United States District Court, N.D. Indiana, South Bend Division
OPINION AND ORDER
Williams pled guilty to one count of possessing heroin with
the intent to distribute it. In return, the government
entered a binding plea agreement to a term of imprisonment
that was well below the ultimate guideline range for that
offense, agreed to dismiss the remaining counts of the
indictment, and agreed not to bring further charges against
Mr. Williams. At sentencing, the Court accepted the
parties' agreement and imposed the agreed-upon sentence
of 12 years of imprisonment. Mr. Williams now moves to vacate
his conviction and sentence under 28 U.S.C. § 2255,
arguing that he received ineffective assistance of counsel.
He principally argues that his attorney was ineffective for
failing to investigate and file motions to suppress. He also
argues that his attorney was ineffective at sentencing and
that he failed to file a notice of appeal as directed. For
the reasons discussed below, Mr. Williams is not entitled to
relief on these claims, as the motions he now wishes his
attorney had filed would have been meritless, and his
attorney was not ineffective at sentencing and was not
required to file a notice of appeal. Accordingly, Mr.
Williams' motion is denied.
November 12, 2014, Mr. Williams was indicted along with
Darron Webb in a fourteen-count indictment charging them with
a variety of controlled-substance offenses. Mr. Williams was
named as a defendant in four of those counts, and faced
charges for distributing heroin (Count 5), possessing heroin
with the intent to distribute it (Counts 9 and 13), and
conspiring to possess heroin with the intent to distribute it
(Count 11). This indictment stemmed from an investigation of
Mr. Williams and Mr. Webb for heroin trafficking. As part of
that investigation, officers had conducted surveillance of
both Mr. Williams and Mr. Webb, and also conducted controlled
buys from Mr. Webb using a confidential informant. On
multiple occasions, the confidential informant also
interacted with Mr. Williams and observed him in possession
of heroin. Multiple other witnesses also identified Mr.
Williams as a heroin dealer.
investigation culminated with the execution of search
warrants at two properties associated with Mr. Williams and
Mr. Webb, one at 740 Brookfield Street, and the other at 845
Grant Street. A Task Force Agent with the Drug Enforcement
Administration submitted a detailed and lengthy affidavit in
support of the applications for those search warrants, and
the warrants were issued by a magistrate judge. In re 740
Brookfield Street, Case No. 3:14-MJ-65 (N.D. Ind. filed
Nov. 5. 2014); In re 845 S. Grant Street, Case No.
3:14-MJ-66 (N.D. Ind. filed Nov. 6, 2014). Officers executed
both warrants on November 11, 2014, and found a variety of
drugs, paraphernalia, cash, firearms, and other evidence at
the properties. In addition, as a SWAT team was entering the
Grant Street property, Mr. Williams was caught attempting to
flee, and was detained. He and Mr. Webb were indicted by a
federal grand jury the next day.
Williams pled guilty prior to trial pursuant to a written
plea agreement. In that agreement, Mr. Williams agreed to
plead guilty to Count 9 of the indictment, which charged him
with possessing heroin with the intent to distribute it. The
plea agreement included a binding agreement to a term of 12
years of imprisonment. The government also agreed to dismiss
the remaining counts of the indictment against Mr. Williams,
and to not bring any other firearm or drug trafficking
charges against him with respect to the period of time
covered by the indictment. Mr. Williams also agreed to waive
his right to appeal. [DE 48].
sentencing, Mr. Williams' attorney contested the
calculation of Mr. Williams' advisory sentencing range
under the Sentencing Guidelines. He objected to the drug
quantity upon which Mr. Williams' base offense level was
determined, as well as to enhancements for maintaining a
premises for the purpose of distributing a controlled
substance, § 2D1.1(b)(12), and for using violence,
§ 2D1.1(b)(1). After hearing proffers and arguments from
the parties, the Court overruled the objections as to the
base offense level and the use of violence, but sustained the
objection as to the enhancement for maintaining a premises.
Ultimately, Mr. Williams had a total offense level of 31 and
a criminal history category of VI, producing an advisory
sentencing range of 188 to 235 months of imprisonment. After
considering the factors under § 3553(a) and the
parties' recommendations, the Court accepted Mr.
Williams' plea agreement and imposed a term of 12 years
of imprisonment (144 months), consistent with the
Williams did not appeal, and his conviction and sentence
became final on June 12, 2015, when his time to appeal
expired. Mr. Williams timely filed a motion under 28 U.S.C.
§ 2255 just under a year later when he placed the motion
in his institution's mailing system on June 6, 2016. [DE
124-3]. That motion has now been fully briefed.
