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Curtin v. United States

United States District Court, D. Maryland

July 26, 2018



          THEODORE D. CHUANG, J.

         Petitioner Charles Brian Curtin has filed a Motion to Vacate, Set Aside, or Correct Sentence pursuant to 28 U.S.C. ~ 2255. In his Motion, Curtin argues that he was improperly designated as a career offender under the United States Sentencing Guidelines ("Guidelines") in light of Mathis v. United States, 136 S.Ct. 2243 (2016), United States v. Hinkle, 832 F.3d 569 (5th Cir. 2016), and Holt v. United States, 843 F.3d 720 (7th Cir. 2016). Curtin further argues, in a reply brief, that his attorneys rendered ineffective assistance of counsel by failing to object to his career offender designation at sentencing and by failing to raise the issue on appeal. Having reviewed the submitted materials, the Court finds that no hearing is necessary. See Rule 8(a), Rules Governing Section 2255 Proceedings for the United States District Courts; D. Md. Local R. 105.6. For the reasons set forth below, the Motion is DENIED.


         On October 6, 2014, a federal grand jury returned a five-count Indictment against three defendants in which Curtin was charged in the following three counts: Conspiracy to Distribute and Possess with Intent to Distribute 5 Kilograms or More of Cocaine, in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 846 (Count One); Maintaining a Drug-Involved Premises, in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 856(a) (Count Four); and Possession of a Firearm by a Convicted Felon, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 922(g) (Count Five). The Indictment arose out of an investigation into drug trafficking in Prince Georgess County, Maryland which included a wiretap that intercepted Curtin's telephone conversations relating to the distribution of cocaine.

         In March 2015, Curtin entered into a plea agreement in which he agreed to plead guilty to Counts One and Five and the Government agreed to dismiss Count Four. The parties agreed that the total offense level would be 29, which included a three-level reduction for acceptance of responsibility under U.S.S.G. § 3E1.1. The plea agreement provided that there was "no agreement as to [Curtins]] criminal history or criminal history category, and that his criminal history could alter his offense level if he is a Career Offender." Plea Agreement ¶ 7, ECF No. 49.

         On March 17, 2015, Curtin pleaded guilty to the Conspiracy and Felon in Possession of a Firearm counts. In the Presentence Investigation Report ("PSR"), the United States Probation Office identified three prior criminal convictions of Curtin in Maryland state court for Possession with Intent to Distribute a Controlled Dangerous Substance, including convictions in 1992, 1999, and 2010. On the 1992 conviction, Curtin received a sentence of 15 years of imprisonment, with 10 years suspended. On the 1999 conviction, he received a sentence of 12 years of imprisonment, with six years suspended. On the 2010 conviction, he received a sentence of five years of imprisonment with four years suspended.

         At the sentencing hearing on January 28, 2016, the Court, consistent with the findings in the PSR, found that because Curtin had at least two prior convictions for controlled substance offenses, he qualified as a career offender under U.S.S.G. § 4B1.1(a). Accordingly, the Court found that his total offense level was 34, his criminal history category was VI, and the applicable Guideline range was 262-327 months. See U.S.S.G. § 4B1.1(b). The Court sentenced Curtin to 200 months of imprisonment.

         On appeal, Curtin's newly appointed appellate counsel filed a brief with the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit pursuant to Anders v. California, 386 U.S. 738 (1967), in which he stated, "Counsel is of the opinion that there are no legitimate grounds for appeal in this case." Br. Appellant at 12, United States v. Curtin, No. 16-4071 (4th Cir. June 29, 2016). Curtin was informed of his right to file a supplemental brief for the appeal but declined to do so. The Fourth Circuit affirmed the conviction and sentence, noting that "[t]he district court correctly calculated Curtin's advisory Guidelines range." United States v. Curtin, 662 Fed.Appx. 198, 199 (4th Cir. 2016). Curtin then filed the instant Motion, which is now ripe for disposition.


         In his Motion, Curtin seeks to have his sentence vacated on the grounds that he was erroneously classified as a career offender, which led to a higher advisory Guidelines range. Curtin asserts that in light of Mathis and related cases, his prior convictions for possession with intent to distribute controlled substances do not qualify as predicate "controlled substances offenses" within the meaning of the career offender guideline. The Government argues that (1) Curtin is procedurally barred from bringing this claim; (2) challenges to the application of the career offender enhancement are not cognizable under § 2255; and (3) Curtin's claim fails on the merits.

         I. Legal Standard

         A prisoner in federal custody may move to vacate, set aside, or correct a sentence on the basis that: (1) "the sentence was imposed in violation of the Constitution or laws of the United States"; (2) the sentencing court lacked jurisdiction; (3) the sentence exceeded the maximum authorized by law; or (4) the sentence is "otherwise subject to collateral attack." 28 U.S.C. § 2255(a) (2012). The prisoner bears the burden of proof and must establish the claim by a preponderanee of the evidence. See Miller v. United States, 261 F.2d 546, 547 (4th Cir. 1958).

         II. Procedural Default

         The Government first argues that the Motion is procedurally defaulted because Curtin did not challenge his career offender enhancement at sentencing or on direct appeal. When a petitioner fails to raise a claim on direct appeal, the claims are procedurally defaulted and prisoners are barred from raising them in a § 2255 motion unless they can "demonstrate cause and prejudice, or actual innocence." United States v. Pettiford, 612 F.3d 270, 280 (4th Cir. 2010). "The existence of cause for a procedural default must turn on something external to the defense, such as the novelty of the claim or a denial of effective assistance of counsel." Id. (quoting United States v. Mikalajunas,186 F.3d 490, 493 (4th Cir. 1999)). To demonstrate actual innocence, a petitioner must establish "factual innocence" such that ...

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