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Steele v. United States

United States District Court, D. Maryland

July 26, 2018

OMAR STEELE, Petitioner
v.
UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Respondent

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          ROGER W. TITUS, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Advocacy does not begin and end with a trial. Throughout all stages of litigation, attorneys must vigorously advocate for their clients in spite of busy schedules, personality conflicts, or unforeseen circumstances. In particular, attorneys advocating for criminal defendants who face tough odds at trial must tell their clients what they need to hear-not necessarily what they want to hear. This sentiment is not merely an aspiration of the judicial system; it is a guarantee under our Constitution.

The Sixth Amendment requires effective assistance of counsel at critical stages of a criminal proceeding. Its protections are not designed simply to protect the trial, even though counsel's absence in these stages may derogate from the accused's right to a fair trial. The constitutional guarantee applies to pretrial critical stages that are part of the whole course of a criminal proceeding, a proceeding in which defendants cannot be presumed to make critical decisions without counsel's advice.

Lafler v. Cooper, 566 U.S. 156, 165 (2012) (internal quotations omitted) (emphasis added); see also Missouri v. Frye, 566 U.S. 134 (2012). Given that “[m]ore than 90 percent of [federal criminal] defendants plead guilty rather than go to trial, ” it is clear that the criticality of pre-trial advocacy reaches its zenith during plea negotiations.[1] The instant case involves a fundamental breakdown of an attorney's duties to her client during the plea bargaining process.

         I. Procedural History

         After a four-week jury trial, Petitioner Omar Steele (“Steele”) was found guilty on April 19, 2013 of one count of conspiracy to distribute and possess with intent to distribute controlled substances in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 846; one count of maintaining a drug-involved premises in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 856(a)(1); one count of interstate travel to promote unlawful activity in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1952; one count of possession with intent to distribute controlled substances in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 841; and three counts of using a communications device to facilitate narcotics trafficking in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 843(b). See ECF Nos. 308, 413, 522. On August 27, 2013, Steele was sentenced to 192 months imprisonment followed by five years of supervised release. See ECF Nos. 507, 522. On April 24, 2015, the Fourth Circuit affirmed Steele's conviction and rejected his challenge to the extensive wiretap evidence used against him. See ECF Nos. 580, 583. This Court later lowered Steele's sentence of imprisonment to 188 months based on a retroactive amendment to the United States Sentencing Guidelines (“U.S.S.G.”). See ECF No. 637.

         On July 27, 2016, Steele filed a motion under 28 U.S.C. § 2255 (“§ 2255 Motion”) to vacate, set aside, or correct his sentence. See ECF No. 625. The § 2255 Motion was fully briefed, see ECF Nos. 625, 644, 648, and on June 22, 2017, the Court denied Steele's Motion in-part, while appointing him counsel for an evidentiary hearing regarding the remaining “factual issues relating to the performance by [Steele's] trial counsel in the plea negotiation process, ” see ECF Nos. 652, 653. The Court conducted an evidentiary hearing on January 4, 2018. See ECF Nos. 683, 688. At the Court's direction, Steele provided a post-hearing brief in support of his § 2255 Motion, see ECF No. 691, the Government responded in opposition, see ECF No. 694, and Steele replied in support of his Motion, see ECF No. 698.

         II. Discussion

         Legal Standard.

         As previously noted, the Sixth Amendment right to counsel “extends to the plea-bargaining process.” Lafler, 566 U.S. at 162. “Even if the trial itself is free from constitutional flaw, the defendant who goes to trial instead of taking a more favorable plea may be prejudiced from either a conviction on more serious counts or the imposition of a more severe sentence.” Id. at 166. As with other claims of ineffective assistance of counsel, courts examine constitutional flaws in the plea bargaining process under the two-prong test set forth in Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 687-88 (1984). See Id. at 162-63.

         Under the performance prong, a defendant must show that counsel's performance was deficient. Strickland, 466 U.S. at 687. “Judicial scrutiny of counsel's performance must be highly deferential, ” and 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. at 689; see United States v. Terry, 366 F.3d 312, 317 (4th Cir. 2004).

         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. Strickland, 466 U.S. at 687, 694. In the factual context of plea negotiations where a plea offer has not been communicated to a defendant, in order to “show prejudice from ineffective assistance of counsel . . . defendants must demonstrate a reasonable probability that they would have accepted the earlier plea offer had they been afforded effective assistance of counsel.” Missouri v. Frye, 566 U.S. 133, 147 (2012). “Defendants must also demonstrate a reasonable probability the plea would have been entered without the prosecution canceling it or the trial court refusing to accept it.” Id.

         The Key Letters.

         Prior to the evidentiary hearing, two primary artifacts of evidence supported the plausibility of Steele's allegations of counsel's deficient performance. The first was a November 2, 2012 letter from Steele to his trial counsel, Kira West (“West”), in which Steele (1) indicated that he had sent “numerous letters” to which West had not responded, and (2) vehemently expressed a desire to obtain a plea agreement from the Government in order to plead guilty. See ECF No. 648-3. The second was West's November 29, 2012 response letter, which she drafted after meeting with the Government the day before. See ECF No. 648-4. While West advised Steele that no plea offer had been made by the Government, based on her discussions with the Government, she outlined the sort of plea agreement she believed she could obtain (based on an Offense Level of 30, resulting in a sentence of imprisonment of 97-121 months, and the possibility of a reduction of 2-4 levels for cooperation)-a case resolution that would have resulted in approximately half of the length of imprisonment that Steele ultimately received. See ECF No. 648-4.[2] Despite this meeting occurring after eight of Steele's ten co-defendants had accepted plea agreements, [3] West concluded her correspondence by dissuading Steele from taking such a plea offer because the Government would not be “giving you much” and opining that Steele “[did not] have to make a decision soon.” See id.

