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Saunders v. United States

United States District Court, E.D. Virginia, Norfolk Division

May 9, 2018




         Before the Court is pro se litigant Jeremy Lynn Saunders's ("Petitioner") Motion to Vacate, Set Aside, or Correct a Sentence by a Person in Federal custody pursuant to Title 28, United States Code, Section 2255 ("§ 2255 Motion"). Having reviewed the motions and filings, the Court finds that a hearing is not necessary to address Petitioner's motion. For the reasons set forth below, Petitioner's § 2255 Motion is DENIED.


         This case involves various narcotics distribution crimes that Petitioner committed with his brother. ECF No. 1, 3. In connection with these crimes, a grand jury indicted Jeremy Saunders on January 7, 2015. ECF No. 21. Petitioner pled guilty to Counts 1 and 8, drug conspiracy and possession of a firearm in furtherance of that conspiracy. ECF No. 28. Petitioner signed the Plea Agreement, initialed each page, indicated that he understood the possible punishments, and waived the right to appeal a sentence within the statutory maximum. ECF No. 28 at 1-3. Petitioner further indicated and his counsel affirmed that they had reviewed the charges and penalties, and that Petitioner knew and understood the agreement's terms. Id. at 13.

         Petitioner pled guilty to Counts 1 and 8 at a change of plea hearing before this Court on January 20, 2015. ECF No. 27. He indicated that he was satisfied with his counsel, and that he entered this plea agreement willingly. ECF No. 45 at 3-4. Petitioner also indicated that he waived his rights to trial and appeal by entering this guilty plea. Id. at 6-7. The Court accepted the guilty plea, and noted that Petitioner made the plea knowingly and voluntarily. Id. at 15.

         Petitioner's court-appointed counsel, Mr. Gantous, filed a Motion to Withdraw as Counsel on February 20, 2015, the court granted the motion after a hearing on March 10, 2015, and appointed a new counsel, Mr. Theuer, to represent Petitioner. ECF Nos. 33, 35, 36. Petitioner challenged his plea in a Motion to Withdraw. ECF No. 39. The Court held a hearing on this matter and subsequently denied the motion after consideration of the parties' arguments and a thorough review of the guilty plea colloquy. ECF No. 47. On September 14, 2015, Petitioner appealed to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ("Fourth Circuit"). No. 15-4413, Docket No. 12. Petitioner's attorney submitted an Anders brief and Petitioner also submitted a pro se supplemental brief and asserted that his guilty plea was neither knowing nor voluntary. No. 15-4413, Docket No. 12, 22. On January 6, 2016, the Fourth Circuit affirmed this Court's denial of the motion to withdraw finding "no doubt that Saunders knowingly and voluntarily entered his plea and that the plea was supported by an independent basis in fact." No. 15-4413, Docket No. 23, at 3.

         Petitioner then filed the instant motion on May 15, 2017, and requested that this Court vacate, set aside, or correct his sentence under 28 U.S.C. § 2255. ECF No. 134. The United States responded to Petitioner's Motion on July 10, 2017, and Petitioner replied on August 3, 2017. ECF Nos. 136-137.


         A. Section 2255 Generally

         When a petitioner in federal custody wishes to collaterally attack his sentence or conviction, the appropriate motion is a § 2255 Petition. United States v. Winestock, 340 F.3d 200, 203 (4th Cir. 2003). Section 2255 of Title 28 of the United States Code governs postconviction relief for federal prisoners. It provides in pertinent part:

A prisoner in custody under sentence of a court established by Act of Congress claiming the right to be released upon the ground that the sentence was imposed in violation of the Constitution or laws of the United States, or that the court was without jurisdiction to impose such sentence, or that the sentence was in excess of the maximum authorized by law, or is otherwise subject to collateral attack, may move the court which imposed the sentence to vacate, set aside or correct the sentence.

28 U.S.C. § 2255.

         In a proceeding to vacate a judgment of conviction, the petitioner bears the burden of proving his or her claim by a preponderance of the evidence. Miller v. United States, 261 F.2d 546, 547 (4th Cir. 1958). Additionally, pro se filers are entitled to more liberal construction of their pleadings. Gordon v. Leeke, 574 F.2d 1147, 1151 (4th Cir. 1978), cert, denied, 439 U.S. 970 (1978) (providing that a pro se petitioner is entitled to have his petition construed liberally and is held to less stringent standards than an attorney drafting such a complaint).

         When deciding a § 2255 motion, the Court must promptly grant a hearing "unless the motion and the files and records of the case conclusively show that the prisoner is entitled to no relief." 28 U.S.C. § 2255(b). Motions under § 2255 "will not be allowed to do service for an appeal." Sunal v. Large, 332 U.S. 174, 178 (1947). For this reason, issues already fully litigated on direct appeal may not be raised again under the guise of a collateral attack. Boeckenhaupt v. United States, 537 F.2d 1182, 1183 (4th Cir. 1976). Ineffective assistance of counsel claims, however, should generally be raised in a collateral motion instead of on direct appeal. United States v. Richardson, 195 F.3d 192, 198 (4th Cir. 1999).

         B. Ineffective Assistance of Counsel

         A viable claim alleging the ineffective assistance of counsel arises when "the counsel's conduct so undermined the proper functioning of the adversarial process that the trial did not result in a just outcome." Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 686 (1984). To prove a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel, a petitioner must make two showings. Id. at 687.

         First, a petitioner must show that counsel's performance was deficient. Id. In other words, counsel's errors must have been so serious that he or she was not actually functioning as the "counsel" guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment. Id. In order to demonstrate deficient performance, a petitioner must show "that counsel's representation fell below an objective standard of reasonableness" under the prevailing norms of the legal community. Id. at 688.

         "Judicial scrutiny of counsel's performance must be highly deferential, " and "a court must indulge a strong presumption that counsel's conduct falls within the wide range of reasonable professional assistance." Id. at 689. That presumption is even greater when counsel's decisions represent strategic, tactical decisions requiring "assessment and balancing of perceived benefits against perceived risks." United States v. Terry, 366 F.3d 312, 317 (4th Cir. 2004). A petitioner bears the burden of rebutting this presumption. Strickland, 466 U.S. at 689.

         Second, a petitioner must show that the deficient performance prejudiced the defense. Id. at 687. In other words, counsel's errors must have been so serious that the petitioner was deprived of a fair trial with a reliable result. Id. To demonstrate prejudice, a petitioner must prove that "there is a reasonable probability that, but for counsel's unprofessional errors, the result of the proceeding would have been different." Id. at 694. The Supreme Court defined a reasonable probability as "a probability sufficient to undermine confidence in the outcome." Id. In short, "[a]n error by counsel, even if professionally unreasonable, does not warrant setting aside the judgement of a criminal proceeding if the error had no effect on the judgment." Id. at 691. Instead, to prevail on the prejudice ...

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