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Coats v. United States

United States District Court, D. Maryland

March 30, 2018

WADE COATS, Petitioner,
v.
UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Respondent.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          RICHARD D. BENNETT, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Following a five-day trial, a jury convicted pro se Petitioner Wade Coats (“Petitioner” or “Coats”) of one count of Conspiracy to Distribute and Possess with Intent to Distribute over 5 Kilograms of Cocaine, in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 846, and one count of Possession of a Firearm in furtherance of a Drug Trafficking Crime, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 924(c). (Jury Verdict, ECF No. 143.) Judge Quarles of this Court[1] sentenced Petitioner to five hundred and forty (540) months' imprisonment for the drug charge and sixty (60) months' imprisonment for the firearm charge, to be served consecutively for a total term of 600 months with credit for time served. (ECF No. 230 at 2.) Petitioner subsequently appealed his conviction and sentence to the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, which affirmed this Court's judgement. United States v. Cavazos, Nos. 12-4701, 12-4737, 542 Fed.App'x 263 (4th Cir. Oct. 17, 2013).

         On March 31, 2015, Petitioner filed a Motion to Vacate, Set Aside, or Correct Sentence pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2255. (ECF No. 280.) On January 4, 2016, Petitioner also filed a Motion to Compel Attorney to Surrender Case Files. (ECF No. 295.) Having reviewed the parties' submissions, this Court finds that no hearing at this time is necessary. See Local Rule 105.6 (D. Md. 2016). For the reasons set forth below, Petitioner's Motion to Compel (ECF No. 295)[2] is DENIED, and Petitioner's Motion to Vacate (ECF No. 280) is DENIED IN PART and STAYED IN PART. Specifically, all of Petitioner's claims are DENIED except his claim of ineffective assistance of counsel at sentencing and on appeal, which this Court hereby STAYS, pending appointment of counsel for the Petitioner.

         BACKGROUND

         The background facts of this case were fully set forth in Judge Quarles' September 30, 2011 Memorandum Opinion and the Fourth Circuit's October 17, 2013 Memorandum Opinion. United States v. Cavazos, No. WDQ-09-0333, 2011 WL 4596050 (D. Md. Sept. 30, 2011) (ECF No. 162); United States v. Cavazos, Nos. 12-4701, 12-4734, 542 Fed.App'x 263 (4th Cir. Oct. 17, 2013). To summarize, Coats was arrested as a result of observations of his activity on April 27 and 28, 2009 by Task Force Officers (“TFOs”) of the Drug Enforcement Administration (“DEA”). Cavazos, 542 Fed.App'x at 264-65. Specifically, there were five officers involved in Coats' investigation: Brian Shutt, Dave Clasing, E.T. Williams, Mark Lunsford, and Derke Ostrow.[3] Id. at 264. The officers were investigating Ronald Brown (“Brown”), who was suspected of distributing large amounts of heroin. Id. While observing Brown, the TFOs observed an exchange between Brown and an individual later identified as Coats. Id. at 265. After the exchange, the officers observed Coats carry several bags from his car into the Marriott Waterfront Hotel in Baltimore, including a bag he had received from Brown. Id. When Coats left the hotel, the officers followed him to a seafood restaurant and cell-phone store before conducting a Terry[4] stop of Coats' rental car. Id. During the stop, the officers found a firearm on Coats' person. Id. at 266. Pursuant to a search warrant issued by the Circuit Court for Baltimore City, subsequent searches of Coats' hotel room, the cell-phone store, a Dodge Caravan connected with co-defendant Jose Cavazos (“Cavazos”), and other locations related to Brown's dealings revealed:

(1) $274, 000 in cash in heat-sealed plastic bags, a heat-sealer machine and bags, a money counter, cell phones, and a tally sheet from Room 943; (2) a suitcase with $337, 482 in cash from the Dodge Caravan; (3) $16, 520 in cash, paperwork, heat-sealer bags, and a gun magazine from the cell-phone store; and (4) 410 grams of cocaine, 238 grams of heroin, a bag of gel capsules, a gel capper press, scales, a metal strainer and spoon, and a cell phone from 1112 Harwall Road.

Id. at 266-67.[5]

         A Grand Jury subsequently charged Coats and co-defendants Brown, Cavazos, and James Bostic (“Bostic”), with various offenses related to a conspiracy to distribute marijuana and cocaine. (ECF No. 66.) Bostic and Brown pleaded guilty. (ECF Nos. 85; 88.)[6] Coats and Cavazos continued to trial, and on February 9, 2011, the jury convicted Coats of Conspiracy to Distribute and Possess with Intent to Distribute over 5 Kilograms of Cocaine (Count I) and Possession of a Firearm in furtherance of a Drug Trafficking Crime (Count III).[7] (See Superseding Indictment, ECF No. 66; Jury Verdict, ECF No. 143.) Cavazos was also convicted of Count I. (See Jury Verdict, ECF No. 141.)

