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United States v. Stephens

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

December 13, 2019

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Plaintiff/Respondent,
HENRY NEIL STEPHENS, Defendant/Movant,



         This matter is before the Court upon Defendant/Movant Henry Neil Stephens' (“Stephens”) motion to vacate, set aside, or correct sentence pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2255. (ECF No. 58.) For the reasons set forth below, Stephens' motion is denied and the Court grants summary judgment in favor of the United States of America.


         On July 28, 2015, a federal grand jury sitting in the District of South Carolina, Florence Division, returned an indictment that charged Stephens with one count of bank robbery by force or violence in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 2113(a) (Count 1), and one count of possession of a firearm in furtherance of a crime of violence in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 924(c)(1)(A) (Count 2). (ECF No. 2.) On August 17, 2015, the Court appointed Assistant Federal Public Defender Michael Meetze (“AFPD Meetze”) to represent Stephens. (ECF No. 15.) Stephens and the Government entered into a plea agreement on May 19, 2016, whereby Stephens would plead guilty to Count 1 of the indictment and Count 2 would be dismissed. (Plea Agreement, ECF No. 45.) Stephens pleaded guilty to Count 1 on May 19, 2016. (ECF Nos. 43 & 44.) On August 25, 2016, Stephens was sentenced to, inter alia, 96 months' imprisonment followed by 3 years' supervised release. (ECF No. 50.)

         Stephens filed the instant § 2255 motion on June 26, 2017. (ECF No. 58.) In the motion, Stephens asserts three bases for relief: (1) Stephens' guilty plea was unknowingly and involuntarily given; (2) the firearm/weapons related enhancements applied under USSG § 2B3.1(b)(2)(E) and (F) were erroneously applied, rendering the sentence in violation of due process of law; and (3) trial defense counsel was constitutionally ineffective for failing to object to the sentencing enhancements. (See ECF No. 58-2 at 9.) Ultimately however, all of these theories of relief are grounded in Stephens' underlying assertion that, by way of the plea agreement, the parties “agreed that the [G]overnment would not seek any enhancements pertaining to a firearm, because no firearm was used.” (See ECF No. 58-2 at 9.) The Government responded and moved for summary judgment on November 9, 2017 (ECF Nos. 72 & 73), and Stephens replied on May 16, 2019 (ECF No. 76). The matter is ripe for review, and the Court now issues the following ruling.


         Motions to Vacate, Set Aside, or Correct a Sentence Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2255

         A prisoner in federal custody may attack the validity of his sentence pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2255 by filing a motion in the court that imposed the sentence. To succeed on such a motion, the prisoner must prove one of the following: (1) the sentence was imposed in violation of the Constitution or laws of the United States; (2) the court lacked jurisdiction to impose the sentence; (3) the sentence exceeded the maximum authorized by law; or (4) the sentence is otherwise subject to collateral attack. 28 U.S.C. § 2255(a).

         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). The determination of whether to hold an evidentiary hearing ordinarily is best left to the common sense and 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 Rule 12, Rules Governing Section 2255 Proceedings (“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 citations and quotation marks omitted).

         Ineffective Assistance of Counsel

         The Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution provides that “[i]n all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right . . . to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defence.” U.S. Const. amend. VI. The U.S. Supreme Court has held that this right is violated when counsel retained by, or appointed to, a criminal defendant fails to provide adequate or effective legal assistance. See Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 686 (1984). Strickland established a two-prong test for a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel in violation of the Sixth Amendment, under which the criminal defendant must show deficient performance and resulting prejudice. Id. at 687. “The performance prong of Strickland requires a defendant to show ‘that counsel's representation fell below an objective standard of reasonableness.'” Lafler v. Cooper, 566 U.S. 156, 163 (2012) (quoting Hill v. Lockhart, 474 U.S. 52, 57 (1985)). “[C]ounsel should be ‘strongly presumed to have rendered adequate assistance and made all significant decisions in the exercise of reasonable professional judgment, '” and courts should indulge in a “‘strong presumption that counsel's conduct fell within the wide range of reasonable professional assistance.'” Burt v. Titlow, 134 S.Ct. 10, 17 (2013) (modifications omitted) (quoting Strickland, 466 U.S. at 689-90). “To establish Strickland prejudice a defendant must ‘show that there is a reasonable probability that, but for counsel's unprofessional errors, the result of the proceeding would have been different.'” Lafler, 566 U.S. at 163 (quoting Strickland, 466 U.S. at 694).

In a case where a movant under 28 U.S.C. § 2255 pleaded guilty as a result of alleged ineffective assistance of counsel, to satisfy the second Strickland prong the movant must show that there is a reasonable probability that, but for counsel's deficient performance, the movant would not have entered a guilty plea and instead would have gone to trial.

