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Chestnut v. United States

United States District Court, D. South Carolina, Florence Division

June 15, 2018

Joe Roger Chestnut, Petitioner,
United States of America, Respondent.



         This matter is before the Court on Petitioner Joe Roger Chestnut's pro se motion to vacate, set aside, or correct his sentence pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2255. See ECF No. 91. The Court denies the motion for the reasons herein.[1]


         On May 7, 2014, Petitioner was charged in a three-count indictment with (1) being a felon in possession of a firearm, in violation of 18 U.S.C. §§ 922(g)(1), 924(a)(2), and (e) (“Count One”), (2) possession with intent to distribute a quantity of cocaine and 28 grams or more of cocaine base, in violation of 21 U.S.C. §§ 841(a)(1), (b)(1)(B), and (b)(1)(C) (“Count Two”), and (3) using and carrying a firearm in furtherance of a drug trafficking crime, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 924(c)(1)(A)(ii) (“Count Three”). See ECF No. 2. Petitioner's charges arose from a traffic stop during which police officers arrested Petitioner (a passenger) and Brittany Rouse (the driver) and transported them to jail, where officers discovered multiple bags of cocaine and crack cocaine in Petitioner's clothing.[2] See ECF No. 74 at ¶¶ 7-14.

         On September 8, 2014, Petitioner, represented by attorney William F. Nettles IV (“plea counsel”), pled guilty pursuant to a written plea agreement to the lesser-included offense in Count Two of the indictment. See ECF Nos. 59, 61, & 62. In the plea agreement, Petitioner and the Government stipulated to a sentence of 150 months' imprisonment pursuant to Fed. R. Crim. P. 11(c)(1)(C). See Id. at ¶ 13. On November 20, 2014, the Court accepted the Rule 11(c)(1)(C) stipulation and sentenced Petitioner to 150 months' imprisonment followed by three years' supervised release. See ECF Nos. 68 & 70. Judgment was entered the next day, see ECF No. 70, and Petitioner did not file a direct appeal.

         On October 18, 2015, [3] Petitioner filed the instant § 2255 motion and a supporting memorandum. See ECF Nos. 91 & 91-1. Thereafter, plea counsel filed an affidavit addressing his representation of Petitioner, and the Government filed a response in opposition and a motion for summary judgment. See ECF Nos. 99, 101, & 102. The Court issued a Roseboro[4] order, and Petitioner filed a response in opposition to the motion for summary judgment. See ECF Nos. 103 & 111.

         Legal Standard

         Prisoners in federal custody may attack the validity of their sentences pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2255. For a court to vacate, set aside, or correct a sentence under § 2255, a petitioner must prove one of the following occurred: (1) a sentence was imposed in violation of the Constitution or laws of the United States; (2) the court was without jurisdiction to impose such a sentence; (3) the sentence was in excess of the maximum authorized by law; or (4) the sentence is otherwise subject to collateral attack. 28 U.S.C. § 2255(a). “The writ of habeas corpus and its federal counterpart, 28 U.S.C. § 2255, will not be allowed to do service for an appeal. For this reason, nonconstitutional claims that could have been raised on appeal, but were not, may not be asserted in collateral proceedings.” Stone v. Powell, 428 U.S. 465, 478 n.10 (1976) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). “Even those nonconstitutional claims that could not have been asserted on direct appeal can be raised on collateral review only if the alleged error constituted a fundamental defect which inherently results in a complete miscarriage of justice[.]” Id. (internal quotation marks omitted).

         The district court need not hold an evidentiary hearing on a § 2255 motion if “the motion and the files and records of the case conclusively show that the prisoner is entitled to no relief.” 28 U.S.C. § 2255(b); see United States v. Thomas, 627 F.3d 534, 538 (4th Cir. 2010). The determination of whether to hold an evidentiary hearing ordinarily is left to the sound discretion of the district court. Raines v. United States, 423 F.2d 526, 530 (4th Cir. 1970).

         “When the district court denies § 2255 relief without an evidentiary hearing, the nature of the court's ruling is akin to a ruling on a motion for summary judgment.” United States v. Poindexter, 492 F.3d 263, 267 (4th Cir. 2007). “The court shall grant summary judgment if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a); see generally Rule 12 of the Rules Governing Section 2255 Cases (“The Federal Rules of Civil Procedure . . ., to the extent that they are not inconsistent with any statutory provisions or these rules, may be applied to a proceeding under these rules.”). “A party asserting that a fact cannot be or is genuinely disputed must support the assertion by: (A) citing to particular parts of materials in the record . . .; or (B) showing that the materials cited do not establish the absence or presence of a genuine dispute, or that an adverse party cannot produce admissible evidence to support the fact.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)(1). “The evidence must be viewed in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, with all reasonable inferences drawn in that party's favor. The court therefore cannot weigh the evidence or make credibility determinations.” Reyazuddin v. Montgomery Cty., 789 F.3d 407, 413 (4th Cir. 2015) (internal citation and quotation marks omitted).


         Petitioner asserts four grounds for relief in his § 2255 motion, all of which allege ineffective assistance of counsel.[5] The Court must review claims of ineffective assistance of counsel under the two-part test enunciated in Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984). First, a petitioner must show counsel's performance was deficient, meaning it “fell below an objective standard of reasonableness.” Id. at 687-88. Second, the petitioner must show prejudice, meaning “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. The Strickland test applies to challenges to guilty pleas based on ineffective assistance of counsel. Hill v. Lockhart, 474 U.S. 52, 58-59 (1985).

         “[T]here is no reason for a court deciding an ineffective assistance claim to approach the inquiry in the same order or even to address both components of the inquiry if the defendant makes an insufficient showing on one.” Id. at 697. “In particular, a court need not determine whether counsel's performance was deficient before examining the prejudice suffered by the defendant as a result of the alleged deficiencies.” Id. Thus, “[w]hen ineffective assistance claims are based on the failure to raise, develop, or properly present an underlying claim, an examination of the merits of the underlying claim will frequently be dispositive of the ineffective assistance claim.” Orbe v. True, 233 F.Supp.2d 749, 765 (E.D. Va. 2002), aff'd, 82 Fed.Appx. 802 (4th Cir. 2003). “If the underlying claim is meritless, counsel's failure to pursue it can be neither unreasonable nor prejudicial, and no further inquiry is necessary.” Id.

         In Ground One, Petitioner alleges plea counsel was ineffective for failing to investigate (a) “witnesses in the arrest report” (including the police officers who participated in the traffic stop) and (b) “the statement from Brittany Rouse” (Petitioner's codefendant).[6]See ECF No. 91-1 at pp. 5-12. However, Petitioner admitted to his conduct as read into the record during his guilty plea, see ECF No. 74 at ¶ 18, and he has not demonstrated that an investigation of the witnesses would have yielded a result different from that which his plea counsel believed at the time of the plea. In fact, plea counsel had separate evidence-a dash camera video-of the events that occurred during the traffic stop. See ECF No. 99 at p. 2. Moreover, plea counsel had prepared a motion to sever before Petitioner pled guilty, and this motion clearly indicates plea counsel was familiar with Rouse's statement and the identity of the officers mentioned in the arrest report. See ECF No. 99-1 (dated May 12, 2014). Notably, plea counsel could not have interviewed Rouse-a ...

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