         While Coats and Cavazos were awaiting sentencing, on April 25, 2011, the Government provided FBI FD-302 forms (“the 302s”) to Coats and Cavazos for the first time. Cavazos, 2011 WL 4596050, at *3. The 302s included notes from FBI agents in Dallas, Texas, related to interviews they had conducted with Alex Noel Mendoza-Cano (“Cano”) about drug cartel activity. Id. Cano testified for the prosecution concerning Cavazos and Coats' links to the drug conspiracy. Id. However, the prosecutors did not become aware of the interviews conducted by the Dallas FBI agents or the 302s until after trial. Id. Upon receipt, the prosecutors notified the Defendants. Id.

         After receiving the 302s, on May 5, 2011, Coats and Cavazos moved for a new trial. (ECF No. 151.) Judge Quarles determined that although the new evidence had not been provided to the Defendants and was favorable to them, it was not material. Cavazos, 2011 WL 4596050 at *8. He explained, “[a]lthough [the 302s] might have provided additional impeachment of Cano, they d[id] not undermine confidence in the outcome of the trial . . . The jury was aware that Cano had lied before and was testifying for a benefit.” Id. Because the jury had sufficient evidence at trial to determine Cano's credibility, the evidence would have been merely cumulative. Therefore, on September 30, 2011, this Court denied the Defendants' motion for a new trial. (ECF Nos. 162, 163.) The Defendants appealed, and the Fourth Circuit affirmed the District Court's ruling. Cavazos, 542 Fed.App'x at 270-72.

         On August 28, 2012, following a contested hearing, Judge Quarles sentenced Coats to five hundred and forty (540) months' imprisonment for Count I and sixty (60) months' imprisonment for Count III to be served consecutively for a total term of 600 months with credit for time served. (ECF No. 230 at 2; Sentencing Hr'g Tr., ECF No. 249, at 35-36.) Both Coats and Cavazos appealed their convictions and sentences to the Fourth Circuit. (ECF Nos. 225, 233.) They argued on appeal that the district court erred by (1) denying their pre-trial evidence suppression motions; (2) mishandling the verdict sheet presented to the jury; (3) refusing to grant a new trial based on the late disclosure of the 302s; and (4) imposing substantively unreasonable sentences. Cavazos, 542 Fed.App'x 263. The Fourth Circuit affirmed this Court on all grounds. Id. at 264.[8]

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         As the Petitioner proceeds pro se, this Court must construe his pleadings liberally. See Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 94 (2007); see also Alley v. Yadkin County Sheriff Dept., No. 17-1249, 698 Fed.App'x 141 (Mem) (4th Cir. Oct. 5, 2017) (citing Erickson for the proposition that “[p]ro se complaints and pleadings, however inartfully pleaded, must be liberally construed and held to less stringent standards than formal pleadings drafted by lawyers”).

         Under 28 U.S.C. § 2255, a prisoner in custody may seek to vacate, set aside or correct his sentence on four grounds: (1) the sentence was imposed in violation of the Constitution or laws of the United States, (2) the court was without jurisdiction to impose the sentence, (3) the sentence was in excess of the maximum authorized by law, or (4) the sentence is otherwise subject to a collateral attack. Hill v. United States, 368 U.S. 424, 426-27 (1962) (citing 28 U.S.C. § 2255). “[A]n error of law does not provide a basis for collateral attack unless the claimed error constituted ‘a fundamental defect which inherently results in a complete miscarriage of justice.'” United States v. Addonizio, 442 U.S. 178, 185 (1979) (quoting Hill, 368 U.S. at 428).

         The scope of a § 2255 collateral attack is far narrower than an appeal, and a “‘collateral challenge may not do service for an appeal.'” Foster v. Chatman, ___ U.S. ___, 136 S.Ct. 1737, 1758 (2016) (quoting United States v. Frady, 456 U.S. 152, 165 (1982)). Thus, procedural default will bar consideration under § 2255 of any matters that “could have been but were not pursued on direct appeal, [unless] the movant . . . show[s] cause and actual prejudice resulting from the errors of which he complains.” United States v. Pettiford, 612 F.3d 270, 280 (4th Cir. 2010) (citing United States v. Mikalajunas, 186 F.3d 490, 492-93 (4th Cir. 1999)).

         DISCUSSION

         I. Timeliness of Petitioner's Motion

         A one-year statute of limitations applies to § 2255 petitions. 28 U.S.C. § 2255(f). The limitations period runs from the latest of:

(1) the date on which the judgment of conviction becomes final; (2) the date on which the impediment to making a motion created by governmental action in violation of the Constitution or laws of the United States is removed, if the movant was prevented from making a motion by such governmental action; (3) the date on which the right asserted was initially recognized by the Supreme Court, if that right has been newly recognized by the Supreme Court and made retroactively applicable to cases on collateral review; or (4) the date on which the facts supporting the claim or claims presented could have been discovered through the exercise of due diligence.

