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United States v. Sparks

United States District Court, District of Columbia

June 9, 2016

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
v.
ELIAS SPARKS, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          Reggie B. Walton United States District Judge

         In February 2014, this Court sentenced the defendant to a term of 120 months of incarceration followed by five years of supervised release. See generally Judgment in a Criminal Case ("Judgment") (Feb. 5, 2014). Currently before the Court is the defendant's pro se petition to vacate the Court's sentence pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2255 (2012), in which he asserts several claims of alleged ineffective assistance of counsel and requests an evidentiary hearing. See generally Motion to Vacate, Set Aside, or Correct Sentence ("Def.'s Mot."). The government opposes the request for a hearing, noting the Court's familiarity with the case, and further argues that the defendant has not met his burden of establishing ineffective assistance of counsel. Government's Opposition to Defendant's 28 U.S.C. § 2255 Motion to Vacate, Set Aside, Or Correct Sentence ("Gov't Opp'n") at 1. Upon careful consideration of the parties' submissions, the Court will deny the defendant's motion in its entirety.[1] However, because one of the defendant's arguments raises a question regarding the adequacy of the Court's pre-plea competency determination, the Court will order additional briefing on that issue, as discussed hereafter.

         I. BACKGROUND

         The defendant has a history of mental illness, including diagnoses of undifferentiated schizophrenia and antisocial personality disorder. PSI Report ¶¶ 69, 72. On May 1, 2012, the defendant was indicted on one count of unlawful possession with intent to distribute 28 grams or more of cocaine base in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 841(a)(1) and (b)(l)(B)(iii) (2012), [2] Gov't Opp'n at 2-3, and Assistant Federal Public Defender Jonathan Jeffress ("Jeffress") was appointed to represent him, Id. at 3. When the defendant was brought before the Court for his arraignment on May 16, 2012, he was committed to the Federal Medical Center in Butner, North Carolina (the "Medical Center"), pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 4241(d) (2012), for treatment and further evaluation following a finding of mental incompetency. Id. On August 14, 2012, the Medical Center submitted a report to this Court stating that the defendant remained incompetent to stand trial, but that his competency may be restored with treatment. Id The August 14, 2012 Medical Center report indicated also that the defendant's condition was improving, see Def.'s Sentencing Mem. at 7; however, the report also noted that the defendant was increasingly "awar[e] that he was going to have to return to Court to face charges, [which] may have led [the defendant] to [] exaggerate his symptoms, " Id. (citing Aug. 14, 2012 Medical Center report at 9). On September 6, 2012, the Court ordered the defendant to remain at the Medical Center for an additional ninety days for continued treatment. See Order at 1 (Sept. 11, 2012).

         On December 4, 2012, the Medical Center submitted its final report to the Court, certifying that the defendant was now competent to stand trial, see Def.'s Sentencing Mem. at 8, but also noting that the defendant's competency was "contingent upon consistent and effective treatment with psychotropic medication[, ]" Id. (quoting Dec. 4, 2012 Medical Center report at 7). The Court then conducted a status conference on December 14, 2012, and ordered that the defendant be returned to a District of Columbia detention facility and maintained on his medication and treatment regimen. See Order (Dec. 18, 2012).

         During subsequent status conferences, the parties represented that they were negotiating a plea agreement. See Gov't Opp'n at 4. A hearing was then initiated on May 1, 2013, for the purpose of the defendant entering a guilty plea, but the Court aborted the hearing when the defendant's demeanor demonstrated that he was unable to understand the Court's questioning. Id. Despite the Court's prior December 18, 2012 order, the defendant was not moved to a District of Columbia detention facility, prompting Jeffress to file a motion to transfer the defendant to a District of Columbia detention facility for mental and physical evaluations, and so Jeffress could spend additional time with the defendant to "ensure that [the defendant] [was] competent to enter his plea (or go to trial) and that [the defendant] was making his decision knowingly and voluntarily." See Unopposed Motion to Return Defendant to This Jurisdiction ("Def.'s Return Mot.") at 2. At some point after the defendant was transferred to the District of Columbia jail, his medication regimen was changed. See Def.'s Sentencing Mem. at 9. According to Jeffress, the defendant had "'decompensated' since his return to the [District of Columbia] and his corresponding change in medications." Id. Nonetheless, thereafter, at a June 28, 2013 status conference, Jeffress represented that the defendant was prepared to enter his guilty plea. Gov't Opp'n at 4.

         The Court held the defendant's guilty plea hearing on July 9, 2013. See generally Plea Tr. When asked at the plea hearing whether he understood that the crime he committed was wrong, the defendant replied, "[n]ot at the time." See Plea Tr. at 6:21-23. He also indicated that he wanted to plead not guilty by reason of insanity. See Id. at 8:20-25. But after consulting with Jeffress, the defendant changed course, see Id. at 9:1-5, indicating that he was guilty, see Id. at 11:11, and that he knew when the crime was committed that what he was doing was wrong, see id at 11:19.

