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Williams v. United States

United States District Court, W.D. Virginia, Harrisonburg Division

November 15, 2016



          Michael F. Urbanski United States District Judge.

         Antonio Demetrius Williams, a federal inmate proceeding pro se, has filed a motion to vacate, set aside, or correct his sentence pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2255. He alleges counsel provided ineffective assistance by (1) failing to advise him that he faced a mandatory life sentence if convicted; and (2) failing to object that his two prior Florida cocaine possession convictions do not qualify as felony drug offenses requiring a mandatory life sentence under 21 U.S.C. §§ 841(b)(1)(A) and 802(44).

         The court has determined to conduct an evidentiary hearing to address the factual dispute underlying Claim 1. As detailed herein, resolution of Claim 2 requires consideration of a legal argument not squarely addressed by the parties in their legal memoranda, and the court will permit Williams to submit additional briefing on the issue should he desire to do so after reviewing this opinion. The court has determined that the interests of justice require the appointment of counsel for Williams in this case, and an Order to that effect will be entered today.


         Williams was sentenced to a mandatory term of life imprisonment under 21 U.S.C. § 841(b)(1)(A), having been found guilty of conspiracy to distribute 280 grams or more of cocaine base following two prior felony drug offenses in state court in Florida. At the time he was sentenced to life imprisonment, Williams was only 22 years old.

         Williams' mandatory life sentence stands in stark contrast to his prior state sentences. On October 3, 2008, Williams pled guilty in the Circuit Court for Palm Beach County, Florida, to Possession of Cocaine, and was given a time-served sentence of 28 days in jail. A few months later, on February 3, 2009, the same court sentenced Williams to another time-served sentence for Possession of Cocaine, this time for 19 days.

         Prior to Williams' federal trial, the government filed a notice under 21 U.S.C. § 851 referencing these drug convictions. ECF No. 96. The government attached certain documents related to the two prior Florida convictions and one Virginia conviction.[1] On their face, the judgments from the Circuit Court for Palm Beach County, Florida reflected violations of Florida Statute § 893.13(6)(a), each third-degree felonies. While the § 851 notice attached the Florida judgments in each case, the notice did not attach the Florida Rule 3.992(a) Criminal Punishment Code Scoresheet for either conviction.[2]

         Williams did not deny committing the two prior Florida drug offenses for which he served a total of 47 days. Because the government had served a notice under § 851 concerning these two prior drug convictions, the court was required to sentence Williams to a mandatory term of life imprisonment without release under § 841(b)(1)(A). Neither at sentencing nor on appeal did Williams raise an issue as to whether the two Florida drug convictions met the requirements of § 802(44).[3]

         Now proceeding pro se, Williams raises for the first time the issue that his two prior Florida convictions do not qualify as predicates under §§ 841(b)(1)(A) and 802(44), doing so through the window of ineffective assistance of counsel. While Williams' brief raises the issue as to whether his prior Florida drug convictions properly qualify, he cannot benefit from the statute he cites to support his argument, as it was enacted shortly after his Florida convictions became final. Nevertheless, the evolving nature of Florida's sentencing scheme requires the court to take a closer look at whether Williams' Florida Possession of Cocaine convictions were properly considered to be qualifying predicates necessitating a mandatory life sentence.

         Accordingly, after reviewing the record and briefs from Williams and the government, the court concludes pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 3006A that the interests of justice require that counsel be appointed for Williams, that an evidentiary hearing be held, and that the parties be given an opportunity to file supplemental briefs on the issues raised in Williams' petition.


