charged defendant with violating § 924(c) for brandishing a firearm during a crime of violence-namely, the robbery charged in Count 4. Similarly, Count 6 charged defendant with a separate § 2113 bank robbery, and Count 7-the accompanying § 924(c) charge-specifically incorporated Count 6 as the underlying "crime of violence" for the § 924(c) offense.

         On March 20, 2014, defendant pled guilty pursuant to a plea agreement to two counts (Counts 5 and 7) of brandishing a firearm during a crime of violence, in violation of § 924(c). See United States v. James Thomas Link, No. 1:14-cr-76 (E.D. Va. Mar. 20, 2014) (Plea Agreement). As the plea agreement explained, the mandatory minimum term of imprisonment for Count 5 was seven years with a maximum term of life imprisonment, and the mandatory minimum term of imprisonment for Count 7 was a consecutive sentence of 25 years, with a maximum of life in prison. The plea agreement further explained that

[D]efendant understands that the Court has jurisdiction and authority to impose any sentence within the statutory maximum described above but that the Court will determine the defendant's actual sentence in accordance with Title 18, United States Code, Section 3553(a). The defendant understands that the Court has not yet determined a sentence and that any estimate of the advisory sentencing range under the U.S. Sentencing Commission's Sentencing Guidelines Manual the defendant may have received from the defendant's counsel, the United States, or the Probation Office, is a prediction, not a promise, and is not binding on the United States, the Probation Office, or the Court. Additionally, pursuant to the Supreme Court's decision in United States v. Booker, 543 U.S. 220 (2005), the Court, after considering the factors set forth in Title 18, United States Code, Section 3553(a), may impose a sentence above or below the advisory sentencing range, subject only to review by higher courts for reasonableness. The United States makes no promise or representation concerning what sentence the defendant will receive, and the defendant cannot withdraw a guilty plea based upon the actual sentence.

Id. at 3.

         As part of his plea agreement, defendant also "knowingly waive[d] the right to appeal the conviction and any sentence within the statutory maximum ... (or the manner in which that sentence was determined)... on any ground whatsoever, in exchange for the concessions made by the United States in this plea agreement." Id. at 4. Defendant further agreed "to cooperate fully and truthfully with the United States, " including by "testifying] truthfully and completely at any grand juries, trials or other proceedings." Id. at 6. In return, the government agreed "to recommend a sentence no higher than the mandatory minimum term of 32 years" and, upon the Court's acceptance of defendant's plea, "to move to dismiss the remaining counts of the indictment against this defendant." Id. at 4, 6. The plea agreement also provided that if defendant violated any provision of the agreement, the government "will be released from its obligations under th[e] agreement, including any obligation to seek a downward departure [whereas] defendant, however, may not withdraw the guilty plea entered pursuant to this agreement." Id. at 11. In addition, the agreement stated that any breach by defendant would amount to a "waive[r of] any right to claim that... the statement of facts accompanying this agreement. .. should be excluded or suppressed under Fed R. Evid. 410, Fed R. Crim. P. 11(f), the Sentencing Guidelines or any other provision of the Constitution or federal law." Id. at 12.

         Defendant's March 20, 2014 plea hearing began with defendant swearing under penalty of perjury to answer truthfully the questions put to him during the plea colloquy. Defendant was then questioned extensively to ensure that his plea of guilty was knowing and voluntary. See United States v. James Thomas Link, No. 1:14-cr-76 (E.D. Va. Jun. 19, 2014) (Transcript of Proceedings Held on March 20, 2014). Specifically, defendant was informed of the mandatory minimum terms of imprisonment of seven and twenty five years' imprisonment, to run consecutively, for the two § 924(c) counts to which defendant was pleading guilty. Defendant was also reminded that

[t]he plea agreement . . . provides that you understand that the Court has the power, the jurisdiction to impose any sentence on you up to the statutory maximum which is life imprisonment for each of the offenses, that you understand that your sentence has not yet been determined. It will be determined by the Court in accordance with the law which provides that the Sentencing Guidelines are advisory, not mandatory as they once were. And any estimate you've received from your counsel or from anybody, those are merely estimates. They are not promises. They are not assurances.

