United States District Court, D. Maryland
L. HOLLANDER UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
post-conviction case pits the principle of judicial finality
against the precept of justice. The government advocates for
finality. But, under the circumstances attendant here,
finality must yield to justice, the hallmark of our legal
Thomas, Petitioner, was convicted under 18 U.S.C. §
924(c) and was sentenced as a career offender to 235 months
of imprisonment (i.e., 19 and a half
years). The career offender designation was based
on two predicate Maryland drug convictions. However, one of
those offenses was subsequently vacated as a result of a
successful coram nobis proceeding litigated by Thomas in the
Circuit Court for Baltimore City.
through counsel, Thomas filed a “Request For New
Sentencing Hearing” (ECF 142), as well as an addendum.
ECF 144. The government filed an opposition to the Petition
(ECF 148), supported by exhibits. Petitioner replied. ECF
149. At the Court's request (ECF 160), Thomas filed the
federal sentencing transcript (ECF 162), as well as a
supplemental memorandum. ECF 165. I shall refer to ECF 142
and ECF 165 collectively as the “Petition.” And,
the government filed a supplemental opposition. ECF 166. I
shall refer to ECF 148 and ECF 166 collectively as the
agrees with the government that his submissions should be
construed under 28 U.S.C. § 2255. See ECF 148
at 3; ECF 149 at 1. Under 28 U.S.C. § 2255(b), a hearing
is required “[u]nless the motion and the files and
records of the case conclusively show that the prisoner is
entitled to no relief . . . .” The Court held a hearing
on June 21, 2019, attended by Petitioner, at which argument
opposing the Petition, the government advances a host of
contentions. It argues that there is no legal or statutory
authority to support Thomas's request for relief.
Moreover, the government maintains that the Petition was
untimely filed, and Thomas has not established a basis for
equitable tolling. Further, the government asserts that, even
if the Petition was timely filed, it is barred based on
procedural default, because Thomas never appealed his
sentence. And, the government contends that, even if the
Petition was timely filed, and even in the absence of a
procedural default, Petitioner's “claim that he was
erroneously sentenced as a career offender under the United
States Sentencing Guidelines is not subject to collateral
review.” ECF 148 at 1. At oral argument, the government
also underscored the importance of finality in regard to a
Order of June 28, 2019 (ECF 170), I granted the Petition,
indicating that a Memorandum Opinion would follow to explain
the ruling. The Petitioner will be resentenced on July 8,
2019. See Docket.
Factual and Procedural Background
was born in September 1961. He was arrested in Baltimore City
on November 9, 2009, after drugs and a firearm were found in
a motor vehicle that he was driving. He has been in
continuous custody since that time.
result of that occurrence, a grand jury in the District Court
of Maryland indicted Thomas and two others on March 3, 2010,
charging multiple offenses. ECF 1. Of relevance here, Thomas
was charged with conspiracy to distribute and possess with
intent to distribute heroin and cocaine, in violation of 21
U.S.C. § 846 (Count One); felon in possession of a
semi-automatic handgun, in violation of 18 U.S.C. §
922(g)(1) (Count Five); possession of a semi-automatic
handgun, in furtherance of a drug trafficking crime, in
violation of 18 U.S.C. § 924(c) (Count Six); and
possession with intent to distribute both heroin and cocaine
(Count Seven). Id.
August 9, 2010, before Judge William D. Quarles, Jr.,
Petitioner entered a plea of guilty to Count Six, charging
possession of a firearm in furtherance of drug trafficking,
under 18 U.S.C. § 924(c). ECF 61. The offense carries a
mandatory minimum sentence of five years' imprisonment
and a maximum term of life imprisonment.
plea was tendered pursuant to a Plea Agreement. ECF 66; ECF
67. In the Plea Agreement, Thomas expressly waived his
appellate rights, except that he reserved the right to appeal
any sentence that exceeded 327 months' imprisonment. ECF
66, ¶ 13. And, the government agreed to recommend a
sentence of imprisonment within the final advisory sentencing
guidelines range. ECF 67, ¶ 8.
Plea Agreement includes a Statement of Facts. ECF 66 at 8.
The factual summary indicates that law enforcement stopped a
vehicle driven by defendant on November 7, 2009. Codefendant
Darryl Chase was a passenger in the vehicle.
Id. A search of the vehicle revealed two bags
of heroin in the center console, with a net weight of 44.73
grams; one bag of cocaine, with a net weight of 7.42 grams;
and a 9mm handgun located “[d]irectly next to”
the drugs. Id.
was initially scheduled for December 7, 2010. ECF 68.
