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United States v. Faulkner

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

April 12, 2019



          John A. Gibney, Jr. United States District Judge

         The petitioner, Benjamin Faulkner, moves to vacate, set aside, or correct his sentence pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2255 on five separate grounds. (Dk. No. 77.) In addition to alleging three claims of ineffective assistance of counsel, Faulkner asserts that he entered an invalid guilty plea and that he received an unreasonable sentence. Faulkner's three ineffective assistance of counsel claims fail because he cannot establish either (1) that his attorney's conduct fell below that of an objectively reasonable attorney, or (2) that prejudice resulted from any of the alleged deficiencies in his counsel's performance. Faulkner's fourth argument fails because his swom testimony demonstrates that he entered a valid guilty plea. Finally, Faulkner's fifth ground-that he received an "unreasonable" sentence-is not cognizable under § 2255. For these reasons, the Court will deny the motion.

         I. BACKGROUND

         In 2017, Faulkner pled guilty to one count of aggravated sexual abuse of a minor in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 2241(c). This conviction mandated 30 years to life in prison. In his plea agreement with the government and in his plea hearing before the Court, Faulker agreed that the government could prove all elements of the offense and stated that he was satisfied with his attorney's performance. (Dk. No. 48, ¶¶ 2, 3); Plea Hr'g Tr. 13:11-20, 30:1-8, May 17, 2017 (Dk. No. 69). Additionally, Faulkner affirmed that he understood the possible penalties for violating the relevant statute, including the minimum and maximum terms of imprisonment. He also understood that (1) any calculation of his advisory sentencing range under the United States Sentencing Guidelines ("U.S.S.G." or "Guidelines") by his lawyer represented only an estimate and did not bind the Court; (2) the Presentence Investigation Report ("PSR") ultimately determined his advisory sentencing range under the Guidelines; (3) the Court could impose a sentence above or below the Guidelines range; and (4) by pleading guilty, he gave up rights afforded to other criminal defendants. (Dk. No. 48, ¶¶ 1, 3, 4, 5); Plea Hr'g Tr. 19:11-14, 22:13-24:4, 26:19-29:25. In the plea agreement, the government agreed to recommend a sentence of 50 years, and the defendant indicated he understood that the recommendation did not bind the Court. (Dk. No. 48, ¶ 4); Plea Hr'g Tr. 17:14-17.

         Faulkner's PSR reflected the statutory sentencing range of 30 years to life, with the Guidelines recommending a life sentence based on a criminal history category of I and an offense level of 43. (Dk. No. 55, ¶¶ 86, 87.) Due to Faulkner's cooperation, and in accordance with the plea agreement, the government moved for a downward variance to a 50-year sentence. Sentencing Hr'g Tr. 18:16-21, 27:20-22, Sept. 15, 2017 (Dk. No. 70). Defense counsel also moved for a downward variance, arguing that Faulkner could "do good for other people" if he had a sentence of less than 50 years. (Dk. No. 57, at 5); Sentencing Hr'g Tr. 22:22. The Court denied the variance motions and sentenced Faulker to life in prison. Id. at 27:20-28:9. The Fourth Circuit dismissed Faulkner's appeal because his plea agreement included a valid appeal waiver.

         Faulkner's motion sets forth five grounds for relief. Grounds 1 through 3 allege ineffective assistance of counsel during the guilty plea and sentencing phases of his case. Ground 4 alleges that Faulkner entered an invalid guilty plea because the Court (1) failed to inform him that he could present evidence and witnesses if he proceeded to trial, and (2) failed to mention his appeal waiver at sentencing. Finally, Ground 5 claims that the Court imposed an unreasonable sentence of life imprisonment.


         Under 28 U.S.C. § 2255(a), a federal prisoner may challenge the legality of his sentence on four bases: (1) "the sentence was imposed in violation of the Constitution or laws of the United States," (2) "the court was without jurisdiction to impose such sentence," (3) "the sentence was in excess of the maximum authorized by law," or (4) the sentence "is otherwise subject to collateral attack."[1] 28 U.S.C. § 2255(a). "A petitioner bears the burden of proving one of those grounds by a preponderance of the evidence." Beyle v. United States, 269 F.Supp.3d 716, 725 (E.D. Va. 2017).

         A prisoner can prove a constitutional violation under § 2255 by demonstrating that he received ineffective assistance of counsel in violation of the Sixth Amendment. See Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 686 (1984) ("[T]he [Sixth Amendment] right to counsel is the right to the effective assistance of counsel." (emphasis added)). To succeed on an ineffective assistance claim, the petitioner must satisfy two elements. First, the petitioner must demonstrate that his "counsel's representation fell below an objective standard of reasonableness." Id. at 688. To satisfy this first prong-the performance prong-the petitioner 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).

         Second, the petitioner must show that "there is a reasonable probability that, but for counsel's unprofessional errors, the result of the proceeding would have been different." Strickland, 466 U.S. at 694. When, as here, a petitioner challenges a conviction entered after a guilty plea, the second prong-the prejudice prong-"is slightly modified" in that the petitioner "must 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." Hooper v. Garraghty, 845 F.2d 471, 475 (4th Cir. 1988). Similarly, for alleged ineffective assistance of counsel during sentencing, a petitioner "must show that there is a reasonable probability that, but for counsel's unprofessional errors, the [sentence] would have been different." Bowie v. Br anker, 512 F.3d 112, 120 (4th Cir. 2008) (alteration in original). "A reasonable probability is a probability sufficient to undermine confidence in the outcome." Id.

         When a petitioner alleges ineffective assistance of counsel following a guilty plea entered during a properly conducted Rule 11 plea colloquy, he must overcome the "formidable barrier" of his sworn statements at that proceeding. United States v. White, 366 F.3d 291, 295-96 (4th Cir. 2004). "Absent clear and convincing evidence to the contrary, a defendant is bound by the representations he makes under oath during a plea colloquy." Fields v. Att'y Gen. of Md, 956 F.2d 1290, 1299 (4th Cir. 1992). Accordingly, unless a petitioner shows extraordinary circumstances, a "court should, without holding an evidentiary hearing, dismiss any § 2255 motion that necessarily relies on allegations that contradict the [petitioner's] sworn statements." United States v. Lemaster, 403 F.3d 216, 221-22 (4th Cir. 2005).


         A. Ineffective Assistance of Counsel During the Guilty Plea Phase (Ground I)

         Faulkner first claims ineffective assistance of counsel with regard to the guilty plea he entered on May 17, 2017. Specifically, Faulkner argues that (1) counsel did not review discovery with him; (2) counsel did not permit Faulkner to review the plea agreement in its entirety before entering his guilty plea; (3) counsel did not discuss the Guidelines calculations with him; (4) counsel allowed Faulkner to enter into "effectively an 'open' plea agreement"[2]while simultaneously waiving his right to appeal his sentence (Dk. No. 85, at 4); and (5) Faulkner did not knowingly ...

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