Jennings v. United States, 461 F.Supp.2d 818, 823 (S.D. Ill. 2006) (citing Hill v. Lockhart, 474 U.S. 52, 58-59 (1985); Hays v. United States, 397 F.3d 564, 568 (7th Cir. 2005); Bridgeman v. United States, 229 F.3d 589, 592 (7th Cir. 2000)). Furthermore, “When analyzing counsel's performance at sentencing, prejudice exists when, but for counsel's action or inaction, the movant would have received a shorter sentence.” Id. “In evaluating a post-guilty plea claim of ineffective assistance of counsel, statements previously made under oath affirming satisfaction with counsel . . . at [a] Rule 11 hearing, are binding absent ‘clear and convincing evidence to the contrary.'” Sanders v. United States, No. 1:06-cr-30-01, 2008 WL 4279496, at *3 (W.D. N.C. Sept. 12, 2008) (quoting Fields v. Attorney Gen. of Md., 956 F.2d 1290, 1299 (4th Cir. 1985)).

         Breach of Plea Agreement

         “Plea agreements are contractual in nature, and should be interpreted according to general contract principles.” United States v. DeWitt, 366 F.3d 667, 669 (8th Cir. 2004) (citation omitted). Moreover,

[a] central tenet of contract law is that no party is obligated to provide more than is specified in the agreement itself. Accordingly, in enforcing plea agreements, the government is held only to those promises that it actually made, and the government's duty in carrying out its obligations under a plea agreement is no greater than that of fidelity to the agreement.

United States v. Dawson, 587 F.3d 640, 645 (4th Cir. 2009).


         A. Whether There is a Genuine Issue of Material Fact Regarding the Knowing and Voluntary Nature of Stephens' Plea

         Stephens' first theory of relief is premised on his assertion that his guilty plea was fraudulently obtained because he “was under the belief that no enhancement for the use of a firearm would be applied, in fact the government's attorney assured his attorney that the government would waive any such enhancement.” (See ECF No. 58-2 at 10.) Stephens presents his own calculation of what he believes his guidelines range, minus the firearm/weapon-related enhancements, should have been-namely, 70 to 87 months rather than the range of 92 to 115 months that was applied in his case. (Id. at 10-12.) He then argues that the interpretation of the plea agreement is governed by contract law, that the Government is bound by a verbal agreement that no firearm enhancement would be applied, and that the Government breached this verbal agreement. (See Id. at 13-14, 16; Stephens Aff., ECF No. 58-3.) In his affidavit, Stephens states:

Prior to me being sentenced in Crim No. 4:15-CR-00494 in federal court for the District of South Carolina, all parties orally agreed that no firearm or firearm enhancements would be sought.
When I was sentenced my offense level was increased by 3 levels for firearm related enhancements, which violated my understanding of the plea agreement. My counsel failed to object. My plea was unknowingly entered and had I known the enhancements would be applied I would have exercised my right to a trial.

(Stephens Aff. at 1.)

         AFPD Meetze submitted an affidavit setting forth his recollection of his representation in Stephens' case. (Meetze Aff., ECF No. 69.) Meetze asserts, and the Amended Presentence Investigation Report Substantiates (“Am. PSR”), that in addition to the indictment in this case, Stephens was facing three pending federal bank robbery charges in the District of Minnesota. (Meetze Aff. at 1; Am. PSR ¶¶ 6-9, ECF No. 49.) Meetze states that at the time the instant case was pending, Stephens had not yet been indicted in the District of Minnesota and was interested in trying to resolve all four bank robbery charges at once, a result which the parties successfully achieved. (Meetze Aff. at 1-2.) Meetze further states that in order to resolve the Minnesota robberies as part of this case, Stephens had to agree to stipulated facts regarding those robberies in his plea agreement, which had the pragmatic effect of Stephens pleading guilty to those robberies and admitting certain facts for sentencing purposes. (See Id. at 2; Am. PSR ¶¶ 53-87 (reflecting multiple counts 1, 1(a), 1(b), and 1(c) of bank robbery and related increase in offense level).) Additionally, Meetze explains:

The robbery guideline contains enhancements in descending order of seriousness depending upon whether or not a firearm is discharged, otherwise used, or brandished or possessed. There are additional progressively less serious enhancements which apply if a dangerous weapon was otherwise used, or brandished or possessed. There is a final 2-level enhancement if a threat of death was made.
Typically, it is this aspect of the robbery guideline which is of particular concern for defendants, because these enhancements can range from 7 levels all the way down to 2 levels. All of the Minnesota robberies involved either a note or oral statement by Mr. Stephens that he had a gun. During plea negotiations, the parties discussed which enhancements would likely apply for the Minnesota robberies. The AUSA from Minnesota said that he did not believe his evidence showed that Mr. Stephens actually had a gun during the robberies. For sentencing purposes, the Minnesota AUSA believed his evidence did support the 2-level “threat of death” sentencing enhancement.
At the core of Mr. Stephens' petition is the assertion that the parties had an agreement that there would be no “firearm” enhancement applied to increase Mr. ...

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