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Watson v. United States

United States District Court, D. Maryland

September 28, 2016

ERIC ANTHONY WATSON, Petitioner,
v.
UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Respondent. Criminal Action No. RDB-12-0367

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          Richard D. Bennett United States District Judge.

         The pro se Petitioner Eric Anthony Watson (“Petitioner” or “Watson”) pled guilty to one count of conspiracy to distribute and possess with intent to distribute heroin, in violation of 21 U.S.C. §§ 841(a) and 846. J., p. 1, ECF No. 123. Subsequently, Judge Quarles[1] of this Court sentenced Watson to 60 months imprisonment. Id. at 2. Currently pending before this Court is Petitioner's Motion to Vacate, Set Aside, or Correct Sentence, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2255 (ECF No. 155). Petitioner contends that his counsel provided ineffective assistance, in violation of his Sixth Amendment Rights. The parties' submissions have been reviewed, and no hearing is necessary. See Local Rule 105.6 (D. Md. 2016). For the reasons stated herein, Petitioner's Motion to Vacate (ECF No. 155) is DENIED.[2]

         BACKGROUND

         The pro se Petitioner Eric Anthony Watson (“Petitioner” or “Watson”) was charged, along with five other individuals, with one count of conspiracy to distribute and possess with intent to distribute heroin, in violation of 21 U.S.C. §§ 841(a) and 846. Indictment, p. 1, ECF No. 78. Watson entered a plea of guilty to the one-count Indictment, pursuant to Rule 11(c)(1)(C) of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure, and agreed to a sentencing range of 60 months to 87 months. Plea Agreement, p. 5, ECF No. 91. Subsequently, Judge Quarles[3]of this Court sentenced Watson to 60 months imprisonment, the lowest possible sentence within the agreed upon range and the mandatory minimum sentence for the charged offense. J., p. 2, ECF No. 123. Watson did not appeal his conviction or sentence.

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         Documents filed pro se are “liberally construed” and are “held to less stringent standards than formal pleadings drafted by lawyers.” Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 94 (2007) (citation omitted). In order to establish a claim for ineffective assistance of counsel, Petitioner must prove both elements of the test set forth by the Supreme Court in Strickland v. Washinton, 466 U.S. 668, 671 (1984). First, Petitioner must show that his counsel's performance was so deficient as to fall below an “objective standard of reasonableness.” Id. at 688. In assessing whether counsel's performance was unconstitutionally deficient, courts adopt a “strong presumption” that counsel's actions fall within the “wide range of reasonable professional assistance.” Id. at 689. Second, Petitioner must show that his counsel's performance was so prejudicial as to “deprive the defendant of a fair trial.” Id. at 687. In order to establish this level of prejudice, Petitioner must demonstrate that there is a “reasonable probability that, but for counsel's [alleged] unprofessional errors, the result of the proceeding would have been different.” Id. at 694. Where, as here, a petitioner challenges his conviction following a guilty plea, prejudice is generally established by demonstrating “a reasonable probability that, but for counsel's errors, he would not have pleaded guilty and would have insisted on going to trial.” Hill v. Lockhart, 474 U.S. 52, 59 (1985); accord United States v. Mooney, 497 F.3d 397, 401 (4th Cir. 2007). Satisfying either of the two parts of the test alone is not sufficient; rather, the petitioner must meet both prongs of the Strickland test in order to be entitled to relief. See Strickland, 466 U.S. at 687.

         ANALYSIS

         Petitioner contends that his counsel provided ineffective assistance by: (1) advising him to plead guilty “despite the insufficiency of the evidence;” (2) failing to “properly consider an available viable defense to the charge;” (3) “allow[ing] evidence from an unrelated conspiracy to unduly influence [P]etitioner to plead guilty;” and (4) incorrectly advising Petitioner “that he would be considered a career offender for sentencing purposes if he went to trial and was convicted.” Mot. to Vacate, p. 2, ECF No. 155. Although pro se pleadings are afforded a liberal construction, Section 2255 petitions raising only conclusory allegations are not entitled to relief. See, e.g., United States v. Dyess, 730 F.3d 354, 359-360 (4th Cir. 2013). For the reasons explained herein, Petitioner fails to identify any erroneous conduct by his counsel, nor can he demonstrate prejudice.

         I. Insufficiency of the Evidence

         “Petitioner contends that his attorney should have tried the case before a jury instead of advising him to plead guilty because no reasonable trier of fact would have found him guilty of a drug conspiracy under the circumstances of this case.” Mot. to Vacate, p. 2, ECF No. 155. Petitioner posits that if his case had gone to trial, “the Government's case would have been based exclusively upon the [inherently unreliable] uncorroborated testimony of his accomplices, ” which his counsel could have exposed as “factually and legally insufficient.” Id. at 3-6. However, the decision to go to trial or plead guilty ultimately rests with a criminal defendant, and Petitioner does not allege that his counsel took any specific improper action.

         On the contrary, Petitioner has since pled guilty to the offense with which he was charged and has stipulated that the Government's evidence consisted not only of the testimony of his co-conspirators, but also “seizures of narcotics, narcotics paraphernalia and other evidence pursuant to search warrants and electronic surveillance, including the monitoring of telephone conversations occuring over the Defendant's and others' cellular telephones.” Plea Agreement, p. 4, ECF No. 91; Arraignment Tr., p. 14-15, ECF No. 160-2. Judge Quarles of this Court accepted Petitioner's guilty plea on November 1, 2012, and Petitioner does not allege that it was either unknowing or involuntary. “[A]llegations 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) (internal quotation marks omitted). For these reasons, Petitioner's first argument must fail.

         II. Failure to Raise Available Defense

         Additionally, Petitioner argues that his counsel should have gone “to trial and advanced the theory that the [P]etitioner was in fact a seller of paraphernalia items-not drugs” “in light of the fact[ ] that there was no evidence connecting [P]etitioner to the alleged drug conspiracy, no drugs were recovered from him, his home, or car, and only paraphernalia items were seized.” Mot. to Vacate, p. 6, ECF No. 155. However, Petitioner offers no evidentiary support for these allegations, nor does he allege that he actually advised his counsel to pursue this defense and that his counsel failed to do so. For these reasons, and for the reasons previously outlined in response to Petitioner's first argument, Petitioner's second argument must also fail.

         III. Influence of ...


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