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United States v. Chammas

United States District Court, District of Columbia

December 19, 2018



          CHRISTOPHER R. COOPER United States District Judge

         In October 2016, Labib Chammas pleaded guilty to abusive sexual contact in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 2244(a)(2). The Court subsequently sentenced Chammas to a term of 30 months of incarceration followed by five years of supervised release. Currently before the Court is Chammas's pro se motion to vacate both his conviction and sentence pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2255. Chammas asserts that he was denied the effective assistance of counsel at both the plea and sentencing stages of his prosecution. In addition, he requests that his § 2255 petition be assigned to a different judge than the undersigned “to avoid any and all potential biases that may exist, ” suggesting the Court will not impartially review the petition because it is familiar with the counsel Chammas now claims was ineffective. Because there is no basis for Chammas's assertions of judicial bias, the Court will decline that request. And, with the exception of one issue as to which the Court will reserve judgment pending the submission of additional evidence by the government, the Court will also deny Chammas's § 2255 motion for relief from his conviction and sentence.

         I. Background

         Chammas and his wife, the former Deputy Chief of Mission (“DCM”) for the State Department in Rabat, Morocco, lived at the DCM residence from August 2010 to February 2013. Statement of the Offense at 49.[1] During that period, Chammas was responsible for managing the household and staff. Id. at 50. According to employees, Chammas “was an abusive head-of-household” who frequently yelled at them and threatened to fire them. Id. In February 2013, during a routine inspection of the U.S. Embassy, the State Department's Office of the Inspector General (“OIG”) received an anonymous letter reporting that Chammas was sexually abusing a female cook employed at the DCM residence. Aff. in Supp. of Crim. Compl. and Arrest Warrant (“Affidavit”) at 10.

         OIG inspectors interviewed Chammas on February 13 and 14, 2013. See Mem. of Interview of Labib Chammas (“Chammas MOI”), Feb. 13, 2013 at 31-33; Chammas MOI, Feb. 14, 2013 at 34-37. Chammas acknowledged having sexual contact with the victim during massages, admitted ejaculating during those massages, and conceded that his penis came into contact with the victim's face on at least one occasion. Id. The government executed a search warrant of the DCM residence, collected potential biological evidence, obtained a warrant for Chammas's DNA, and determined that the DNA evidence was consistent with the victim's account. Affidavit at 19-20. In the course of the government's investigation into the reports of abuse, the government also initiated a second investigation into possible forced-labor practices at the DCM residence. Sentencing Hr'g at 165-66.

         While the investigations were ongoing, Chammas traveled to Lebanon with his wife in April 2015. Mot., ECF 33, ¶ 29. His wife returned to the United States a month later, but Chammas went to Syria ostensibly to resolve certain family and employment issues. Id. Chammas left Syria and returned to the United States in May 2016. Id. While Chammas was abroad, the government decided to seek a warrant for his arrest. Sentencing Hr'g at 166-67. Soon after he returned from more than a year overseas, Chammas was arrested at his home on May 19, 2016 and charged by complaint with aggravated sexual abuse in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 2241(a)(1). That offense carries a maximum penalty of life imprisonment.

         In October 2016, Chammas pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of abusive sexual contact in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 2244(a)(2). Plea Agreement at 38. As part of the plea agreement, the parties agreed that the Statement of Offense, which Chammas signed, fairly and accurately set forth his offense conduct. Id. at 39. According to the Statement, Chammas began asking the victim for massages soon after moving into the DCM residence. During the course of these massages, Chammas demanded that she massage his penis with her hands; the victim complied out of fear that she would be fired otherwise. Statement of Offense at 49-50. In addition, on at least five occasions between August 2010 and February 2013, Chammas attempted to insert his penis into the victim's mouth against her will by pulling or attempting to pull her head toward his penis. Id. at 50. In each instance, the victim closed her mouth and turned her face to the side. Id.

         Based on the conduct described in the Statement, the parties also agreed that Chammas's conduct supported an increase to his offense level calculation under the Sentencing Guidelines because his conduct involved the use of force in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 2241(a). Plea Agreement at 39. In addition, because the Guidelines range for Chammas's offense conduct exceeded the three-year maximum statutory penalty for abusive sexual contact, the parties agreed that a Guidelines-compliant sentence would be 36 months. Id. at 40 n.1. Finally, the parties agreed that Chammas would not seek a sentence of less than one year and a day of incarceration. Id. at 41.

         After the plea, the Court granted defense counsel's request that Chammas remain on release pending sentencing based on Chammas's age (65 at the time) and various medical conditions. See Oct. 24, 2016 Minute Order. At the sentencing hearing on January 4, 2016, the Court reviewed the 18 U.S.C. § 3553 factors and imposed a below-Guidelines sentence of 30 months of incarceration followed by five years of supervised release. See Sentencing Hr'g at 176-78.

