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United States v. Brown

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

December 14, 2017

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
v.
PIERCE YARNELL BROWN, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          Hon. Glen E. Conrad Senior United States District Judge.

         Pierce Yarnell Brown, a federal inmate proceeding pro se, has moved to vacate, set aside, or correct his sentence under 28 U.S.C. § 2255. The government has filed a motion to dismiss, to which Brown has responded, making the matter ripe for consideration. For the reasons that follow, the government's motion to dismiss will be granted and Brown's motion to vacate will be denied.

         Background

         On August 13, 2015, a grand jury in the Western District of Virginia returned an indictment against Brown, charging him with possession of a firearm by a convicted felon, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1). After unsuccessfully moving to suppress the evidence against him, Brown entered a conditional plea of guilty to the offense charged. As part of his written plea agreement, Brown acknowledged that he would be subject to a mandatory minimum term of imprisonment of fifteen years under the Armed Career Criminal Act ("ACCA"), 18 U.S.C. § 924(e), if the court determined that he had at least three prior convictions for serious drug offenses and/or violent felonies. Plea Agreement at 1, Docket No. 40. Brown retained the right to appeal such determination, as well as the ruling on his suppression motion. Id. at 7.

         In preparation for sentencing, a probation officer prepared a presentence investigation report ("PSR") that designated Brown as an armed career criminal under the ACCA. The probation officer noted that Brown had three prior convictions for felony drug offenses that were committed on different occasions, and a prior conviction for unlawfully shooting into an occupied dwelling. The probation officer listed the following prior felony drug convictions to support the armed career criminal designation: a September 11, 2006 conviction in the Circuit Court for the City of Roanoke for possessing cocaine with intent to distribute (Case No. CR06-744), and July 12, 2010 convictions in the same court for selling heroin and cocaine (Case Nos. CR09-1934 & CR09-1935). The probation officer noted that the latter offenses occurred on November 19, 2008 and December 10, 2008, respectively. As an armed career criminal, Brown was subject to a mandatory term of imprisonment of fifteen years to life under 18 U.S.C. § 924(e), and an advisory range of imprisonment of 188 to 235 months under the United States Sentencing Guidelines. Defense counsel did not file any objections to the PSR.

         Brown appeared for sentencing on May 6, 2016. At that time, the court adopted the PSR in its entirety, including the determination that Brown qualified as an armed career criminal. The court ultimately imposed the mandatory minimum term of imprisonment of 180 months.

         On direct appeal, Brown challenged the denial of his motion to suppress. He did not appeal the armed career criminal designation. Brown's conviction was affirmed by the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit on January 31, 2017.

         On May 15, 2017, Brown moved to vacate his sentence under 28 U.S.C. § 2255. Brown's motion and the government's motion to dismiss are ripe for review.

         Discussion

         Section 2255 sets forth four grounds on which a prisoner in federal custody may collaterally attack his sentence: (1) "the sentence was imposed in violation of the Constitution or laws of the United States"; (2) "the court was without jurisdiction to impose such sentence"; (3) "the sentence was in excess of the maximum authorized by law, " or (4) the sentence "is otherwise subject to collateral attack." 28 U.S.C. § 2255(a). The petitioner bears the burden of proof by a preponderance of the evidence. Miller v. United States, 261 F.2d 546, 547 (4th Cir. 1958).

         In his § 2255 motion, Brown asserts the following claims for relief: (1) that the indictment failed to notify him of the possibility of an enhanced sentence under the ACCA; (2) that the court erred in determining that he qualified as an armed career criminal; and (3) that his attorney was ineffective in failing to object to the armed career criminal designation. For the following reasons, the court concludes that Brown's claims lack merit.

         I. Sufficiency of the Indictment

         Brown initially challenges the sufficiency of the indictment. Brown claims that the possibility of an enhanced sentence under 18 U.S.C. § 924(e) "wasn't made evident until the plea agreement, " and that the failure of the indictment to charge a violation of § 924(e) violated his right to due process. Def.'s Br. in Supp. of § 2255 Mot. at 3, Docket No. 64-1; see also Def.'s § 2255 Mot. at 3, Docket No. 66.

         This claim fails under controlling circuit precedent. See United States v. Holman,521 Fed.Appx. 162, 163 (4th Cir. 2013) (observing that controlling circuit precedent defeated the defendant's claim that he was improperly sentenced as an armed career criminal because the indictment did not charge a violation of the ACCA). The Fourth Circuit has repeatedly held that prior convictions used as a basis for sentencing a defendant as an armed career criminal need not be charged in an indictment or proven to a jury beyond a reasonable doubt. Id. (citing United States v. Cheek,415 F.3d 349, 352 (4th Cir. 2005)); see also United States v. Thompson,421 F.3d 278, 284 n.4 (4th Cir. 2005) (noting that an ...


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