However, Thomas's defense attorney at the time, Gerald
Ruter, subsequently advised Judge Quarles that defendant had
filed for coram nobis relief in the Circuit Court for
Baltimore City. ECF 72. The coram nobis relief was sought in
connection with two prior felony drug convictions in that
court: No. 801011024 (“Case I”) and No. 203007032
(“Case II”). ECF 148-3. As to Case II, the coram
nobis petition was filed on June 30, 2010. Id.;
see also ECF 117-1. This was prior to Thomas's
plea of guilty in the federal case. And, as to Case I, the
coram nobis petition was filed on August 13, 2010, just days
after Thomas pleaded guilty in the underlying case. ECF
148-3; ECF 117-2. Another coram nobus petition was filed for
Case II in October 2010. See ECF 117-3. Because of
the pendency of the coram nobis petitions, defense counsel
requested and obtained several postponements of Thomas's
federal sentencing. See ECF 72; ECF 85; ECF 91; ECF
93; ECF 99; ECF 113; see also ECF 148-1; ECF 162 at
Memorandum Opinion and Order of November 13, 2012, the
Circuit Court for Baltimore City (Young, J.) denied
Thomas's requests for coram nobis relief. ECF 115-2. In
the meantime, Judge Quarles set sentencing for February 13,
2013. See second docket entry for October 31, 2012;
see also ECF 115.
Presentence Report (“PSR, ” ECF 161) was prepared
in anticipation of sentencing on December 7,
2010. According to the PSR, Thomas qualified as
a career offender. Id. ¶¶ 14, 29. In
reaching this conclusion, the probation agent relied on the
defendant's two prior State felony drug convictions,
which were at issue in the coram nobis proceeding.
particular, the prior State felony drug convictions are
referenced in the PSR at paragraphs 22 and 23 for Case I, and
paragraphs 24 and 25 for Case II. Case I involved attempted
distribution of heroin on July 17, 2000. ECF 161,
¶¶ 22, 23. Case II involved possession with intent
to distribute cocaine in 2004. Id. ¶¶ 24,
For Case I, defendant received a four-year sentence, all of
which was suspended, except for time served of about three
weeks. As to Case II, he received a sentence of three
years' incarceration. But, the conviction in Case II
violated defendant's probation as to Case I. For the
violation of probation in regard to Case I, Thomas received a
three-year sentence, concurrent with the three-year sentence
imposed in Case II.
review of the PSR reflects that the concurrent three-year
sentences were the longest sentences defendant had ever
served prior to the sentence imposed in this case. And,
defendant served only a portion of those sentences, because
he was paroled in February 2005. See ECF 161; ECF
115 at 2.
the PSR reflects that Thomas had a total of nine criminal
history points. ECF 161, ¶ 28. This would normally
equate to a criminal history category of IV. Id.
But, as a career offender, Thomas's criminal history
category jumped to VI. Id. ¶ 29.
January 25, 2013, Mr. Ruter filed a detailed sentencing
memorandum on behalf of Thomas. ECF 115. He also filed
numerous exhibits. ECF 115-1 to ECF 115-8; ECF 117; ECF 117-1
to ECF 117-3; ECF 118; ECF 118-1 to ECF 118-2. Among other
things, he objected to the career offender designation, and
argued that defendant's prior State felony drug
convictions were unconstitutional. ECF 115 at 2-7. In
addition, he provided Judge Quarles with a copy of the coram
nobis petitions filed in the State court. ECF 117-1 (Case II,
No. 203007032); ECF 117-2 (Case I, No. 801011024); ECF 117-3
(Case II, No. 203007032).
government also submitted a sentencing memorandum. ECF 119;
ECF 148-4. There, the government disputed the defendant's
contention that he did not qualify as a career offender
because of a constitutionally defective conviction in State
Quarles proceeded to sentencing on February 13, 2013. ECF
120. At sentencing, several family members spoke on behalf of
the defendant. See ECF 162 at 4-11. The defendant,
who was then 51 years of age, also addressed the Court.
Id. at 26-31.
government recommended a career offender guideline sentence.