         On April 19, 2012, a federal grand jury sitting in Harrisonburg, Virginia, charged Williams and multiple codefendants with conspiring to distribute and possess with intent to distribute 280 grams or more of a mixture or substance containing cocaine base ("crack cocaine") and six separate counts of crack cocaine distribution in violation of 21 U.S.C. §§ 846, 841(a) and 841(b)(1)(A). Williams initially appeared and was arraigned one week later, on April 26, 2012. Thereafter, on May 23, 2012, the United States Attorney filed an information pursuant to 21 U.S.C. § 851(a)(1), notifying Williams that he was subject to mandatory life in prison based on two prior felony drug convictions in Florida. ECF No. 96. Following trial, a jury found Williams guilty of the crack cocaine conspiracy charge and six counts of crack cocaine distribution. Williams was sentenced on March 20, 2013. As required by the statutory enhancement, the judgment entered on March 20, 2013 sentenced Williams to mandatory life in prison on the conspiracy charge and 240 months on each of the distribution charges, all to run concurrently. Williams filed a timely appeal, which the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals denied on February 4, 2014. The Supreme Court denied certiorari on June 2, 2014. On May 29, 2015, Williams timely filed his § 2255 petition.


         To state a viable claim for relief under § 2255, a petitioner must prove: (1) that his sentence was "imposed in violation of the Constitution or laws of the United States, " (2) that "the court was without jurisdiction to impose such a sentence, " or (3) that "the sentence was in excess of the maximum authorized by law, or is otherwise subject to collateral attack." 28 U.S.C. § 2255(a). Williams bears the burden of proving grounds for a collateral attack by a preponderance of the evidence. Jacobs v. United States, 350 F.2d 571, 574 (4th Cir. 1965).

         Criminal defendants have a Sixth Amendment right to effective legal assistance. Strickland v. Washington. 466 U.S. 668, 687 (1984). The proper vehicle for a defendant to raise an ineffective assistance of counsel claim is by filing a § 2255 motion. United States v. Baptiste. 596 F.3d 214, 216 n.l (4th Cir. 2010). However, ineffective assistance claims are not lightly granted; "[t]he benchmark for judging any claim of ineffectiveness must be whether counsel's conduct so undermined the proper functioning of the adversarial process that the [proceeding] cannot be relied on as having produced a just result." Strickland. 466 U.S. at 686. Accordingly, in order to establish a viable claim of ineffective assistance of counsel, a defendant must satisfy a two-prong analysis showing that counsel's performance fell below an objective standard of reasonableness and establishing prejudice due to counsel's alleged deficient performance. Id. at 687. When considering the reasonableness prong of Strickland, courts apply a "strong presumption that counsel's conduct falls within the wide range of reasonable professional assistance." Id. at 689; see also Gray v. Branker, 529 F.3d 220, 228-29 (4th Cir. 2008). Counsel's performance is judged "on the facts of the particular case, " and assessed "from counsel's perspective at the time." Strickland. 466 U.S. at 689.

         To satisfy the prejudice prong of Strickland, a defendant must show that there is a reasonable probability that, but for counsel's unprofessional error, the outcome of the proceeding would have been different. Id. at 694. "A reasonable probability is a probability sufficient to undermine confidence in the outcome." Id.

         A. Claim 1 - Ineffective Assistance of Counsel for Failing to Advise Williams that He Faced a Mandatory Life Sentence if Convicted.

         Williams and his counsel disagree as to whether counsel told Williams that, if convicted, he was required to serve a mandatory term of life imprisonment without release. In Claim 1, Williams alleges:

[C]ounsel never informed Petitioner that in light of his criminal history, that the Government's filing of a § 851 enhancement, he faced a mandatory life sentence, if he proceeded to jury trial and lost. Counsel discussed with Petitioner at the beginning of his representation, his statutory sentencing range (10-years to life), but not again thereafter. In their discussions, they focused on the career offender status and drug amount.

         ECF No. 596-1, at 4. The United States took the deposition of Williams' counsel and attached it as an exhibit to its opposition to Williams' petition. In that testimony, Williams' counsel affirmed that he advised Williams that he was facing mandatory life in prison if convicted on the charges. ECF No. 628-1, at 10.

         Regardless of the factual disagreement between Williams and his counsel, the government argues that Williams was advised by the United States Magistrate Judge at his initial appearance and arraignment on April 26, 2012 that if he was ...

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