         On January 2, 2018, Chammas filed a § 2255 motion seeking relief based on seven instances of alleged ineffective assistance of counsel. See Mot. On May 30, 2018, he filed a supplement to his § 2255 motion which asserts an additional claim of ineffective assistance. See Suppl. Mot., ECF No. 39.

         II. Analysis

         A. Recusal or reassignment

         Before reaching the substance of Chammas's § 2255 motion, the Court will address his request that the motion be reassigned to a different judge in order to “avoid any and all potential biases that may exist” because of the Court's alleged familiarity with defense counsel. Mot. ¶ 93. “Recusal is required under 28 U.S.C. § 455 if ‘a reasonable and informed observer would question the judge's impartiality, '” United States v. Williamson, 903 F.3d 124, 137 (D.C. Cir. 2018) (quoting SEC v. Loving Spirit Found. Inc., 392. F.3d 486, 493 (D.C. Cir. 2004)), and “under 28 U.S.C. § 144 if a judge ‘has a personal bias or prejudice' either against or in favor of a party, ” id. (quoting § 144). Chammas alleges no credible basis for recusal under either section. First, he suggests the Court demonstrated favoritism by commenting at sentencing that defense counsel had “done a terrific job.” Mot. ¶ 93 (citing Sentencing Hr'g at 177:13). Chammas offers no authority for the proposition that complimenting an attorney for high-quality advocacy provides a basis for recusal in a future proceeding. And in any event, Chammas ignores the rest of the Court's comment, which was to thank counsel for both parties and say the “submissions have been excellent” on both sides. Sentencing Hr'g at 177:15-16. Second, he suggests that the Court could be biased because of defense counsel's purported friendship with the Court's wife. Mot. ¶ 93.[2] But even if the two are friends, no reasonable observer would conclude that such friendship alone overcomes the strong presumption of impartiality afforded to the Court. The Court will therefore deny Chammas's request for reassignment of his § 2255 motion.

         B. Section 2255 relief

         Moving to the merits, a prisoner serving a federal sentence may petition the court to vacate his sentence if he believes that it “was imposed in violation of the Constitution or laws of the United States . . . or is otherwise subject to collateral attack[.]” 28 U.S.C. § 2255(a). The petitioner bears the burden of proof and must demonstrate by a preponderance of the evidence his right to relief. United States v. Simpson, 475 F.2d 934, 935 (D.C. Cir. 1973) (per curiam).

         Chammas seeks to vacate his conviction and sentence on the basis that he received ineffective assistance of counsel in violation of the Sixth Amendment. “The Sixth Amendment right to counsel ‘is the right to the effective assistance of counsel.'” Buck v. Davis, 137 S.Ct. 759, 775 (2017) (quoting Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 686 (1984)). To prevail, Chammas bears the burden of showing first “that counsel's performance was deficient” and second “that the deficient performance prejudiced the defense.” Strickland, 466 U.S. at 687. “The two-part Strickland v. Washington test applies to challenges to guilty pleas based on ineffective assistance of counsel.” Hill v. Lockhart, 474 U.S. 52, 58 (1985).

         Under the first prong of the Strickland test, Chammas must prove that counsel's performance “fell below an objective standard of reasonableness.” Strickland, 466 U.S. at 687- 88. This “sets a high bar, ” Buck, 137 S.Ct. at 775: “Judicial scrutiny of counsel's performance must be highly deferential” in light of the “strong presumption that counsel's conduct falls within the wide range of reasonable professional assistance, ” Strickland, 466 U.S. at 689. And although “even an isolated error” can support an ineffective-assistance claim if it is “sufficiently egregious, ” Murray v. Carrier, 477 U.S. 478, 496 (1986), “it is difficult to establish ineffective assistance when counsel's overall performance indicates active and capable advocacy, ” Harrington v. Richter, 562 U.S. 86, 111 (2011).

         Under the second prong of the Strickland test, Chammas must demonstrate a “reasonable probability that, but for counsel's unprofessional errors, the result of the proceeding would have been different.” Strickland, 466 U.S. at 694. For Chammas's claims regarding the plea-agreement phase, prejudice means “a reasonable probability that, but for counsel's errors, he would not have pleaded guilty and would have insisted on going to trial.” Hill, 474 U.S. at 58- 59. And for Chammas's claims regarding the sentencing phase, prejudice means a reasonable likelihood that but for counsel's errors, he “would have received a lower sentence.” United States v. Wilkins, 734 Fed.Appx. 1, 2 (D.C. Cir. 2018) (citing Glover v. United States, 531 U.S. 198, 203-04 (2001)).

         Chammas asserts eight independent grounds for his ineffective-assistance claim. Because the record discloses no Sixth Amendment violation on any of these grounds, the Court will deny Chammas's § 2255 petition, except as to the claim discussed in Subsection 6 below. And because, as will follow, “the motion and the files and records of the case conclusively show that [Chammas] is entitled to no relief, ” the Court will also deny Chammas's ...

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