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United States v. Morales-Hernandez

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

June 18, 2017



          Michael F. Urbanski United States District Judge

         Jose Manuel Morales-Hernandez, 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. Morales-Hernandez raises claims for ineffective assistance of counsel and court error. After reviewing the record and briefs from Morales-Hernandez and the government, the court concludes that Morales-Hernandez has not stated any meritorious claim for relief under § 2255 and that the government's motion to dismiss must be granted.


         On June 4, 2015, a federal grand jury charged Morales-Hernandez in six-count indictment with various drug-related crimes. Morales-Hernandez was appointed counsel. On April 19, 2016, Morales-Hernandez and the government entered into a plea agreement in which Morales-Hernandez agreed to plead guilty to conspiring to distribute more than 500 grams of a mixture containing methamphetamine, in violation of 21 U.S.C. §§ 846 & 841(b)(1)(A). Morales-Hernandez requested that he be represented by new counsel, and the court appointed the specifically named substitute counsel that Morales-Hernandez requested to represent him. Order at 1, ECF No. 186.

         The court held a guilty plea hearing, which was translated into Spanish by a court interpreter for Morales-Hernandez. At the hearing, Morales-Hernandez affirmed that he was "fully satisfied with the advice and representation" of counsel. Plea Hr'g Tr. at 3, ECF No. 245. Morales-Hernandez affirmed that he had received a copy of the indictment and plea agreement and had had an adequate opportunity to discuss both with counsel. Id. at 9-10. The government reviewed the essential terms of the plea agreement on the record and noted that Morales-Hernandez gave up his right to appeal and to collaterally attack his sentence except in limited circumstances. Id. at 13. Morales-Hernandez affirmed his understanding of the appellate and collateral attack waiver. Id. at 22-23. Morales-Hernandez affirmed that the government had made no other agreements or promises with him other than those contained in the plea agreement. Id. at 15. The court accepted his guilty plea after finding that Morales-Hernandez was fully competent and capable of entering an informed plea, that he was aware of the nature of the charges against him, and that he understood the consequences of pleading guilty. Id. at 28.

         The Presentence Investigation Report ("PSR") recommended a total offense level of 29, a criminal history category of I, and a resulting guideline imprisonment range of 87 to 108 months. PSR ¶ 66, ECF No. 232. A drug conspiracy conviction, like the one to which Morales-Hernandez pleaded guilty, imposes a statutory mandatory minimum sentence of 120 months' incarceration. 21 U.S.C. § 841(b)(1)(A). However, the PSR recommended that Morales-Hernandez be sentenced within the applicable guideline range because he qualified for safety valve relief under 18 U.S.C. § 3553(f)(1)-(5), which allows a defendant in a drug case to receive a sentence below the statutory mandatory minimum sentence if certain criteria are met.

         A sentencing hearing was held on July 15, 2015 and an interpreter was provided to translate the proceedings into Spanish for Morales-Hernandez. The court began by asking whether Morales-Hernandez was still satisfied with his counsel, and he affirmed that he was. Sent. Tr. at 2, ECF No. 243. The government argued for a sentence of 95 months and defense counsel argued for a sentence of 87 months or below. The court adopted the PSR and sentenced Morales-Hernandez to 95 months' imprisonment. Id. at 20. At the sentencing hearing the court noted that Morales-Hernandez had waived the right to appeal, but if such a right does exist, "any notice of appeal must be filed within 14 days of the entry of judgment." Id. at 23.

         Morales-Hernandez did not appeal. In his § 2255 petition, Morales-Hernandez argues that counsel failed to advise him of his right to appeal and did not provide him with a list of "free Spanish lawyer[s] that might assist me in my case." § 2255 Mot. at 3, ECF No. 235. In addition, Morales-Hernandez argues that the court erred because the sentence imposed did not take into account the substantial assistance that he provided to the government and was therefore, unreasonable.


         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). Morales-Hernandez bears the burden of proving grounds for a collateral attack by a preponderance of the evidence. Millet 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.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 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 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, 690.

         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. To show prejudice following a guilty plea, a defendant must establish that there is a reasonable probability that, but for counsel's alleged errors, he would not have pleaded guilty but would have gone to trial instead. Hill v. Lockhart, 474 U.S. 52, 59 (1985). Morales-Hernandez's claims of ineffective assistance of counsel do not satisfy Strickland's stringent requirements.

         1. Failure to Advise ...

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