United States District Court, W.D. Virginia, Roanoke Division
Michael F. Urbanski, Chief United States District Judge
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
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,
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.
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.
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). 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. Id. ¶¶
21-23, 35, 36, 64.
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. 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
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.
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.
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).
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 ...