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United States v. Hodza

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

March 27, 2019

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
v.
ALDAIR HODZA, Petitioner.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION (DENYING 28 U.S.C. § 2255 MOTION)

          Henry E. Hudson Senior United States District Judge

         Aldair Hodza, a federal inmate proceeding pro se, submitted this motion under 28 U.S.C. § 2255 to vacate, set aside, or correct his sentence ("§ 2255 Motion," ECF No. 102).[1] Hodza contends that he received ineffective assistance of counsel in conjunction with his guilty plea and resulting sentence. Hodza delineated his one claim for relief in his § 2255 Motion as follows:

         Claim One: Counsel failed to advise Hodza prior to entering his guilty plea that the "approximate [Sentencing] Guidelines range for his crime(s) would be 235-293 months" and instead advised him "that a 420-month sentence in a plea bargain would be a reality and a likelihood. Had [Hodza] known that the Guidelines were so low ... he would have [gone] to trial." (§ 2255 Mot. 4.)

         In his Memorandum in Support of his § 2255 Motion, Hodza appears to raise several additional claims under "GROUND ONE":

         Claim Two: Counsel rendered ineffective assistance by "failing to challenge the trial court's upward variance absent proper explanation as to how the Court made such determination." (Mem. Supp. § 2255 Mot. 2, ECF No. 103.)

         Claim Three: Counsel rendered ineffective assistance prior to the entry of Hodza's guilty plea because he "was clear and absolute that [Hodza] would face a sentence of no more than 35 years." (Id.)

         Claim Four: The Court exhibited "an apparent bias" against Hodza when it sentenced him to a higher sentence than the recommended sentence in the plea agreement and guidelines. (Id. at 4.)

         The Government has responded, asserting that Hodza's claims lack merit. (ECF No. 108.) Hodza filed a Reply. (ECF 112.) For the reasons set forth below, Hodza's § 2255 Motion (ECF No. 102) will be denied.

         I. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         On March 6, 2015, a grand jury returned a two-count amended Indictment against Hodza, charging him with sex trafficking by force, fraud, and coercion and aiding and abetting (Count One), and transportation of an individual for prostitution and aiding and abetting (Count Two). (Indictment 1-2, ECF No. 23.) On May 1, 2015, Hodza entered into a Plea Agreement in which he agreed to plead guilty to both Counts One and Two. (Plea Agreement ¶1, ECF No. 38.) In the Plea Agreement, Hodza and the Government agreed that they would recommend to the Court that Hodza receive a thirty-five-year sentence on Count One and a concurrent ten-year sentence on Count Two. (Id. ¶ 5.) Prior to sentencing, the Government filed a motion for an upward variance asking the Court to impose the jointly recommended thirty-five-year sentence on Count One and a concurrent ten-year sentence on Count Two. (ECF No. 48, at 8-9.) The Court granted the motion for an upward variance; however, varied further than the joint recommendation, and found that a 500-month sentence was appropriate. (See ECF No. 66, at 1-3.) On August 18, 2015, the Court entered judgment against Hodza and sentenced him to 500 months of incarceration. (J. 2, ECF No. 69.) The United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit dismissed Hodza's appeal as barred by his validly entered guilty plea that contained a waiver of appellate rights. See United States v. Hodza, 650 Fed.Appx. 167, 168 n.* (4th Cir. 2016).

         II. INEFFECTIVE ASSISTANCE OF COUNSEL

         A. Standard of Review

         To demonstrate ineffective assistance of counsel, a convicted defendant must first show that counsel's representation was deficient, and second, that the deficient performance prejudiced the defense. Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 687 (1984). To satisfy the deficient performance prong of Strickland, the convicted defendant must overcome the '"strong presumption' that counsel's strategy and tactics fall 'within the wide range of reasonable professional assistance.'" Burch v. Corcoran, 273 F.3d 577, 588 (4th Cir. 2001) (quoting Strickland, 466 U.S. at 689). The prejudice component requires a convicted defendant to "show that there is a reasonable probability that, but for counsel's unprofessional errors, the result of the proceeding would have been different. A reasonable probability is a probability sufficient to undermine confidence in the outcome." Strickland, 466 U.S. at 694. In analyzing ineffective assistance of counsel claims, it is not necessary to determine whether counsel performed deficiently if the claim is readily dismissed for lack of prejudice. Id. at 697.

         In the context of a guilty plea, the Supreme Court has modified this second prong of Strickland to require the convicted defendant to "show that there is a reasonable probability that, but for counsel's errors, he would not have pleaded guilty and would have insisted on going to trial." Hill v. Lockhart, 474 U.S. 52, 59 (1985). Of course, in conducting the foregoing inquiry, the representations of the convicted defendant, his lawyer, and the prosecutor during the plea proceedings, "as well as any findings made by the judge accepting the plea, constitute a formidable barrier in any subsequent collateral proceedings." Blackledge v. Allison, 431 U.S. 63, 73-74 (1977). In light of the strong presumption of verity that attaches to a petitioner's declarations during his plea proceedings, "in the absence of extraordinary circumstances, allegations in a § 2255 motion that directly contradict the petitioner's sworn statements made during a properly conducted Rule 11 colloquy are always 'palpably incredible' and 'patently frivolous or false.'" United States v. Lemaster, 403 F.3d 216, 221 (4th Cir. 2005) (citations omitted). Thus, the Fourth Circuit has admonished that "in the absence of extraordinary circumstances, the truth of sworn statements made during a Rule 11 colloquy is conclusively established, and a district court should, without holding an evidentiary hearing, dismiss any § 2255 motion that necessarily relies on allegations that contradict the sworn statements." Id. at 221-22. No circumstances exist here that would lead the Court to consider Hodza's prior sworn statements as other than truthful.

         B. Allegedly Deficient Advice About Sentence

         In Claim One, Hodza argues that counsel failed to advise him that the "approximate [Sentencing] Guidelines range for his crime(s) would be 235-293 months" and instead advised him "that a 420-month sentence in a plea bargain would be a reality and a likelihood. Had [Hodza] known that the Guidelines were so low ... he would have [gone] to trial." (§ 2255 Mot. 4.) Similarly, in Claim Three, Hodza argues that counsel rendered ineffective assistance prior to the entry of Hodza's guilty plea because he "was clear and absolute that [Hodza] would face no more than 35 years." (Id.) As discussed below, Hodza's claims are belied by the record.

         In his guilty plea, Hodza agreed that he understood that the mandatory minimum sentence he could receive for Count One was fifteen years and the maximum sentence he could receive was life in prison. (Plea Agreement ¶ 1.) Hodza also agreed that he could receive up to ten years for Count Two. (Id.) Hodza agreed that the following provisions of the United States Sentencing Guidelines ("U.S.S.G.") would apply with regard to his ultimate sentence:

a. Pursuant to the cross-reference contained in U.S.S.G. § 2G1.1, a base offense level of 30 under U.S.S.G. § 2A3.1;
b. A 4-level enhancement for conduct described in 18 U.S.C. ยง 2241(a) or (b) under ...

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