United States District Court, W.D. North Carolina, Statesville Division
RICHARD L. VOORHEES, District Judge.
THIS MATTER is before the Court on Petitioner's Motion to Vacate, Set Aside, or Correct Sentence pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2255, (Doc. No. 1), and on the Government's Motion for Summary Judgment, (Doc. No. 11).
A. Law Enforcement Uncovers the Drug Conspiracy Involving Petitioner
On March 24, 2009, after two months of undercover cocaine buys and drug surveillance, law enforcement agencies executed a search warrant at Petitioner Jason Holbrook's home in Hamptonville, North Carolina. See (Crim. No. 5:11cr23, Doc. No. 20 at 5-6: PSR). The search revealed 887.1 grams of powdered cocaine, 10.5 pounds of marijuana, drug paraphernalia, and 17 rifles and handguns. (Id. at 6). Law enforcement agents interviewed Petitioner, who confessed to his involvement in drug trafficking. (Id.). Deciding to cooperate with the Government, Petitioner disclosed other individuals involved in the drug conspiracy. (Id.). Nevertheless, he failed to mention the involvement of his father-in-law and co-conspirator Henry Clay Randleman. (Id.).
Shortly after execution of the search warrant, Petitioner retained Attorney Ray Chandler. See (Doc. No. 10-1 at 1). Petitioner was later arrested on state charges related to the search of his home. See (Doc. No. 10-2 at 1). This arrest prompted Attorney Chandler to reach out to Attorney Seth Johnson in Statesville, North Carolina, to assist with Petitioner's bond and to act as local counsel. (Id.). Attorney Johnson agreed to assist in Petitioner's case, and Petitioner retained him as counsel. (Id. at 2). Seven months after the search of Petitioner's home, a confidential informant (CI) disclosed to the Government that Petitioner and Randleman were still dealing drugs. (Crim. No. 5:11cr23, Doc. No. 20 at 7). The CI also disclosed that Petitioner told him that Randleman was his drug supplier and that Mexican Nationals dropped off the drugs at a barn at Petitioner's residence. (Id.). The next day, Randleman, alleged co-conspirator Randall Crater, and an undercover officer ("UO") met at a Bojangles in Jacksonville, North Carolina. (Id.). There, Randleman and the UO discussed the possibility of the UO supplying Randleman with large amounts of cocaine and marijuana. (Id.).
On November 18, 2009, a CI and a UO visited Randleman's home. (Id.). There, Petitioner and Randleman sold 222.4 grams of cocaine to the CI. (Id.). Two weeks later on December 2, 2009, Petitioner, again deciding it was to his advantage to cooperate with law enforcement, met with the Government. (Id. at 8). During the meeting, Petitioner admitted to years of drug trafficking. (Id.). He also implicated Randleman in the drug conspiracy, provided details about the drug-trafficking process, and disclosed Randleman's drug sources as Mexican Nationals. (Id.). In addition to identifying co-conspirators during his debriefing with the Government, Petitioner met with a potential target in an attempt to assist the Government. ( Id., Doc. No. 32 at 10; 17: Tr. of Sent. Hrg.).
On February 2, 2010, Petitioner provided a non-attribution statement. (Id. at 9). In this statement he again implicated Randleman, as well as several other individuals, in the drug conspiracy. At some point after the non-attribution statement, the Government expressed its concern to Attorneys Chandler and Johnson about Petitioner's lack of full cooperation, including his participation in side drug deals. (Doc. No. 10-1 at 5: Chandler Aff.; Doc. No. 10-2 at 3: Johnson Aff.). Several months thereafter, Petitioner requested that Attorney Chandler withdraw from representation. (Doc. No. 10-2 at 3; Doc. No. 10-3 at 1: Vannoy Aff.). Petitioner then hired Attorney John Vannoy as counsel. Petitioner continued to use the services of Attorney Johnson. (Id.).
Local law enforcement executed a search warrant at Randleman's home on November 16, 2010. (Crim. No. 5:11cr23, Doc. No. 20 at 12). As a result, numerous guns and documents were seized. (Id.). Law enforcement interviewed Randleman about his involvement in drug trafficking. (Id.). He was also questioned about his involvement with Mexican National drug suppliers. (Id.). Six days later, Randleman provided law enforcement with a non-attribution statement. (Id.). In this statement, he confessed to his involvement in drug trafficking. (Id.). Randleman also stated that Petitioner was heavily involved in the storing and distribution of cocaine and marijuana, especially over the past three to four years. (Id. at 13).
