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Stephen v. United States

United States District Court, Fourth Circuit

July 25, 2013

SEAN A. STEPHEN, Petitioner,
v.
UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Respondent.

MEMORANDUM OPINION

ROGER W. TITUS, District Judge.

Pending before the Court is Petitioner Sean A. Stephen's pro se Motion to Vacate, Set Aside, or Correct Sentence under 28 U.S.C. § 2255(a) (2006). ECF No. 1. Petitioner attacks his sentence on two grounds: (1) he asserts that he received ineffective assistance of counsel in violation of the Sixth Amendment and (2) he claims that his guilty plea was not knowing, intelligent, and voluntary. Id. at 6.

For the reasons stated below, the Court shall deny Petitioner's motion and no certificate of appealability shall issue.

BACKGROUND AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

On January 16, 2010, Petitioner was stopped on the Suitland Parkway for driving 92 miles per hour in a posted 50 miles per hour zone. ECF No. 4 at 1. He admitted to the U.S. Park Police officer who stopped him that he had been drinking, and after failing a field sobriety test, he was arrested. Id. A blood analysis showed Petitioner had been driving with a blood alcohol content (BAC) of 0.15, nearly twice the legal limit of 0.08. Id. at 2. Petitioner was initially charged with four offenses under 36 C.F.R. § 4.21-23 (2006), which govern speeding and the unsafe or intoxicated operation of motor vehicles in federal parks. Id.

On April 22, 2010, Petitioner accepted the terms of a plea agreement negotiated by his court-appointed attorney, Edmond O'Connell, Esq. ECF Nos. 1, 4-1. Per the agreement, Petitioner pleaded guilty to one count of driving under the influence with a BAC of 0.08 or higher in violation of 36 C.F.R. § 4.23(a)(2) and one count of speeding in violation of 36 C.F.R. § 4.21(c). ECF No. 4 at 2. The other two charges were dropped. Id.

During the April 22 hearing, United States Magistrate Judge Thomas M. DiGirolamo thoroughly reviewed the nature and consequences of Petitioner's guilty plea with him. ECF No. 4-1 at 3-5. Judge DiGirolamo asked Petitioner whether his guilty plea was his "free and voluntary decision, " to which he replied it was. Id. at 4-5. Finding Petitioner competent to plead guilty, Judge DiGirolamo accepted his guilty plea, sentenced him to 12 months of probation, and assessed a $400 fine. Id. at 8.

ANALYSIS

Under 28 U.S.C. § 2255(a), a prisoner in custody may file a motion to vacate, set aside, or correct his sentence if it was imposed in violation of the U.S. Constitution or is otherwise subject to collateral attack. To prevail, a petitioner must prove his grounds for relief by a preponderance of the evidence. See Jacobs v. United States, 350 F.2d 571, 574 (4th Cir. 1965). Petitioner argues he is entitled to have his sentence changed to a probation before judgment (PBJ) or to have the conviction concealed or removed from his federal criminal record, either because he received ineffective assistance of counsel in violation of his Sixth Amendment rights or because as a result of attorney error, his guilty plea was not knowing, intelligent, and voluntary. ECF No. 1 at 6-7.

I. Petitioner Has Not Demonstrated that He Received Ineffective Assistance of Counsel

Courts examine claims of ineffective assistance of counsel during pleading under the two-prong test set forth in Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 687 (1984). Hill v. Lockhart, 474 U.S. 52, 57 (1985). Under Strickland, defendants must show (1) that their attorneys' performance or actions were objectively unreasonable (the "performance prong") and (2) that the defendant suffered prejudiced as a result (the "prejudice prong"). See id.; United States v. Davis, 346 Fed.App'x 941, 943 (4th Cir. 2009). "Unless a defendant makes both showings, it cannot be said that the conviction... resulted from a breakdown in the adversary process that renders the result unreliable." Strickland, 466 U.S. at 687; Davis, 346 Fed.App'x at 944 ("Courts may bypass the performance prong and proceed directly to the prejudice prong when it is easier to dispose of the case for lack of prejudice"). Here, Petitioner fails to establish either prong.

A. Petitioner has not established that counsel's performance was objectively unreasonable.

To satisfy the performance prong, a defendant must prove that his attorney's actions were so far outside the "wide range of reasonable professional assistance" as to overcome judges' substantial deference to attorney decision-making. Kimmelman v. Morrison, 477 U.S. 365, 384 (1986); Strickland, 466 U.S. at 689. Logically, counsel's performance cannot be unreasonable if his advice or actions conform to established law. C.f. United States v. Mikalajunas, 186 F.3d 490, 493 (4th Cir. 1999) (holding an attorney's decision not to challenge the application of a sentencing enhancement was reasonable absent any law or precedent establishing that such application was inappropriate).

Petitioner appears to allege that counsel's performance was objectively unreasonably because Mr. O'Connell did not discuss with him the possibility of obtaining a probation before judgment (PBJ) outcome as an alternative to a guilty plea. ECF No. 1 at 6.[1] A PBJ is a form of case disposition available to defendants under Maryland state law in which a court may, under certain circumstances, "stay the entering of judgment, defer ...


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