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Easter v. United States

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

October 29, 2018



          Raymond A. Jackson United States District Judge.

         Before the Court is the pro se motion of Christie Ann Easter ("Petitioner") to Vacate, Set Aside, or Correct a Sentence Previously Imposed, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2255. ('"§ 2255 Motion"). Having thoroughly reviewed the motions, fiies, and records in this case, the Court finds that no hearing is necessary to address Petitioner's motion. For the reasons set forth below, Petitioner's § 2255 motion is DENIED.


         On March 6, 2017. Petitioner Christie Easter pled guilty to counts one and thirty-nine of the superseding indictment charging Petitioner with conspiracy to commit mail fraud, bank fraud, and wire fraud, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1349, and aggravated identity theft, in violation of Title 18 U.S.C. § 1028A. On June 26, 2017, Petitioner was sentenced to consecutive prison terms of 106 months on count one and 24 months on count thirty-nine. On July 2, 2018, Petitioner filed a Motion to Vacate under 28 U.S.C. § 2255 on three grounds: (1) Petitioner alleges her cooperation with the government warranted a reduction in sentence pursuant to the Plea Agreement signed by both parties; (2) Petitioner was assessed an improper enhancement due to false information within her Presentence Investigation Report ("PSR"); (3) Petitioner received ineffective assistance from defense counsel. The United States responded to Petitioner's Motion to Vacate on September 25, 2018 asserting: (1) the Plea Agreement created no obligation to request a downward departure on behalf of the Defendant; (2) Petitioner's PSR appropriately allotted enhancement points due to Petitioner's criminal history; (3) Petitioner received effective assistance from Counsel. This matter has been fully briefed and is now ripe for judicial determination.


         A. Title 28 U.S.C. § 2255 generally

         Title 28 U.S.C. § 2255 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.

         A petitioner collaterally attacking his sentence or conviction pursuant to § 2255 bears the burden of proving his grounds for collateral attack by a preponderance of the evidence. Miller v. United States, 261 F.2d 546 (4th Cir. 1958); Vanater v. Boles, 377 F.2d 898, 900 (4th Cir. 1967). In deciding a § 2255 motion, the Court need not hold a hearing if "the motion and the files and the records of the case conclusively show that the prisoner is entitled to no relief." 28 U.S.C. § 2255. Furthermore, if the motion is brought before the judge that presided over the conviction, the judge may rely upon recollections of previous events. Blackledge v. Allison, 431 U.S. 63, 74 n. 4 (1977); Carvell v. United States, 173 F.2d 348, 348-49 (1949) (stating it is highly desirable that § 2255 motions "be passed on by the judge who is familiar with the facts and circumstances surrounding the trial, and is consequently not likely to be misled by false allegations as to what occurred").

         The burden upon a petitioner collaterally attacking his sentence under § 2255 is a "significantly higher hurdle than would exist on direct appeal." Id. at 166. Petitioner must "shoulder the burden" of showing that the trial errors not only created a possibility of prejudice but infected the entire proceeding to his actual and substantial disadvantage. United States v. Frady, 456 U.S. 152, 170 (1982). Therefore, to obtain relief, a petitioner must meet the two part "cause and actual prejudice" test. Id. at 167-68. Under that test, "[t]o obtain collateral relief based on trial errors to which no contemporaneous objection was made, a convicted defendant must show both (1) 'cause' excusing his double procedural default, and (2) 'actual prejudice' resulting from the errors of which he complains." Id. at 168. If the petitioner fails to meet the "actual prejudice" prong of the test, the Court need not address whether the petitioner has shown cause. Id. At 168.

         B. Ineffective Assistance of Counsel

         A petitioner must satisfy two factors to establish ineffective assistance of counsel: "(1) that [counsel's performance fell below an objective standard of reasonableness, and (2) that [petitioner] was prejudiced by the deficiency because it created a reasonable probability that but for counsel's errors, the result of the proceeding would have been different." United States v. Hoyle, 33 F.3d 415, 418 (4th Cir. 1994) (citing Smith v. Smith, 931 F.2d 242, 244 (4th Cir. 1991)); see also Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 693 (1984). "A reasonable probability is one that is sufficient to undermine confidence in the outcome." Hoyle, 33 F.3d at 418.

         Whether before, during, or after trial, when the Sixth Amendment applies, the formulation of the standard is the same: reasonable competence in representing the accused. Strickland, 466 U.S. at 688-89. In applying and defining this standard, substantial deference must be accorded to counsel's judgment. Id. at 689. If petitioner makes an insufficient showing on one prong, there is no reason for a court deciding an ineffective assistance claim to address both components of the inquiry. Id. at 697. The court is not required to begin with an analysis of the first prong of Strickland because "a court need not approach the inquiry in the same order," and "need not determine whether counsel's performance was deficient before examining the prejudice suffered by the defendant as a result of the alleged deficiencies." Id.

         To demonstrate deficient representation, petitioner must show "that counsel's representation fell below an objective standard of reasonableness." Strickland, 466 U.S. at 688. A petitioner must overcome a strong presumption that counsel's performance falls within the wide range of reasonable professional assistance under the circumstances. Id. at 689. Also, a petitioner bears the burden of proving prejudice. Fields v. Attorney Gen. of the State of Md., 956 F.2d 1290, 1297 (4th Cir. 1992). To demonstrate prejudice, a petitioner must prove that "there is a ...

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