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United States v. Britton

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

June 7, 2017

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA,
v.
ALFANCO DEXTER BRITTON, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          MICHAEL F. URBANSKI UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Alfanco Dexter Britton, a federal inmate proceeding pro se, filed a motion to vacate, set aside, or correct his sentence pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2255. ECF Nos. 583, 633. He raised multiple claims of ineffective assistance of counsel and court error. ECF No. 583. Pursuant to Standing Order 2015-5, the court appointed counsel to raise any argument that Britton might have had under Johnson v. United States. 135 S.Ct. 2551 (2015); accordingly counsel filed a brief arguing that Britton was entitled to relief because he was sentenced as a career offender. ECF No. 633. Following a hearing, the court appointed separate counsel to represent Britton on his ineffective assistance of counsel claims. Counsel filed an additional supplemental § 2255 motion. ECF No. 668. In a separate memorandum opinion and order, entered on April 19, 2017, the court dismissed all but four ineffective assistance of counsel claims, and set those claims for an evidentiary hearing. ECF No. 706. Following the hearing, which occurred on May 4, 2017, and after reviewing the entire record, the court concludes that Britton has not stated any meritorious claim for relief under § 2255 and that the government's motion to dismiss must be granted.

         I.

         On April 19, 2012, a federal grand jury charged Britton and other codefendants in a 29-count indictment with narcotics trafficking crimes; Britton was charged with conspiracy to distribute and manufacture 280 grams or more of a mixture and substance containing a detectable amount of cocaine base, in violation of 21 U.S.C. §§ 841(a)(1), 841(b)(1)(C) and 846 and nine counts of distribution of cocaine base, in violation of 21 U.S.C. §§ 841(a)(1) and 841(b)(1)(C). The court appointed counsel for Britton.

         On May 23, 2012, the government filed an information for a sentence enhancement under 21 U.S.C. § 851, alleging that Britton had four prior felony drug convictions, which would necessitate a life sentence if Britton were found guilty at trial. On May 29, 2012, the government proposed a plea agreement to Britton that had a deadline of June 8, 2012. No agreement was ever reached and the case proceeded to trial.

         During the course of the nine-day trial, the government presented evidence that Britton transported quantities of cocaine base from Florida to Virginia and also sold small quantities of cocaine base directly to buyers. Defense counsel made an opening statement asking the jury to "convict [Britton] of what he did and not what he didn't." Tr. Trans, at 1, ECF No.718. Defense counsel's strategy was to challenge the amount of drugs that the government attributed to Britton but not to deny that he was involved in the drug trade. Id. at 2-5. To that end, defense counsel reminded the jury during his opening statement that "[m]y client is innocent until proven guilty of every fragment, of every particle, every milligram of crack cocaine that [the government is] attempting to prove him guilty of conspiring to." Id., at 5. The jury convicted Britton on the conspiracy count and eight of the nine distribution counts. Judgment at 1, ECF No. 466.

         Prior to sentencing, Britton objected to the § 851 enhancement, arguing that the prior convictions used to support the enhancement were invalid because his guilty pleas were not knowing and voluntary. ECF No. 429, 431. The court held a hearing, overruled Britton's objections, and sentenced him to a mandatory life sentence on the conspiracy charge and 360 months on each of the distribution counts to run concurrently. Judgment at 3, ECF No. 466. Britton appealed to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, which affirmed his conviction and sentence. United States v. Williams, 554 F.App'x 128, 133 (4th Cir. Feb. 4, 2014). He also filed a petition for a writ of certiorari with the Supreme Court of the United States, which was denied. Williams v. United States. 134 S.Ct. 2715 (June 2, 2014).

         Britton timely filed his § 2255 motion in this court. On May 4, 2017, the court held an evidentiary hearing regarding (1) counsel's communication and advice regarding the government's proposed plea agreement; (2) counsel's communication regarding discovery and advice regarding the strength of the government's case; (3) counsel's opening statement; and (4) counsel's communications regarding the enhanced mandatory life sentence. Order at 1, ECF No. 706. At the hearing, the government called Britton's defense counsel to testify. He stated that early in the case, the government provided to him the bulk of the discovery and that he reviewed it all himself. He stated that he reviewed with Britton the charges in the indictment and the statutory penalties that Britton faced if convicted. Counsel also stated that after the § 851 was filed, he again reviewed the possible sentences that Britton faced, including the mandatory life sentence and read him the applicable statute. Counsel stated that he explained that if the jury found Britton guilty, the court would have no option but to sentence Britton to life without parole and continued to explain this many times leading up to trial. Counsel also testified that he reviewed with Britton the discovery evidence, including proffer statements from witnesses who would likely testify and audio and video footage of controlled buys. Counsel stated that he summarized the discovery and put all of the summaries in a notebook, which he had Britton review. Counsel testified that he told Britton the evidence was extensive and would be difficult to disprove. He stated that he met with Britton approximately 12 times before trial and spent more than 30 hours conducting in-person meetings with him. Counsel testified that he reviewed the main terms of the draft plea agreement with Britton, particularly the government's agreement to limit the § 851 notice by relying only on one prior conviction, which would have reduced the statutory sentence to 20 years to life imprisonment as opposed to mandatory life. Counsel stated that Britton had no interest in the plea agreement because it required that he cooperate and Britton refused to testify against his girlfriend codefendant. However, counsel stated that Britton asked him to go back to the government to see if counsel could get the government to agree to a fixed 20-year sentence. The government rejected the counteroffer and counsel testified that Britton had no desire to revisit the possibility of a plea deal. During trial, defense counsel stated that he knew he would have to acknowledge some possession of drugs, but his strategy was to challenge the drug weight involved in the conspiracy and argue that it amounted to less than 280 grams. Counsel stated that he shared this strategy with Britton, who never voiced any concern.

         Britton also testified at the hearing. He stated that counsel did not provide him with discovery and that the only document counsel provided him with was the indictment. Britton also stated that he never wanted to go to trial and that every time he saw counsel he would ask about a plea deal. He stated that he wanted to take a plea deal and would have been willing to cooperate but counsel never explained what "cooperation" would have entailed and after the government refused to consider Britton's counter offer, counsel stated that a deal was off the table. Britton also testified that he did not know that counsel was going to say in his opening statement that Britton "was guilty." Finally Britton testified that counsel never told him that if he went to trial and was convicted of the conspiracy charge he faced a mandatory life sentence, or that the court might sentence him as a career offender.

         II.

         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 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). Britton bears the burden of proving grounds for a collateral attack by a preponderance of the evidence. Miller v. United States. 261 F.2d 546, 547 (4th Cir. 1958).

         A. Ineffective Assistance of Counsel Claims

         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.1 (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 both 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; Gray v. Branker, 529 F.3d 220, 228-29 (4th Or. 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, 690.

         To satisfy the prejudice prong of Stickland, 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. Britton's claims of ...


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