United States District Court, W.D. Virginia, Harrisonburg Division
Michael F. Urbanski United States District Judge.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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. 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.
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).
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
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'
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.
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).
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.
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."
Claim 1 - Ineffective Assistance of Counsel for Failing to
Advise Williams that He Faced a Mandatory Life Sentence if
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
[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.
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.
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 ...