B. Petitioner Enters a Guilty Plea
On April 21, 2011, the Government filed a Bill of Information (BOI) in the Western District of North Carolina. ( Id., Doc. No. 1: Bill of Information). The BOI charged Petitioner and Randleman with one count of conspiracy to possess with the intent to distribute a mixture or substance containing a detectable amount of cocaine and a mixture or substance containing a detectable amount of marijuana, in violation of 21 U.S.C. §§ 841(b)(1) and 846. See (Id.). The BOI also alleged that the offense occurred from about January 1, 2007, to November 22, 2010, and involved at least five kilograms of a mixture or substance containing a detectable amount of cocaine and at least 100 kilograms of a mixture or substance containing a detectable amount of marijuana. (Id.). On May 18, 2011, Randleman entered a plea of guilty. See ( Id., Doc. No. 2). On May 27, 2011, Petitioner's plea agreement was filed with the court, and a Rule 11 hearing was set for June 3, 2011. See ( Id., Doc. No. 9). On June 3, 2011, Attorneys Johnson and Vannoy filed a notice of appearance on Petitioner's behalf.
Petitioner pled guilty on June 3, 2011. See ( Id., Doc. No. 12: Acceptance and Entry of Guilty Plea). At the Rule 11 hearing, the magistrate judge advised Petitioner of the charges against him. The magistrate judge then asked Petitioner a series of questions, including whether Petitioner had enough time to discuss any possible defense with counsel and whether he was satisfied with counsels' services. See (Id.). Petitioner answered yes to both of these questions. (Id.). Based on the Court's inquiry, Petitioner's guilty plea was accepted. (Id.).
C. Probation Files a Pre-Sentence Investigation Report
On August 22, 2011, the probation office filed a draft presentence investigation report (PSR). See ( Id., Doc. No. 18). In it, the probation officer recommended a two-level enhancement for possession of a dangerous weapon in connection with the drug offense and a two-level enhancement for maintaining a premises for the purpose of manufacturing or distributing a controlled substance. (Id. at 16). The PSR also included a three-level reduction for acceptance of responsibility. (Id.). Thus, Petitioner was determined to have a total offense level of 35. (Id.). With a criminal history category II, Petitioner faced an advisory guideline range of 188 to 235 months of imprisonment. (Id. at 23). On September 9, 2011, Petitioner, through Attorney Vannoy, filed an objection to the draft PSR. See ( Id., Doc. No. 19: Objection to PSR). Specifically, Petitioner objected to the two-level enhancements for possession of a dangerous weapon (firearm) in connection the drug offense and the two-level enhancements for maintaining a residence for the purpose of distributing controlled substances. (Id.). The probation office issued a final PSR, which included the challenged enhancements. See ( Id., Doc. No. 20). On November 20, 2011, Attorney Randolph Marshall Lee filed a notice of appearance on behalf of Petitioner. See ( Id., Doc. No. 22). Ten days later, after speaking with Petitioner, Attorneys Vannoy and Johnson filed a motion to withdraw as Petitioner's counsel. See ( Id., Doc. No. 23). The magistrate judge granted this motion. See ( Id., Doc. No. 24).
D. Government Files a Motion for Downward Departure
Prior to Petitioner's sentencing hearing, the Government filed a motion for a downward departure from the applicable guideline range based on recognition of Petitioner's substantial assistance in the Government's investigation of the drug conspiracy. See ( Id., Doc. No. 26). In its motion, the Government noted that Petitioner provided "proactive assistant [sic], informational debriefings, and willingness to testify against co-conspirators." (Id. at 2). Further, the Government highlighted Petitioner's immediate cooperation, which started a domino effect ultimately leading to the arrest and prosecution of several individuals, and the discovery of a methamphetamine lab in Georgia. (Id. at 3). Based on Petitioner's assistance, the Government recommended a 43% reduction in sentence, reducing Petitioner's sentence from 188 months (which was the low end of the Guideline range) to 108 months. (Id.).
