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Gardner v. United States

United States District Court, N.D. West Virginia

June 28, 2019

RYAN DEE GARDNER, Petitioner,
v.
UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Respondent.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER DENYING § 2255 MOTION [DKT. NO. 1] [1] AND DISMISSING CASE WITH PREJUDICE

          IRENE M. KEELEY UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Pending before the Court is the Motion Under 28 U.S.C. § 2255 to Vacate, Set Aside, or Correct Sentence filed by the pro se petitioner, Ryan Dee Gardner (“Gardner”), in which he alleges that he entered into an involuntary plea agreement based on ineffective assistance of counsel. For the reasons that follow, the Court DENIES Gardner's § 2255 motion (Dkt. No. 1), and DISMISSES this case WITH PREJUDICE.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Gardner was the sole defendant named in a one-count Information filed in this Court on February 11, 2015 (No. 1:15CR22, Dkt. No. 15). Pursuant to a written plea agreement, Gardner waived his right to have his case presented to a federal grand jury and pleaded guilty on February 12, 2015, to one count of distribution of oxycodone, in violation of 21 U.S.C. §§ 841(a)(1) and 841(b)(1)(C) (No. 1:15CR22, Dkt. Nos. 22; 24). Following the entry of Gardner's guilty plea, the Probation Officer prepared and disclosed a presentence report, which recommended that the Court apply a two-level sentencing enhancement under U.S.S.G. § 2D1.1(b)(1) for the possession of a firearm in connection with the offense.

         Although Gardner, by counsel, filed an objection to the Probation Officer's recommendation, he later withdrew that objection (No. 1:15CR22, Dkt. No. 59 at 5-6). At sentencing, the Court applied the two-level enhancement under U.S.S.G. § 2D1.1(b)(1), and sentenced Gardner to 70 months imprisonment, the lowest end of the applicable guideline range, to be followed by 3 years of supervised release (No. 1:15CR22, Dkt. No. 32). Gardner did not appeal his conviction or sentence.

         On June 7, 2016, Gardner filed his pro se Motion Under 28 U.S.C. § 2255 to Vacate, Set Aside, or Correct Sentence, which he later re-filed on the court-approved form (Dkt. Nos. 1, 5). In his motion, Gardner claims that he is entitled to relief under § 2255 based on the ineffective assistance of his counsel during plea negotiations (Dkt. No. 5 at 5).[2] Specifically, Gardner contends that his counsel was ineffective for advising him that he would not receive a firearm enhancement at sentencing. Id. While Gardner's motion does not specify the precise relief sought, he requests discovery in the case, an evidentiary hearing, and the appointment of counsel. Id. at 13; Dkt. No. 16 at 6.

         In its response, the government argues that Gardner has failed to satisfy the two-pronged analysis provided by Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 687 (1984), to establish a right to an amended sentence or new trial based upon ineffective assistance of counsel (Dkt. No. 15 at 6-11). In his reply, Gardner reiterates his contentions about his attorney's failure to correctly advise him about the potential sentence (Dkt. No. 16 at 2-5). Accordingly, the motion is now fully briefed and ripe for decision.

         II. STANDARDS OF REVIEW

         A. Pro Se Pleadings

         The Court must liberally construe pro se pleadings. Estelle v. Gamble, 429 U.S. 97, 106 (1976); Loe v. Armistead, 582 F.2d 1291, 1295 (4th Cir. 1978). A pro se petition is subject to dismissal, however, if the Court cannot reasonably read the pleadings to state a valid claim on which the petitioner could prevail. Barnett v. Hargett, 174 F.3d 1128, 1133 (10th Cir. 1999). A court may not construct the petitioner's legal arguments for him, nor should it “conjure up questions never squarely presented.” Beaudett v. City of Hampton, 775 F.2d 1274, 1278 (4th Cir. 1985).

