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Lawson v. United States

United States District Court, D. Maryland

April 16, 2018

MAHDI LAWSON, Petitioner,



         This is 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.[1] ECF No. 82.


         On 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.

         On 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.


         Under § 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. See id.

         Courts 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.” Id.

         Under 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.[2] 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.

         I. Lawson's Counsel Was Not Ineffective for Advising Him to Plead Guilty.

         Lawson 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[3] 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.

         Lawson knowingly and voluntarily pled guilty. Lawson proactively contested and successfully modified the factual statement included with his plea agreement.[4] 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.

         Furthermore, 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.

         II. The Superseding Indictment Did Not Violate the ...

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