E. Petitioner is Sentenced
Petitioner's sentencing hearing was held on January 9, 2012. At the outset of the sentencing hearing, the Court asked Petitioner if he was pleading guilty to the conspiracy count and if he understood the nature of the charge and the possible penalties. Petitioner responded, "I think so, your honor." ( Id., Doc. No. 32 at 2-3: Tr. of Sent. Hrg.). Petitioner also stated that his plea was free and voluntary and that he committed the offense, and he stipulated to the existence of an independent factual basis to support his plea. (Id.). After the Court's preliminary inquiry, Petitioner raised the same two objections to the PSR previously raised by Attorney Vannoy: (1) the two-level enhancement for possession of a dangerous weapon (firearm) should not apply, and (2) the two-level enhancement for maintaining a residence for the purpose of distributing controlled substances should not apply. (Id. at 4). Regarding the "maintaining a residence" objection, both the Government and Petitioner agreed that this enhancement was inapplicable since Petitioner's conduct concluded before the enhancement was added to the Sentencing Guidelines. (Id. at 4-5). As to the two-level enhancement for possession of a dangerous weapon, the Court held that this enhancement was applicable. (Id. at 7). The Court also determined that a three-level reduction for acceptance of responsibility was appropriate. (Id. at 5). Thus, it was determined that Petitioner had a total offense level of 33 and a Guideline range of 151 to 188 months. (Id. at 8).
Next, the Court addressed the Government's motion for downward departure. (Id.). The Government first orally amended its motion in light of the change in Petitioner's guideline range. (Id.). It then recommended a 43% reduction of the 151-month sentence, making the base level offense 30 and the recommended sentence 86 months. (Id.). After acknowledging the Government's motion, Attorney Lee detailed Petitioner's cooperation with the Government. (Id. at 9). Attorney Lee described Petitioner's cooperation as proactive, spanning roughly two-and-a-half years. (Id.). He argued that during this time, Petitioner put his and his family's life in danger to provide information to the Government that ultimately led to the prosecution of several individuals, including Randleman. (Id. at 9-12). Attorney Lee suggested that the information provided by Petitioner led to the discovery of a methamphetamine lab in Georgia and the arrest of numerous individuals who were part of a larger drug conspiracy. (Id. at 10-11). Petitioner then supplemented Attorney Lee's argument with discussions of his financial issues and his familial relationships. (Id. at 13-15).
In response, the Government shed light on the extent of Petitioner's cooperation. The Government noted that Petitioner helped law enforcement arrest one individual in connection with the drug conspiracy and assisted law enforcement in getting Randleman to cooperate. (Id. at 17). Nevertheless, the Government highlighted the fact that Petitioner's cooperation was spotty during the Government's two-and-a-half year investigation and that Petitioner participated in drug sales without permission from the Government during the alleged period of assistance. (Id. at 16). The Government clarified that while Petitioner started the "domino effect" that ultimately led to the discovery of a large methamphetamine drug conspiracy, "he was not personally involved in any of the proactive activities that resulted in [the arrest and prosecution of individuals associated with the methamphetamine drug ring]." (Id. at 17). The Government argued that Petitioner's cooperation, while significant, was not the foundation of the bulk of their case against the "higher level players, " and the larger drug seizures. (Id.). In fact, it was not even the reason the Government was ultimately able to secure the cooperation of Randleman since a co-conspirator, Randall Crater, did this. (Id.). After listening to both sides' presentations, and reviewing the Government's written motion for downward departure, the Court determined that a downward departure to an offense level of 27 was warranted. (Id. at 20). The Court sentenced Petitioner to 78 months of imprisonment, the low end of the guideline range. (Id. at 23). Judgment as to Petitioner was entered on January 10, 2012. ( Id., Doc. No. 30: Judgment). Petitioner did not appeal.
F. Petitioner Files the Pending Motion to Vacate, Set Aside or Correct Sentence under 28 U.S.C. § 2255
On January 9, 2013, Petitioner timely filed the instant motion to vacate, set aside, or correct his sentence. In his motion, Petitioner alleges that during the Government's two-and-a-half-year investigation of Petitioner's involvement in the drug conspiracy, some, or all of his four retained attorneys, provided ineffective assistance of counsel. The ineffective assistance of counsel, Petitioner argues, resulted from his attorneys' having a personal and/or business relationship with Randleman and Crater. Petitioner believes that these relationships created a conflict of interest that prevented his attorneys from advising him to secure ...