United States District Court, W.D. Virginia, Roanoke Division
Michael F. Urbanski United States District Judge
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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).
Ineffective Assistance of Counsel Claims
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.
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
Failure to Advise ...