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United States v. Charles

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

December 22, 2017



          Hon. Michael F. Urbanski, Chief United States District Judge

         Anthony Molette Charles, 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. ECF No. 87. Specifically, Charles alleges that counsel provided ineffective assistance by failing to contest Charles' career offender designation and that Charles should receive an advisory guidelines range without the career offender enhancement. The government filed a motion to dismiss, ECF No. 92, to which Charles responded, making this matter ripe for disposition. Upon review of the record, the court concludes that Charles has not stated any meritorious claim for relief under § 2255 and the government's motion to dismiss must be granted.


         On January 26, 2013, a federal grand jury returned an indictment against Charles, charging him with knowingly and willfully possessing with the intent to distribute a measurable quantity of a mixture or substance containing cocaine powder, in violation of 21 U.S.C. §§ 841(a)(1) and (b)(1)(C) ("Count One"). Indictment at 1, ECF No. 3. On March 31, 2015, Charles and the government entered into a written plea agreement, pursuant to Rule 11(c)(1)(C) of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure, in which Charles agreed to plead guilty to Count One in exchange for an agreed-upon imprisonment term between 90 and 130 months. Plea Agree, at 1, ECF No. 47. The plea agreement noted that the maximum term of imprisonment Charles could face for a possession with intent to distribute cocaine conviction was 20 years, and, that absent the Rule 11(c)(1)(C) plea agreement, Charles may have qualified as a career offender under the United States Sentencing Guidelines ("USSG"). Id. at 1, 3.

         A guilty plea hearing was held on March 31, 2015. At the hearing, the government reviewed the essential terms of the plea agreement on the record and noted that it was a binding plea pursuant to Rule 11(c)(1)(C). Plea Hr'g Tr. at 16, ECF No. 76. Charles affirmed his understanding that by pleading guilty, he waived his right to appeal and to collaterally attack his sentence except in limited circumstances. Id. at 13. The court asked whether Charles was fully satisfied with the advice and representation provided to him by defense counsel, to which Charles answered in the affirmative. The court asked Charles whether he read the plea agreement and to what extent he discussed it with his attorney, to which Charles responded that he and counsel read and went over every page. Id. at 10.

         The court continued to confirm further, asking defense counsel if he had communicated with Charles about whether or not Charles may be a career offender. Id. at 8. Counsel responded that there was a "strong likelihood" that Charles would qualify as a career offender under the USSG, and that the parties' understanding of this formed part of the basis for Charles entering into the plea agreement. Id. Charles affirmed his understanding that he likely qualified for career offender status, and reiterated his understanding that by signing the plea agreement he was agreeing to the terms therein. Id. at 11. As the guilty plea hearing continued, Charles affirmed that no one had made any promises to him other than those contained in the plea agreement to cause him to plead guilty and that no one had coerced him to plead guilty. Id. at 14-15. Following all of Charles' affirmations, the court concluded that Charles was fully competent and capable of entering an informed plea and that he was aware of the nature of the charges against him and the consequences of the plea. 14 at 25, 31. At the close of the hearing, the court took the matter under advisement pending preparation of a Presentence Investigation Report ("PSR") in anticipation of sentencing. Id. at 31.

         The PSR recommended a base offense level of 16 because it concluded that the possession with intent to distribute offense involved more than 100 grams but less than 200 grams of cocaine, pursuant to USSG § 2D1.1 (2014).[1] Sent. Hr'g Tr. at 9, ECF No. 64. The PSR also recommended that Charles be classified as a career offender, which carried an adjusted offense level of 32, based on the following convictions: 1994 New Jersey manufacture/distribution of a controlled dangerous substance on school property, and 1994 Maryland possession with intent to distribute 50 grams of cocaine. PSR ¶ 20, ECF No. 70; see USSG. § 4B1.1. Charles received a three-point reduction for acceptance of responsibility, for a total offense level of 29, with a criminal history category of VI, which resulted in an advisory sentencing Guideline imprisonment range of 151-188 months.[2] Id. ¶¶ 21-23, 35, 36, 64.

         Defense counsel filed a sentencing memorandum requesting that the court accept Charles' plea and sentence him at the low end of the 90-130 months range stipulated in the plea agreement. Sent. Mem. at 14, ECF No. 57. Counsel reiterated that Charles entered into the plea agreement based upon the parties' understanding that Charles would be classified as a career offender. Id. at 3. Counsel noted, however, that Charles objected to the PSR's finding that he was a career offender and had retained other counsel to file a petition for Coram Nobis relief in Maryland state court to challenge his 1994 Maryland predicate conviction. Id. Counsel communicated that Charles further objected to his criminal history score and resulting advisory Guideline range of 151-188 months, claiming that he was instead entitled to an advisory Guideline range without the career offender enhancement. Id. at 2. After raising Charles' objections, counsel argued it was unreasonable to sentence Charles as a career offender even though he technically qualified as one. Counsel argued that because Charles was sentenced to his second predicate offense while in custody and serving his sentence for his first predicate offense, he was different from a defendant who had been "given two periods of prison confinement for two serious felonies, but failed to learn his lesson." Id. at 5-6.[3] In response, the government argued in its sentencing memorandum that Charles' categorization as a career offender was appropriate because his two prior drug convictions, constituting his predicate offenses, were two of eight drug-related convictions on Charles' record. Gov't Sent. Mem. at 3-4, ECF No. 58. Of those eight drug-related convictions, the government argued that three were for possession of cocaine with intent to distribute, the same offense to which Charles pleaded guilty in his plea agreement. Id.

         A sentencing hearing was held on November 23, 2015. At the hearing, defense counsel repeated the objection raised in the sentencing memorandum about Charles' career offender status and criminal history score. Sent. Hr'g Tr. at 15-18, ECF No. 64. The court then asked Charles if he wanted the court to accept the Rule 11(c)(1)(C) plea agreement. Charles initially declined, so the court asked Charles to confer with defense counsel. Id. at 20. As Charles and counsel continued to confer, the court informed Charles of his option to go to trial and the statutory maximum sentence of 20 years he faced without the plea agreement. Id. After it appeared that Charles had thoroughly discussed the plea agreement with counsel, Charles stated to the court that he understood all of the elements of the plea agreement and that he wanted the court to accept the plea agreement range of 90-130 months of imprisonment. Id. at 21. Concluding that the Rule 11(c)(1)(C) plea was the appropriate disposition of the case, the court accepted the plea agreement and sentenced Charles to the low end of the stipulated range for a total of 90 months' imprisonment and a term of three years of supervised release. Id. at 33; see Judgment at 2-3, ECF No. 65. The court entered judgment on December 1, 2015. Charles subsequently appealed, but later withdrew that appeal.

         On December 5, 2016, Charles filed the present § 2255 motion seeking a reduced sentence in light of Mathis v. United States, 136 S.Ct. 2243 (2016), arguing that his career c offender designation is invalid because at least one of his predicate offenses no longer qualifies. In his motion, Charles alleged that he would have received the benefit of a lower sentence had there been no career offender enhancement, and he would have had no career offender enhancement had counsel been effective in disqualifying his 1994 New Jersey and 1994 Maryland predicate convictions. § 2255 Mot. at 1-2, ECF No. 87. Subsequently, Charles filed a motion to appoint counsel for purposes of this claim, which the court-denied. ECF No. 96.


         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 a 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). Charles bears the burden of proving grounds for a collateral attack by a preponderance of the evidence. Jacobs v. United States, 350 F.2d 571, 574 (4th Cir. 1965).


         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, as "[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 state a viable claim of ineffective assistance of counsel, a defendant must satisfy a two-prong ...

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