         B. § 2255 Motions

         Title 28 U.S.C. § 2255(a) permits federal prisoners, who are in custody, to assert the right to be released if “the sentence was imposed in violation of the Constitution or laws of the United States, ” if “the court was without jurisdiction to impose such sentence, ” or if “the sentence was in excess of the maximum authorized by law, or is otherwise subject to collateral attack.” A petitioner bears the burden of proving any of these grounds by a preponderance of the evidence. See Miller v. United States, 261 F.2d 546, 547 (4th Cir. 1958).

         III. DISCUSSION

         As noted, Gardner claims ineffective assistance of counsel relating to the advice his attorney allegedly provided prior to the entry of his guilty plea. Gardner argues that the erroneous advice provided by his counsel during plea negotiations prevented him from entering a knowing and voluntary guilty plea. Specifically, Gardner asserts that his attorney was “ineffective” because he failed to correctly advise him about the applicability of a two-level sentencing enhancement under § 2D1.1(b)(1) (Dkt. Nos. 5 at 5).

         For the reasons explained below, the Court concludes that, even assuming that counsel's performance was deficient, Gardner did not suffer any prejudice as required by the standard articulated in Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984).

         A. Strickland Standard

         The Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution guarantees criminal defendants the right to effective assistance of counsel during their criminal proceedings. The Court's review of Gardner's ineffective assistance of counsel claim is guided by the conjunctive, two-prong analysis outlined in Strickland:

A convicted defendant's claim that counsel's assistance was so defective as to require reversal of a conviction . . . has two components. First, the defendant must show that counsel's performance was deficient. This requires showing that counsel made errors so serious that counsel was not functioning as the “counsel” guaranteed the defendant by the Sixth Amendment. Second, the defendant must show that the deficient performance prejudiced the defense. This requires showing that counsel's errors were so serious as to deprive the defendant of a fair trial, a trial whose result is reliable.

466 U.S. at 687.

         In order to satisfy Strickland's deficiency prong, a petitioner must demonstrate the objective unreasonableness of his attorney's performance. Id. at 688. Further, “[j]udicial scrutiny of counsel's performance must be highly deferential.” Id. at 689. Thus, a reviewing court with the benefit of hindsight must not second-guess those decisions of counsel which, given the totality of the circumstances at the time of trial, “might be considered sound trial strategy.” Id. (quoting Michel v. State of La., 350 U.S. 91, 101 (1955)). The Court “must indulge a strong presumption that counsel's conduct falls within the wide range of reasonable professional assistance” when evaluating whether counsel's performance was ineffective. Id. at 689.

         In order to satisfy Strickland's prejudicial effect prong, “the defendant must show there is a reasonable probability that, but for counsel's unprofessional errors, the result of the proceeding would have been different. A reasonable probability is a probability sufficient to undermine confidence in the outcome.” Id. at 694. Further, Strickland makes clear that either prong of its test for ineffective assistance of counsel may be analyzed first, and thus, if no prejudice is shown by a petitioner, a court need not analyze counsel's performance. Id. at 697; Fields v. Att'y Gen. of Maryland, 956 F.2d 1290, 1297 (4th Cir. 1992), cert. denied, 506 U.S. 885 (1992).

         B. Knowing and Voluntary Guilty Plea

         A criminal defendant's right to effective assistance of counsel extends to the plea-bargaining process. However, “[i]t is well-established that a voluntary and intelligent guilty plea forecloses federal collateral review of allegations of antecedent constitutional deprivations.” Fields v. Att'y Gen. Of Maryland, 956 F.2d 1290, 1294 (4th Cir. 1992); see also Tollett v. Henderson, 411 U.S. 258, 266 (1973). A voluntary and intelligent guilty plea amounts to an admission of the material elements of the charged crime, McCarthy v. United States, 394 U.S. 459, 466 (1969); consequently, it generally constitutes a waiver of all claims relating to non-jurisdictional errors that occurred prior to the plea. Unite ...


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