         The Testimony.

         At the evidentiary hearing, the Court heard testimony from both Steele and West. After weighing the credibility of each witness and comparing their statements to the other evidence in the record, the Court finds Steele's testimony to be credible. The Court also finds West's testimony both contradictory and incredible.[4] West had a busy client schedule and frequently neglected personal communication with Steele.[5] When she did communicate with Steele, it often took place through a go-between (an individual whom Steele referred to as an “intern, ” and whom West referred to as a “law clerk” allegedly barred in some jurisdiction).[6]

         West was overly confident in her ability to secure an acquittal based on her prior experience and claimed success rate as an AUSA in Texas.[7] She did not accurately manage her client's expectations, and she failed to remediate the obvious deficiencies in her familiarity with this jurisdiction and defense advocacy generally.[8] West's self-professed legal expertise in wiretaps, coupled with Steele's naïveté and lack of legal acumen, contributed to West successfully convincing Steele that a Motion to Suppress Wiretap Communications [ECF No. 224] had an unreasonably high probability of success pre-trial, and the preservation of which was of paramount importance once the Motion was denied.[9] West did not properly advise Steele as to the realities of the sentence he faced or the odds stacked against him. Instead, undeterred by any of these setbacks and the overwhelming evidence against her client, West continued the onward march to trial dragging Steele behind her.[10]

         It is undisputed that Steele was initially only willing to accept a plea agreement that resulted in less than eight years imprisonment.[11] However, at some point in October or November of 2012, Steele learned that his co-defendants were receiving and agreeing to lenient plea deals.[12] Coincidentally, it was around this time that Steele's willingness to accept a plea agreement changed-from six to eight years-to eight to ten years-to a panicked “I know you [are] not God, but please Kira help me, get me out [of] the way before it is too late.”[13] Only after her client's explicit (and documented) begging, West met with the Government to discuss potential plea ranges.[14] However, even then, West never discussed a conditional plea that would have retained Steele's right to appeal the denial of the wiretap motion, and she never obtained any written plea offer to put in front of Steele despite his heartfelt imploring.[15]

         West's advice to Steele regarding the availability of conditional pleas was simply wrong-both factually and legally.[16] Conditional pleas are permitted so long as the plea agreement complies with the requirements of Fed. R. Crim. P. 11(a)(2) and (in the Fourth Circuit) the judicially-created requirement that “the matter preserved for appeal is case-dispostivie and requires no further factual development.” See United States v. Bundy, 392 F.3d 641, 646 (4th Cir. 2004) (emphasis added).

         Indeed, while it is not the norm, this Court has presided over many conditional guilty pleas subject to appeals of case-dispositive motions. See, e.g., United States v. Morris, 482 Fed.Appx. 779 (4th Cir. 2012) (reviewing an appeal from a conditional guilty plea at the district court before Titus, J.); see also United States v. Foster, 824 F.3d 84 (4th Cir. 2016) (affirming a conviction after a conditional guilty plea); United States v. Odom, 721 Fed.Appx. 254 (4th Cir. 2018) (same); United States v. Bowman, 884 F.3d 200 (4th Cir. 2018) (vacating a conviction after a conditional guilty plea when finding that a motion to suppress should have been granted by the district court). Sifting through the annals of this Court's criminal docket, the Court can think of no more case-dispositive motion than the one presented in the instant case-a motion to suppress the lion's share of the Government's evidence (i.e. the 977 wiretap recordings of Steele's communications in furtherance of the charged criminal conspiracy).

         Likewise, the actual sentencing ranges being negotiated by the parties indicate a further fundamental breakdown in advocacy. West now claims that the Government would never have agreed to any term of imprisonment below ten years, [17] but her letter and the Government's notes indicate otherwise.[18] Meanwhile, Steele testified that he informed West's “intern” that he was willing to accept a sentence within the 97-121 months outlined in West's November 29, 2012 letter.[19] The Court finds Steele's testimony in this regard to be sincere and credible. However, numbers do not require a credibility determination because they do not lie. The Court need not find an agency relationship, imputation of knowledge, or even the standards of professional conduct, because this sentencing range in-and-of-itself tells the whole story. At its lower value, 97 months is merely a hair over eight years-so even if Steele had never changed his mind to accept a higher range, the parties were nearly at an agreement. At its upper value, 121 months is a hair over ten years-so even if the Government would not have accepted a sentence below ten years, the parties were nearly at an agreement. Thus, the Court is left to conclude that “what we've got here is a failure to communicate.” Cool Hand Luke (Warner Bros.-Seven Arts, Inc. 1967). And it was a tragic and prejudicial failure.

         A Failure ...


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