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Strom v. United States

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

June 6, 2017

JUSTIN DEONTA STROM, Petitioner,
v.
UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Respondent.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          JAMES C. CACHERIS UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT JUDGE

         This matter is again before the Court on Petitioner Justin Deonta Strom's (“Petitioner” or “Strom”) Motion under Rule 60(b) to Vacate or Set Aside Criminal Judgment. [Dkt. 223.] Previously, the Court construed Petitioner's motion as a successive Section 2255 petition and dismissed it due to lack of jurisdiction. Mem. Op. [Dkt. 233]. On appeal, the Fourth Circuit vacated and remanded, with instructions to permit Petitioner to elect between deleting his successive Section 2255 claims or having his entire motion treated as a successive Section 2255 petition. Unpublished Op. [Dkt. 240]. Petitioner has since clarified with the Court that he would like to delete his successive Section 2255 claims. Supp. Mem. [Dkt. 243.] For the reasons set forth below, the Court will grant Petitioner's Rule 60(b) Motion for the limited purpose of reviewing the merits of two claims raised in his Section 2255 motion.

         I. Background

         Petitioner's status as a serial litigant has created a complicated chain of filings and re-filings in this case, involving both direct appeals and collateral attacks on his current sentence. The Court has described the facts of this case at length in its prior Memorandum Opinions. However, in an effort to remove any doubt that the Court has somehow failed to adequately address one of Petitioner's arguments today, it reviews those facts anew.

         In April of 2012, a federal grand jury returned a ten-count indictment charging Petitioner with sex trafficking of a minor and several related offenses. Indictment [Dkt. 47] at 1-2. These charges stemmed from Petitioner's involvement in a prostitution ring that recruited minor women to engage in commercial sex acts. Id. at 2. On June 26, 2012, pursuant to a written plea agreement, Petitioner pled guilty to one count of sex trafficking of a child, in violation of 18 U.S.C. §§ 1591, 1592. See Plea Agreement [Dkt. 67] at 1; Indictment, Count 8 [Dkt. 47] at 15. On September 14, 2012, the Court sentenced Petitioner to 480 months' imprisonment. [Dkt. 77 at 1.] Petitioner did not appeal.

         On July 24, 2014, after full briefing and an evidentiary hearing, the Court granted in part Petitioner's first Motion to Vacate under 28 U.S.C. § 2255. Mem. Op. [Dkt. 150]; Order [Dkt. 151]. The Court found that Petitioner had instructed his trial attorney to file a direct appeal, but the trial attorney failed to take any action, which constituted per se ineffective assistance of counsel. Id. Pursuant to Fourth Circuit law, the Court did not consider any of Petitioner's remaining claims, dismissing them without prejudice. Id. Petitioner was advised that he could file a second habeas motion, if necessary, following the resolution of his direct appeal. Id.

         On July 29, 2014, the Court re-sentenced Petitioner to 480 months' imprisonment. Judgment [Dkt. 152]. One day later, on July 30, 2014, Petitioner, by counsel, noticed his direct appeal. Notice of Appeal [Dkt. 154]. In his direct appeal to the Fourth Circuit, Petitioner challenged the validity of his guilty plea.[1]

         On March 5, 2015, the Fourth Circuit affirmed Petitioner's conviction and sentence, finding that Petitioner failed to “establish that his plea was unknowing or involuntary, ” that the Court properly advised him of the nature of the charges and the associated penalties, and that the Court properly informed Petitioner of the procedures that would be employed to determine his sentence. See Unpublished Op. [Dkt. 188]. The Fourth Circuit declined to address Petitioner's ineffective assistance of counsel claims, which it noted are more properly raised in a Section 2255 motion. Id. The Fourth Circuit also held that it was not required to consider the additional arguments raised in Petitioner's pro se supplemental briefs, given that he had been represented by appellate counsel. Id.

         On March 18, 2015, Petitioner filed a Petition for Rehearing with the Fourth Circuit, urging them to consider the arguments raised in his pro se supplemental briefs. [Dkt. 190.] On April 27, 2015, the Fourth Circuit denied his Petition for Rehearing. [Dkt. 191.]