Id. at 16. In addition, defendant was further reminded that "there's no other agreement as to how the guidelines might apply to your case." Id. at 17.

         The Court also directly addressed defendant's agreement with the government regarding sentence recommendations:

THE COURT: Now, you and the government have also agreed that the government will not recommend the imposition of any sentence on you above the mandatory minimum for each of the two charges.
MR. LINK: Yes, sir.
THE COURT: What that means is that the government won't recommend more than seven years on Count 5 and 25 years on Count 7 to run consecutively. Do you understand that?
MR. LINK: Yes, sir, Your Honor.
THE COURT: But do you also understand that that agreement you and the government have reached isn't binding on the Court. I could reach a different result.
MR. LINK: Yes, sir, Your Honor.
THE COURT: Now, you understand that even after the Court determines what advisory guideline range applies to your case, that even then, the Court has the power, the authority, to impose a sentence that is either less severe than the guideline range or more severe than the guideline range, but it can never be less than the mandatory minimum of seven years on Count 5 and 25 years consecutively on Count 7. Do you understand that?
MR. LINK: Yes, sir, Your Honor.

Id. at 28-29. Additionally, the Court reviewed with defendant the plea agreement's appellate waiver, as well as defendant's obligation to cooperate "fully and truthfully with the United States, " including by "testify[ing] truthfully and completely at any grand juries, trials, or other proceedings." Id. at 17, 19.

         Importantly, defendant stated that he understood the terms of the plea agreement as summarized by the Court, and he further denied under oath that anyone had "made any other or different kind of promise or assurance ... of any kind whatsoever in an effort to induce" a guilty plea. Id. at 26. Defendant was then required to describe in his own words his offense conduct and confirm that the sworn Statement of Facts attached to his plea agreement was true and accurate in all respects. Id. at 34-35, 39.[3] Based on the plea colloquy, the Court found that defendant's plea was knowing, voluntary, and supported by an independent basis in fact containing each of the essential elements of the offenses charged in Counts 5 and 7. Id. at 40. Accordingly, defendant's plea of guilty to Counts 5 and 7 was accepted, and defendant was adjudged guilty of two counts of brandishing a firearm during a crime of violence, in violation of § 924(c). Id.

         Defendant's sentencing was initially set for June 6, 2014, but on that date defendant requested a continuance to file a motion to withdraw his guilty plea and to request the appointment of new counsel. New counsel was appointed on June 9, 2014, and on June 18, 2014, defendant filed a motion to withdraw his guilty plea. An extensive evidentiary hearing was held, during which defendant, defendant's former counsel, and one of the lead investigators in the case testified. After careful consideration of the testimony and arguments, defendant's motion was denied and a written Order issued. United States v. James Thomas Link, No. 1:14-cr-76 (E.D. Va. June 20, 2014) (Order). Defendant appealed the denial of his motion to the Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, but the Court of Appeals affirmed, finding no error. United States v. Link, 606 F.App'x. 80 (4th Cir. 2015). This judgment became final on July 9, 2015 with the issuance of the Fourth Circuit's mandate of that date.

         After his motion was denied, defendant refused to testify at the trial of his co-defendants, McNeal and Stoddard, in violation of defendant's plea agreement. Consequently, on August 7, 2014, defendant was held in civil contempt, and the government moved to hold defendant in breach of his plea agreement, a motion that was fully briefed. At defendant's September 19, 2014 sentencing hearing, defendant was held in violation of his plea agreement. In response, the government invoked the plea agreement's provision stating that defendant's breach would excuse the government's obligation to recommend the mandatory minimum sentence. Accordingly, the government, rather than seeking the mandatory minimum, pursued a life sentence for defendant's § 924(c) convictions. Ultimately, a sentence of 420 months' ...


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