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United States v. Williams

United States District Court, N.D. Indiana, South Bend Division

April 17, 2017

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
v.
DARIUS WILLIAMS

          OPINION AND ORDER

          JON E. DEGUILIO JUDGE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT

         Darius 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.

         I. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

         On 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.

         That 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.

         Mr. 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].

         At 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 parties' agreement.

         Mr. 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.

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         Section 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)).

         III. DISCUSSION

         Mr. 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.

         A. Ineffective Assistance in Connection with the Plea

         The 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.

         To 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)).

         Second, 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).

         In 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, ...


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