United States District Court, D. Maryland
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
W. TITUS, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.
a drug trafficking case in which, following the execution of
a search warrant on Petitioner Mahdi Lawson's
(“Lawson”) residence, he was charged with
possession of a firearm by a convicted felon, possession of a
firearm in furtherance of a drug trafficking offense, and
possession with intent to distribute controlled substances.
ECF No. 63. Before trial, Lawson pled guilty to all three
charges. ECF No. 66. Lawson has now filed a petition under 28
U.S.C. § 2255 to vacate, set aside, or correct his
sentence, which asserts four ineffective assistance of
counsel arguments that he believes are proper grounds for
relief. ECF No. 82.
November 17, 2012, a search warrant was executed at
Lawson's residence. ECF No. 67-1 at 1. The search
revealed a loaded semi-automatic gun, 2.8 grams of marijuana,
multiple small baggies containing in total 2.66 grams of
cocaine, two pills of MDMA, and two bags of glassine baggies.
Id. The loaded gun was found in a backpack in the
living room. Id.
December 18, 2013, a Grand Jury returned a two-count
Indictment charging Lawson with (1) possession of a firearm
in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 922(g) and (2) possession of
cocaine base, or crack, with intent to distribute in
violation of 21 U.S.C. § 841 and 18 U.S.C. § 2. ECF
No. 8. On November 16, 2015, the Government filed a
Superseding Indictment, charging Lawson with a third
count-possession of a firearm in furtherance of a drug
trafficking offense in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 924(c).
ECF No. 63 at 3. On November 30, 2015, Lawson pled guilty to
all three counts. ECF No. 66. On January 20, 2016, the Court
sentenced Lawson to a 180 month term of imprisonment,
followed by three years of supervised release. ECF No. 80 at
2-3. On January 12, 2017, Lawson filed a timely motion
pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2255 seeking to set aside,
correct, or vacate his sentence. ECF No. 82. The Government
responded in opposition on June 8, 2017. ECF No. 96. Lawson
filed replies in support of his motion, ECF Nos. 100, 106,
and moved for an evidentiary hearing, ECF No. 101.
§ 255, a petitioner must prove by a preponderance of the
evidence that “[his] sentence was imposed in violation
of the Constitution or laws of the United States, or that the
court was without jurisdiction to impose such sentence, or
that the sentence was in excess of the maximum authorized by
law . . . .” 28 U.S.C. § 2255 (2012); Miller
v. United States, 261 F.2d 546, 547 (4th Cir. 1958). If
the § 2255 motion, along with the files and records of
the case, “conclusively show that [he] is entitled to
no relief, ” a hearing on the motion is unnecessary and
the claims raised in the motion may be dismissed summarily.
examine claims of ineffective assistance of counsel under the
two-prong test set forth in Strickland v.
Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 687 (1984). Under the
performance prong, a defendant must show that counsel's
performance was deficient. Id. “Judicial
scrutiny of counsel's performance must be highly
deferential.” Id. at 689; see also United
States v. Terry, 366 F.3d 312, 317 (4th Cir. 2004). The
alleged deficient performance must be objectively
unreasonable and “requires showing that counsel made
errors so serious that counsel was not functioning as the
‘counsel' guaranteed the defendant by the Sixth
Amendment.” Strickland, 466 U.S. at 689. The
Court must evaluate the conduct at issue from counsel's
perspective at the time, and must “indulge a strong
presumption that counsel's conduct falls within the wide
range of reasonable professional assistance.”
the prejudice prong, a defendant must show that the deficient
performance prejudiced the defense, and but for counsel's
unprofessional errors, there is a reasonable probability that
the result of the proceeding would have been different.
Id. at 687, 694. Unless a defendant makes both showings,
the Court cannot find that the conviction resulted from a
breakdown in the adversarial process that renders the result
unreliable. Id. at 687. Finally, “there is no
reason for a court deciding an ineffective assistance claim
to approach the inquiry in the same order or even to address
both components of the inquiry if the defendant makes an
insufficient showing on one.” Id. at 697.
Lawson's Counsel Was Not Ineffective for Advising Him to
argues that the drugs discovered at his residence were for
his personal use and that his firearm was not used in
furtherance of drug trafficking. ECF No. 82 at 4-5, 10-11.
Lawson claims that his attorney advised him to plead
guilty despite his repeated assertions of innocence.
Id. at 7-8, 10-15. Lawson argues that there is
insufficient factual basis to support his conviction, and his
attorney should have interviewed two witnesses who would have
supported his claims that the drugs were for personal
consumption. Id. at 8-10.
knowingly and voluntarily pled guilty. Lawson proactively
contested and successfully modified the factual statement
included with his plea agreement. ECF No. 96-6 at 33-39. He
told the Court that he had no other concerns about the
factual statement, that there was nothing that he didn't
understand about the proceedings, and that he was pleading
guilty because he was, in fact, guilty. Id. at
36-39. At his sentencing, he also told the Court that he was
satisfied with the services of his attorney. ECF No. 96-7 at
4-8. These statements “carry a strong presumption of
verity” and “present ‘a formidable barrier
in [this] subsequent collateral proceeding.'”
United States v. Lemaster, 403 F.3d 216, 221 (4th
Cir. 2005). Lawson does not proffer any evidence to support
his bald assertions of coercion, and thus, his allegations
are “palpably incredible.” See id.
Lawson's attorney was not deficient for refraining from
interviewing two witnesses. “[S]trategic choices made
after less than complete investigation are reasonable
precisely to the extent that reasonable professional
judgments support the limitations on investigation.”
Strickland, 466 U.S. at 690-91. Here, the physical
evidence against Lawson was strong. Police officers found
cocaine base that was packaged in multiple small baggies
inside another baggie-a fact indicative of distribution. ECF
No. 67-1 at 1; ECF No. 96 at 16. The gun and the drugs were
found in Lawson's home, where he admitted they would be.
ECF No. 67-1 at 1; ECF No. 96 at 16. Even if Lawson's
attorney had successfully contacted and interviewed both
witnesses, at best there would have been two other persons
involved in illegal drug activity with questionable
credibility. ECF No. 96 at 16. It was not “outside the
wide range of reasonable professional assistance” for
Lawson's attorney to decide not to interview these two
witnesses, and to negotiate for and advise Lawson to accept a
favorable plea bargain. See Strickland, 466 U.S. at
690. Assuming, arguendo, that counsel's
performance was deficient, Lawson cannot demonstrate
prejudice because the testimony from these two witnesses
would not have changed counsel's recommendation to him
that he plead guilty. See Hill, 474 U.S. at 59.
The Superseding Indictment Did Not Violate the ...