Id.; see also Whiteside v. United States, 775 F.3d 180, 183 (4th Cir. 2014). A conviction becomes final for the purpose of starting the one-year limitations period when the opportunity to appeal expires. See Clay v. United States, 537 U.S. 522, 524-25 (2003); United States v. Sosa, 364 F.3d 507, 509 (4th Cir. 2004). After the Fourth Circuit affirmed Petitioner's conviction and sentence, he appealed to the Supreme Court of the United States. On March 24, 2014, the Supreme Court denied his petition for writ of certiorari. Coats v. United States, 134 S.Ct. 1571 (2014) (Mem). Therefore, his judgment of conviction became final on March 24, 2014. Petitioner did not file his Motion to Vacate until March 31, 2015. However, the Government has not challenged the timeliness of Petitioner's Motion, and this Court accords his pleadings liberal construction in light of his proceeding pro se in this matter. Accordingly, this Court will address the issues raised and will treat the motion as having been timely filed.

         II. Police Misconduct Claim

         Petitioner Coats asserts generally that he was arrested as a result of police misconduct. He claims that the DEA TFOs who arrested him “reverse engineered a drug conspiracy, with manufactured and false evidence.” (ECF No. 280 at 19.)[9] To support this claim, Coats lists a number of perceived inconsistencies among facts presented at trial and suggests that the police failed to investigate certain leads. (Id.) The Supreme Court has held that there is no due process violation simply because “the police fail to use a particular investigatory tool.” Arizona v. Youngblood, 488 U.S. 51, 58-59, 109 S.Ct. 333 (1988). This is because “police do not have a constitutional duty to perform any particular tests.” Id.; see also United States v. Teran, Nos. 11-4791, 11-4844, 496 Fed.App'x 287 (4th Cir. Nov. 1, 2012) (determining that the government does not violate Brady simply by failing “to employ all investigative techniques”); Werth v. United States, 493 Fed.App'x 361, 366 (4th Cir. 2012) (“While the government is obligated to disclose favorable evidence in its possession, it is not required to create evidence that might be helpful to the defense.”).

         Coats does not allege that the Government withheld evidence.[10] Rather, he argues that the Government should have pursued certain investigatory paths that include: locating the online rental car agreement for Coats' rental car; securing video footage from the cellphone store's surveillance system, the Baltimore City's surveillance system, and/or the lobby video from the Marriott Waterfront Hotel; and obtaining Coats' “cell-site information” from his cell-phone carrier for GPS information. (ECF. No. 280 at 20.) However, as explained above, the Government is only required to disclose the information it actually collects; it does not have a duty to collect information that may be helpful to a defendant.

         Petitioner also seeks relief based on conduct by former DEA TFO Mark Lunsford. In September of 2009, a few months after Coats' arrest, Lunsford was charged with various theft and fraud offenses related to his duties as a DEA Officer. United States v. Fisher, 711 F.3d 460, 463 (4th Cir. 2013). One offense included falsely attributing information to a confidential informant with whom Lunsford was splitting reward money. Id. While Lunsford was not charged in relation to Petitioner's case, during a search warrant of Lunsford's home, the Government recovered personal items belonging to Coats, including a watch. (ECF No. 291 at 8.)

         Petitioner claims that this is evidence that all of the officers in his case “attempted and did conspire to deprive (sic) Coats and later Jose Cavazos of Money, Property, Liberty and Life.” (ECF No. 280 at 19.) To support his argument, Petitioner cites United States v. Fisher, 711 F.3d 460 (4th Cir. 2013), where the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit held that the defendant could withdraw his guilty plea after finding that Lunsford was “responsible for the investigation that led to the defendant's arrest and guilty plea” and his conduct “underpinned the search warrant for the defendant's residence.” 711 F.3d at 469. In Fisher, the search warrant for the defendant's home and vehicle had been solely based on Lunsford's sworn affidavit, whereby he falsely testified that a confidential informant had told him that the defendant was distributing narcotics. Id. at 466. As the Fourth Circuit noted, the case was “extraordinary” and the facts presented “highly uncommon circumstances” where gross police conduct went “to the heart of the prosecution's case.” Id. at 462, 466. Subsequent to the Fisher decision, this Court considered a petitioner's claim for relief based on Lunsford's conduct in Rich v. United States, Nos. 12-3226, 08-0438, 2013 WL 6055227 (D. Md. Nov. 14, 2013). In that case, this Court denied petitioner's claim after finding that unlike in Fisher, the petitioner “provide[d] no support for the allegation that Lunsford ‘played a central role' in [his] investigation.” Id. at *4.

         Like in Rich, Petitioner has not shown that Lunsford played a central role in his investigation. Several different officers observed Coats' exchange with Brown, his carrying several bags including one from Brown into the Waterfront Hotel, and his carrying several bags from the seafood store into his car. 52 Fed.App'x at 265. The officers then approached Coats' car, where Officer Shutt led the conversation. Id. After the officers determined that Coats lied about being at the hotel and found a gun on him, Coats was arrested. Id. at 265-66. Thereafter the officers went back to the hotel and entered the room identified as Coats' by hotel security. Id. at 266. In the hotel room, the officers saw heat-sealed wrapped packages and found Cavazos, who told them that there was about $200, 000 in the room but that the drugs were not there ...


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