STANDARD OF REVIEW
2255(a) of Title 28 provides that a federal prisoner
“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 . . . may move the court which
imposed the sentence to vacate, set aside or correct the
sentence.” 28 U.S.C. § 2255(a). The Seventh
Circuit has recognized that § 2255 relief is appropriate
only for “an error of law that is jurisdictional,
constitutional, or constitutes a fundamental defect which
inherently results in a complete miscarriage of
justice.” Harris v. United States, 366 F.3d
593, 594 (7th Cir. 2004). Relief under § 2255 is
extraordinary because it seeks to reopen the criminal process
to a person who has already had an opportunity of full
process. Almonacid v. United States, 476 F.3d 518,
521 (7th Cir. 2007) (citing Kafo v. United States,
467 F.3d 1063, 1068 (7th Cir. 2006)).
Williams moves to vacate his conviction under 28 U.S.C.
§ 2255, arguing that he received ineffective assistance
of counsel at various stages. First, he argues that his
attorney rendered ineffective assistance in connection with
his plea negotiations by failing to move to suppress certain
evidence. Second, he argues that his attorney rendered
ineffective assistance at sentencing by failing to adequately
object to an enhancement under the Sentencing Guidelines. And
third, he argues that his attorney was ineffective for
failing to file a notice of appeal. The Court considers each
argument in turn.
Ineffective Assistance in Connection with the Plea
focus of Mr. Williams' motion is that his attorney
rendered ineffective assistance by failing to investigate and
file motions to suppress evidence recovered through unlawful
searches and seizures. He argues that the search warrant for
740 North Brookfield was invalid for various reasons; that
the search of an Oldsmobile found on that property was
outside the scope of the warrant; and that he was unlawfully
arrested as he attempted to flee when officers began
executing a search warrant at another property. Mr. Williams
argues that his attorney should have moved to suppress all of
the resulting evidence, and that his failure to do so
infected the plea negotiations. He thus asks that his
conviction be vacated.
succeed on a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel in
negotiating a plea agreement, a defendant must first
demonstrate that his counsel's performance was deficient.
Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 687 (1984);
Gaylord v. United States, 829 F.3d 500, 506 (7th
Cir. 2016). That requires showing that “counsel's
representation fell below an objective standard of
reasonableness” when measured against “prevailing
professional norms.” Strickland, 466 U.S. at
688. “In the plea bargaining context, reasonably
competent counsel will ‘attempt to learn all of the
facts of the case, make an estimate of a likely sentence, and
communicate the results of that analysis before allowing his
client to plead guilty.'” Gaylord, 829
F.3d at 506 (quoting Moore v. Bryant, 348 F.3d 238,
241 (7th Cir. 2003)).
a defendant must show that he was prejudiced by the
deficiencies in his counsel's performance.
Strickland, 466 U.S. at 687. “To show
prejudice in the plea bargaining context, a defendant 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.'”
Gaylord, 829 F.3d at 506 (quoting United States
v. Cieslowski, 410 F.3d 353, 359 (7th Cir. 2005)).
“In other words, a defendant must demonstrate a
reasonable probability that ‘the outcome of the plea
process would have been different with competent
advice.'” Id. (quoting Lafler v.
Cooper, 132 S.Ct. 1376, 1384 (2012)). When a
defendant's claim is based on counsel's failure to
file a motion to suppress, a defendant must also “prove
the motion was meritorious.” United States v.
Cieslowski, 410 F.3d 353, 360 (7th Cir. 2005); Long
v. United States, 847 F.3d 916, 920 (7th Cir. 2017).
support of his claim that counsel's performance was
deficient, Mr. Williams relies largely on a letter written to
him by his attorney after his conviction became final. In the
letter, counsel stated, “I did not obtain copies of the
warrants or affidavits and did not file motions to suppress
because of ongoing plea discussions.” [DE 124-1 p. 9].
Taken at face value, that statement could suggest that
counsel failed to properly investigate the viability of
suppression motions prior to advising Mr. Williams about the
plea agreement, which could represent ineffective assistance.
Tollett v. Henderson, 411 U.S. 258, 266-67 (1973)
(“Counsel's failure to evaluate properly facts
giving rise to a constitutional claim, or his failure
properly to inform himself of facts that would have shown the
existence of a constitutional claim, might in particular
situations meet this standard of proof [for deficient
performance].”); Hurlow v. United States, 726
F.3d 958, 967 (7th Cir. 2013). Of course, there are other
reasons why counsel might have reasonably forgone that avenue
of investigation. For example, if the evidence against Mr.
Williams would have been substantial even without any
evidence that might have been subject to suppression, ...