         Prior to the imposition of the defendant's sentence, he requested that he receive a sixty-month period of of incarceration (the statutory mandatory minimum), Def.'s Sentencing Mem. at 1; see also 21 U.S.C. § 841(b)(1)(B), while the government recommended a 188-month prison sentence (the bottom of the United States Sentencing Guidelines sentence), see Gov't Sentencing Mem. at 1. The Court ultimately sentenced the defendant to a 120-month term of incarceration, followed by five years of supervised release. Judgment at 2, 4.

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         Under 28 U.S.C. § 2255 (2012), a person in custody pursuant to a federal court sentence may "move the court which imposed the sentence to vacate, set aside[, ] or correct the sentence, " on grounds that "the sentence was imposed in violation of the Constitution or laws of the United States, ... that the court was without jurisdiction to impose such sentence, or that the sentence was in excess of the maximum authorized by law, or is otherwise subject to collateral attack." 28 U.S.C. § 2255(a). A district court must grant an evidentiary hearing to conduct additional fact-finding necessary to resolve the motion "[u]nless the motion[s, ] the files[, ] and the records of the case conclusively show that the prisoner is entitled to no relief." Id. However, "[e]ven if the files and records of the case do not clearly rebut the allegations of the prisoner, no hearing is required where [the prisoner's] claims are 'vague, conclusory, or palpably incredible.'" United States v. Pollard, 959 F.2d 1011, 1031 (D.C. Cir. 1992) (quoting Machibroda v. United States. 368 U.S. 487, 495 (1962)). In making this assessment, the Court must construe the defendant's pro se filings liberally. Toolasprashad v. Bureau of Prisons, 286 F.3d 576, 583 (D.C. Cir. 2002) (citing Richardson v. United States, 193 F.3d 545, 548 (D.C. Cir. 1999)). In any event, if the reviewing court finds that any grounds requiring relief under § 2255(a) are satisfied, it "shall vacate and set the judgment aside[, ] and [it] shall [also] discharge the prisoner[, ] resentence him[, ] grant a new trial[, ] or correct the sentence as may appear appropriate." 28 U.S.C. § 2255(b).

         III. ANALYSIS

         "A [guilty] plea is not voluntary or intelligent if the advice given by defense counsel on which the defendant relied in entering the plea falls below the level of reasonable competence such that the defendant does not receive effective assistance of counsel." United States v. Loughery, 908 F.2d 1014, 1018 (D.C. Cir. 1990) (citing Hill v. Lockhart, 474 U.S. 52, 56-60 (1985); Tollett v. Henderson, 411 U.S. 258, 267 (1973)). "In Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984), the Supreme Court adopted a two-prong objective test for determining whether a defendant's constitutional right to the effective assistance of counsel has been violated, " United States v. Abney, 812 F.3d 1079, 1082 (D.C. Cir. 2016), and clarified in Hill that the Strickland standard "applies to challenges to guilty pleas based on ineffective assistance of counsel, " 474 U.S. at 58.

         To prevail on an ineffective assistance of counsel claim, a defendant must demonstrate both deficient performance by his counsel and prejudice to him because of counsel's deficient performance. United States v. Williams, 488 F.3d 1004, 1010 (D.C. Cir. 2007) (citing Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 687 (1984)). Counsel's performance is deficient only where counsel "made errors so serious that [he] was not functioning as the 'counsel' guaranteed the defendant by the Sixth Amendment." Strickland, 466 U.S. at 687; see also Abney, 812 F.3d at 1086 ("Counsel's performance is 'deficient' when his representation falls below an objective standard of reasonableness." (citing United States v. Rodriguez, 676 F.3d 183, 189 (D.C. Cir. 2012))). In other words, counsel must provide "reasonably effective assistance, " Strickland, 466 U.S. at 687, measured by "prevailing professional norms, " Id. at 688; see also Massaro v. United States, 538 U.S. 500, 505 (2003) ("A defendant claiming ineffective counsel must show that counsel's actions were not supported by a reasonable strategy . . . ."). When entertaining claims of ineffective assistance of counsel, "(j)udicial scrutiny of counsel's performance must be highly deferential, " Strickland. 466 U.S. at 689, and courts "must indulge a strong presumption that counsel's conduct falls within the wide range of reasonable professional assistance, " id.

         On a challenge to a guilty plea based on ineffective assistance of counsel, the defendant must show that "counsel's constitutionally ineffective performance affected the outcome of the plea process." Hill, 474 U.S. at 59. "In other words, in order to satisfy the 'prejudice' requirement, the defendant must show that there is a reasonable probability that, but for counsel's errors, he would not have pleaded guilty and would have insisted on going to trial." Id. A "reasonable probability is a probability sufficient to undermine confidence in the outcome." Strickland, 446 U.S. at 694. And, while the defendant may seek an evidentiary hearing to develop his claims, a court need not hold ...


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