Id. at 13. It described Thomas as “the most
culpable of the three defendants, ” with a
“significant criminal history.” Id. at
11. The government also pointed out that the firearm was
recovered from the defendant's vehicle, “next to
the drugs.” Id. at 12. And, it described
Thomas as “a recidivist drug trafficker.”
counsel noted that the defendant had “a very small
quantity of drugs” in his possession at the time of the
vehicle stop. Id. at 16. And, with regard to
Thomas's two prior State drug convictions, defense
counsel indicated that they “speak of a person who is
at the lowest level of being a drug dealer on the streets,
” consistent with his need to “feed the beast,
” i.e., his own heroin addiction, dating to
when he was 17 years of age. Id. at 16-17.
Ruter vigorously urged Judge Quarles to impose a variant
sentence. See, e.g., ECF 162 at 26 (120
months); ECF 115 at 7 (60 months). According to defense
counsel, a guidelines sentence would be “grossly out of
proportion . . . ” to the underlying offense. ECF 162
relevance here, Judge Quarles found that defendant qualified
as a career offender based on “his two previous felony
narcotics convictions . . . .”, i.e., Case I
and Case II. Id. at 31. After deductions, the Court
determined that the defendant had an adjusted advisory
sentencing guidelines range of 235 to 293 months of
imprisonment. ECF 115 at 7; ECF 162 at 11. If the defendant
were not a career offender, however, his guidelines would
have been determined by U.S.S.G. § 2K2.4, i.e.,
the mandatory minimum of 60 months' imprisonment. ECF 115
other things, Judge Quarles stated that a variant sentence
“would make a mockery . . . of the career criminal
statute.” ECF 162 at 19. Moreover, the court observed
that the defendant had received “breaks in the past
that he didn't take seriously, ” adding:
“[S]o I'm not so sure that . . . he should get
breaks now.” Id. at 21.
Judge Quarles sentenced Thomas to a period of incarceration
of 235 months, corresponding to the bottom of the final
advisory sentencing guidelines range. ECF 121 (Judgment of
2/19/13); ECF 122 (Statement of Reasons of
2/19/13). In the Statement of Reasons (ECF 122 at
4), Judge Quarles stated: “Because of
[Petitioner's] two previous felony narcotics convictions,
he is a career offender and criminal history category
VI.” Id. Judge Quarles also observed that the
defendant began use of heroin at age fourteen. Id.
And, he pointed out that Thomas is a high school graduate
with a commercial driver's license. ECF 162 at 24.
noted, under the Plea Agreement, Thomas waived his right to
appeal, subject to a caveat that is not applicable here. No.
direct appeal was taken. However, on February 12, 2014,
Thomas, then self-represented, moved to reduce his sentence.
ECF 123. Judge Quarles denied that request. ECF 124. Then, on
September 25, 2014, Thomas, still self-represented, filed
another motion to reduce his sentence, under 18 U.S.C. §
3582(c), U.S.S.G. § 2D1.1, and Amendment 782. ECF 126.
He complained, among other things, about the career offender
designation. Id. at 2. The government opposed the
motion. ECF 130. The Court denied the motion on March 28,
2016. ECF 131; ECF 132.
meantime, following the ruling in the coram nobis proceeding
in the Circuit Court for Baltimore City, an appeal was noted
to the Maryland Court of Special Appeals. Unfortunately, the
case was delayed because Thomas's lawyer suffered a
stroke, was unable to practice law, and ultimately was
disbarred by consent. ECF 142, ¶ 8(a). Mr. Thomas
subsequently obtained new coram nobis counsel, who also
represents him in this matter. ECF 149 at 2, ¶ 3.
February 23, 2016, in an unreported opinion, the Maryland
Court of Special Appeals vacated the denial of coram nobis
relief and remanded the matter to the Circuit Court for
Baltimore City. See Thomas v. State, 2016 WL 706779
(Md. Ct. Spec. App. Feb. 23, 2016). The intermediate
appellate court observed that, under Petitioner's federal
plea agreement, the judge was required to take the federal
sentencing guidelines into account, and Thomas faced a higher
sentencing range because of his prior State convictions.
Id. at *3. It added, id.: “Our
conclusion is bolstered by the evidence . . . showing that
[Thomas] received” a sentence of 235 months from the
federal court. The court concluded that Thomas established
“significant collateral consequences due to his prior
[State] convictions.” Id.
remand to the Circuit Court for Baltimore City, that court
scheduled a hearing for January 4, 2017. On that date, Judge
Melissa Copeland signed a “Consent Order, ”
granting coram nobis relief to Thomas as to Case I, No.
801011024, thereby vacating that conviction. ECF 144-1. That
conviction corresponds to the offense referenced in
paragraphs 22 and 23 of the PSR. See ECF 161.