         Petitioner then filed a pro se motion to re-file an arrest of judgment motion with this Court. [Dkt. 193.] The Court dismissed this motion without prejudice and directed Petitioner to file a motion pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2255. [Dkt. 194.] On May 14, 2015, Petitioner filed his second pro se motion pursuant to Section 2255, [2] [Dkt. 195], and subsequently requested that the Court appoint counsel, [Dkt. 203]. Petitioner also filed a motion for an evidentiary hearing. [Dkt. 205.] The Court appointed counsel, [Dkts. 206, 210], who filed a third amended motion under Section 2255 on Petitioner's behalf on July 31, 2015. [Dkt. 211.]

         Petitioner's claims included ineffective assistance of counsel as well as other, unrelated claims.[3] Mot. [Dkt. 195] at 2; Amend. Mot. [Dkt. 212] at 10. Because Petitioner did not raise the claims that were unrelated to ineffective assistance of counsel on direct appeal, the Court held that those claims were procedurally defaulted.[4] [Dkt. 216.] In addition, the Court denied Petitioner's request for an evidentiary hearing, [Dkt. 216], and held that there is no evidence that he received ineffective assistance of counsel before entering a guilty plea, [id.]. The Court also denied a certificate of appealability. [Id.] Petitioner, through counsel, filed a notice of appeal to the Fourth Circuit on September 9, 2015. [Dkt. 219.] The appeal was later dismissed. [Dkt. 225.]

         On October 15, 2015, Petitioner filed a Rule 60(b) Motion and Motion for Evidentiary Hearing. [Dkt. 223.] Petitioner's Rule 60(b) Motion alleges several perceived errors in the Court's 2255 proceedings. [Id.] Specifically, Petitioner argues that the Court failed to address: (1) his claim of actual innocence for the offense to which he pled guilty; and (2) his claim of ineffective assistance of counsel due to his trial lawyer “giving grossly [sic] misinformation about a likely sentence” if he pled guilty. [Id. at 1.] Petitioner also contends that the Court erred when it: (1) failed to consider his procedurally defaulted claims; and (2) denied his request for an evidentiary hearing. [Id.] Nearly a year later, Petitioner also filed a Motion for Judgment as a Matter of Law, [Dkt. 231], as well as a Motion for Rule 36 Clerical Error, [Dkt. 232]. The Court denied all three motions. [Dkt. 233.] Even though the Court also denied a certificate of appealability, Petitioner nevertheless filed an appeal with the Fourth Circuit. On appeal, the Fourth Circuit vacated this Court's prior Opinion and remanded with instructions to provide Petitioner with an opportunity to delete his successive Section 2255 claims from his Rule 60(b) Motion.[5] [Dkt. 240.]

         On May 10, 2017, the Court ordered Petitioner to file a supplemental memorandum advising the Court of whether he wished to delete his successive claims or have his entire Rule 60(b) Motion construed as a successive Section 2255 petition. [Dkt. 242.] Petitioner filed a memorandum in response, asking the Court to delete his successive Section 2255 claims. [Dkt. 243.] Having done so, the Court is now left with two remaining claims:[6] (1) actual innocence of the crime to which Petitioner pled guilty; and (2) ineffective assistance of counsel due to his trial lawyer's alleged assurance that he would receive a ten year sentence. Petitioner's Rule 60(b) Motion is now ripe for disposition.

         II. Standard of Review

         Rule 60(b) provides six grounds for relief from a final judgment, including: (1) mistake, inadvertence, surprise, or excusable neglect; (2) newly discovered evidence that, with reasonable diligence, could not have been discovered in time to move for a new trial; (3) fraud, misrepresentation, or misconduct by an opposing party; (4) the judgment is void; (5) the judgment has been satisfied, released, or discharged; the judgment is based on an earlier judgment that has been reversed or vacated; or applying it prospectively is no longer equitable; or (6) any other reason that justifies relief. Fed.R.Civ.P. 60(b).

         The relief provided by Rule 60(b) is an “extraordinary” remedy. Compton v. Alton S.S. Co., 608 F.2d 96, 102 (4th Cir. 1979). To succeed on a Rule 60(b) motion, “the party moving for relief must clearly establish the grounds therefore to the satisfaction of the district court . . . and such grounds must be clearly substantiated by adequate ...


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