United States District Court, W.D. Virginia, Abingdon Division
Zachary T. Lee, Assistant United States Attorney, Abingdon,
Virginia, for United States; Amy Hoyt, Pro Se Defendant.
P. JONES UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
defendant, Amy Hoyt, proceeding pro se, has filed a motion
seeking relief under 28 U.S.C. § 2255. The United States
has filed a motion to dismiss, to which the movant has not
responded. For the reasons stated, I will grant the motion to
dismiss and dismiss the § 2255 motion.
defendant pled guilty to Counts One and Two of the Indictment
on November 27, 2017, pursuant to a plea agreement. Count One
charged the defendant with conspiring to possess with the
intent to distribute 500 grams or more of a substance
containing methamphetamine, in violation of 21 U.S.C.
§§ 841(b)(1)(A) and 846. Count Two charged the
defendant with possession of a firearm in furtherance of a
drug trafficking offense, in violation of 18 U.S.C. §
924(c). Hoyt was sentenced by this court on March 6, 2018, to
a total term of 228 months imprisonment.
§ 2255 motion, the defendant contends that her counsel
was ineffective in several ways. In Ground One, she asserts
that her counsel was ineffective because he pressured her to
sign her plea agreement to avoid a longer sentence. In Ground
Two, she claims her counsel was ineffective for failing to
file a motion for downward departure due to her
“voluntary disclosure of the offense. Thus, making a
dramatic difference in the sentence.” 2255 Mot. 5, ECF
No. 701. In Ground Three, Hoyt asserts that her counsel was
ineffective for not challenging the constitutionality of
§ 924(c)(1)(A) and the alleged vagueness of the
“in furtherance of” and “possession”
language in the statute. In Ground Four, she argues that her
counsel was ineffective because “Counsel did not object
to the search [of her car] being illegal and without probable
cause, violating the 4th Amendment.” Id. at 8.
state a viable § 2255 claim for relief, a defendant must
prove: (1) that her sentence was “imposed in violation
of the Constitution or laws of the United States”; (2)
that “the court was without jurisdiction to impose such
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). The movant bears the burden of proving grounds for a
collateral attack by a preponderance of the evidence.
Miller v. United States, 261 F.2d 546, 547 (4th Cir.
considering a § 2255 motion, I must view the facts
presented in the pleadings, evidence, and record in the light
most favorable to the petitioner. United States
v. Poindexter, 492 F.3d 263, 267 (4th Cir. 2007).
However, “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)(holding that an evidentiary hearing
is not necessary when the movant's allegations, viewed
against the record of the plea hearing, are clearly
incorrect). “[V]ague and conclusory allegations
contained in a § 2255 petition may be disposed of
without further investigation” by the Court. United
States v. Dyess, 730 F.3d 354, 359-60 (4th Cir.
defendants have a Sixth Amendment right to effective legal
assistance. Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 687
(1984). Ineffective assistance claims, however, are not
lightly granted - “[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.” Id. at 686.
To that end, a defendant must satisfy a two-prong analysis
showing both that counsel's performance fell below an
objective standard of reasonableness and that the defendant
was prejudiced by counsel's alleged deficient
performance. Id. at 687. To satisfy the prejudice
prong of Strickland, a defendant must show that
there is a reasonable probability that, but for counsel's
unprofessional error, the outcome of the proceeding would
have been different. Id. at 694.
defendant who has pled guilty must demonstrate that, but for
counsel's alleged error, there is a reasonable
probability that she would not have pled guilty and would
have insisted on going to trial. Hill v. Lockhart,
474 U.S. 52, 59 (1985). “A reasonable probability is a
probability sufficient to undermine confidence in the
outcome.” Strickland, 466 U.S. at 694. In the
guilty plea context, a petitioner must also “convince
the court that a decision to reject the plea bargain would
have been rational under the circumstances.”
Padilla v. Kentucky, 559 U.S. 356, 371-72 (2010).
Ground One of Hoyt's 2255 Motion, she asserts that her
counsel erroneously advised her during plea negotiations,
pressured her to sign a plea agreement that she did not
actually benefit from, that her plea was involuntary, and
that she would have proceeded to trial if she had known that
she would have received a sentence of 228 months
imprisonment. These arguments are all undermined by
Hoyt's statements under oath during her guilty plea
colloquy. At the beginning of the hearing, I asked Hoyt
whether she was satisfied with her counsel's advice and
she answered in the affirmative. I also asked her, “Has
anyone threatened you or attempted in any way to force you to
plead guilty in this case?” Tr. 19, ECF No. 715. She
replied, “No, sir.” Id. at 20.
prosecutor also advised her on the record, and she
acknowledged, that Count One had a mandatory minimum sentence
of ten years imprisonment and a maximum sentence of life
imprisonment, while Count Two carried a mandatory minimum
sentence of five years imprisonment and a maximum sentence of
life imprisonment that would have to run consecutive to Count
One. I also advised her that the sentencing guidelines range
of imprisonment would not be determined until later and that
I had the authority to impose a sentence that was more or
less severe than the guidelines range. Hoyt indicated her
understanding of this advice.
plea agreement, the government agreed to recommend a sentence
within the Guidelines range. The government also agreed to
recommend a reduction for acceptance of responsibility.
Additionally, in the Presentence Investigation Report, the
probation officer noted that had she not stipulated to the
agreed drug weight of 1.5 kilograms, Hoyt could have been
held responsible for a greater quantity due to relevant
conduct - as much as 4.5 kilograms. Contrary to her
assertion, Hoyt did benefit from her plea agreement. With
respect to her contention that her counsel was ineffective in
pressuring her to enter into her plea agreement, Hoyt has
failed to demonstrate either of the elements required by
Strickland. Accordingly, I will grant the
Government's Motion to Dismiss as to Ground One.
Ground Two, Hoyt faults her attorney for failing to argue for
a downward departure for voluntary disclosure of her offense,
pursuant to U.S.S.G. §5K2.16. The government is correct
that Hoyt was not eligible for such a departure, because law
enforcement had notice of her criminal activity before she
admitted her involvement, based on witness interviews and an
encounter with the defendant one month before she
“volunteered” her criminal activity. As such, the
defendant cannot show she would have qualified for such a
departure or any prejudice from her counsel's failure to
file such a motion for a downward departure. Hoyt therefore
has not shown, and cannot show, prejudice as required by
Strickland. I will, therefore, grant the
government's Motion to Dismiss as to Ground Two.
third ineffective assistance of counsel claim is based on the
failure to challenge the constitutionality of 18 U.S.C.
§ 924(c)(1)(A). Specifically, she argues that her
counsel was ineffective in failing to challenge the “in
furtherance of” language as unconstitutionally vague
and overbroad. Yet this argument has been specifically
rejected by other courts, albeit not the Fourth Circuit.
See, e.g., United States v. Eller, 670 F.3d
762, 764 (7th Cir.), cert. denied, Eller v.
United States, 566 U.S. 1035 (2012); United States
v. Helton, 86 Fed.Appx. 889, 891 (6th Cir. 2004)
(unpublished). The defendant cites to no relevant legal
authority in support of her argument, and instead references
Sessions v. Dimaya, 138 S.Ct. 1204 (2018) and
Johnson v. United States, 135 S.Ct. 2551 (2015).
However, these two cases addressed the “crime of
violence” clause in 18 U.S.C. §§ 16(b) and
924(e), rather than the “in furtherance of”
language in 18 U.S.C. § 924(c). Finally, I explained to
Hoyt during her guilty plea that “[m]ere possession of
a firearm is not sufficient.” Tr. 25, ECF No. 715. I
further explained the ...