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Sierro-Pineda v. United States

United States District Court, W.D. North Carolina, Statesville Division

October 14, 2014



RICHARD L. VOORHEES, District Judge.

This matter is before the Court on Petitioner's Motion to Vacate, Set Aside, or Correct Sentence under 28 U.S.C. § 2255, (Doc. No. 1), on the Government's Response in Opposition, (Doc. No. 8), and on the Government's Motion for Extension of Time, (Doc. No. 7).


Beginning in 2009, the Rowan County Sheriff's Office conducted an investigation into cocaine, methamphetamine, and marijuana trafficking in Iredell, Yadkin, Wilkes, and Rowan counties. (Crim. Case No. 5:11-cr-22, Doc. No. 62 at 5: PSR). The investigation led to the arrests of coconspirators Henry Clay Randleman and Jason Scott Holbrook. (Id.). Subsequent cooperation from Randleman led the investigation to Hildeberto Gonzalez-Chavez, one of the drug suppliers. (Id.). After Gonzalez-Chavez's arrest, the police continued their investigation to the home of Edgar Santana, who admitted to receiving crystal methamphetamine from Petitioner Cesar Sierro-Pineda. (Id. at 6).

Based on information obtained through subsequent investigation, Petitioner was arrested and a search warrant was executed at his house on February 25, 2011. (Id.). The search revealed 158 grams of methamphetamine and a Taurus.40 caliber handgun. (Id.). Additionally, officers discovered five gallons of liquid methamphetamine that was in the process of being converted to crystal methamphetamine. (Id.). A separate but related investigation in Texas also revealed that Petitioner was responsible for 6.5 kilograms of methamphetamine seized on November 8, 2010, when Andrea Brito was caught trying to smuggle the drug into the United States near Laredo, Texas. (Id.). Brito told authorities that Petitioner had recruited her and paid for the vehicle she used to smuggle the drugs. (Id.). Subsequent interviews with Brito also revealed that she had transported narcotics for Petitioner from Georgia to South Carolina on five different occasions. (Id. at 7). Combining both investigations, Petitioner was responsible for 5.99 kilograms of actual methamphetamine. (Id.).

The grand jury in the Western District of North Carolina charged Petitioner in a two-count superseding bill of indictment on August 16, 2011, with conspiracy to distribute and possess with intent to distribute cocaine and methamphetamine, in violation of 21 U.S.C. §§ 841 and 846; and possession of a firearm during and in relation to a drug-trafficking crime, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 924(c). ( Id., Doc. No. 40: First Superseding Bill of Indictment). Petitioner entered into a plea agreement in which he agreed to plead guilty to the drug conspiracy. ( Id., Doc. No. 47 at 1: Amended Plea Agreement). In exchange, the Government agreed to dismiss the firearm count, as well as charges in a separate bill of indictment filed in the Southern District of Texas. (Id.).

In his plea agreement, Petitioner acknowledged that the statutory range for count one was a mandatory minimum of ten years with a maximum of life imprisonment. (Id. at 2). The plea agreement also contained a joint recommendation that the base offense level should be 38 and that he should receive a role enhancement pursuant to § 3E1.1(b) of the guidelines, as well as any other applicable enhancements. (Id.). Petitioner acknowledged that the sentencing court would consider the advisory sentencing guidelines but that any estimate of the likely sentence "is a prediction rather than a promise." (Id.). Lastly, the plea agreement included a provision stating that "[t]he Defendant understands that no one can predict to a certainty the effect of the Defendant's conviction(s) on the Defendant's immigration status and wants to plead guilty regardless, even if the consequence is the Defendant's automatic removal from the United States." (Id. at 5).

On September 27, 2011, Petitioner appeared before U.S. Magistrate Judge David S. Cayer and pled guilty to the drug conspiracy count, consistent with the terms of his plea agreement. ( Id., Doc. No. 102 at 4: Tr. of Rule 11 Hrg.). During the hearing, Petitioner admitted that he had discussed the content of the indictment with his attorney. (Id.). Petitioner also confirmed that he fully understood that the charge carried a mandatory minimum sentence of ten years and a maximum sentence of life imprisonment. (Id.). Petitioner acknowledged that his attorney advised him that his guilty plea may have adverse immigration consequences and could result in deportation. (Id.).

With respect to the guidelines, Petitioner answered in the affirmative when the magistrate judge asked whether his attorney discussed how the sentencing guidelines may apply to his case. (Id. at 5). Petitioner also acknowledged that if the sentence was more severe than he expected he would still be bound by his plea. (Id. at 5-6). Finally, Petitioner stated that he was satisfied with the services of his attorney, and his attorney confirmed that Petitioner understood the terms of the plea agreement. (Id. at 13-14). After hearing Petitioner's answers, the magistrate judge accepted the plea, concluding that it was knowingly and voluntarily made. (Id. at 14).

In preparation for sentencing, the probation officer prepared a presentence investigation report, calculating an advisory guidelines range of life in prison based on a total offense level of 43 and a criminal history category of I. ( Id., Doc. No. 62 at 12). In calculating the offense level, the probation officer found Petitioner responsible for 5.99 kilograms of actual methamphetamine, nearly four times the amount required for a level 38, the highest base offense level under guidelines § 2D1.1. (Id. at 7). After applying enhancements for possession of a firearm, importation of methamphetamine, maintaining a premise for manufacturing narcotics, and leadership, the probation officer calculated a total offense level of 48, reduced it by three levels for acceptance of responsibility, and then defaulted to a level 43, which is the maximum offense level available on the sentencing chart. (Id. at 8).

This Court conducted a sentencing hearing on December 5, 2012, in which it further examined Petitioner regarding his understanding of the plea agreement. This Court asked Petitioner if he wanted to continue with current counsel after recognizing Petitioner asked in previous hearings to have a new attorney. ( Id., Doc. No. 106 at 3: Tr. Sent'g Hrg.). In response, Petitioner declined this Court's offer, stated that he wanted to continue with current counsel, and affirmed that he was fully satisfied with her services. (Id. at 3-4). Additionally, this Court asked Petitioner once again if he understood the possible penalties against him and confirmed that Petitioner understood that a conviction could lead to deportation. (Id. at 4). This Court also confirmed that Petitioner had reviewed the presentence report with counsel and that he understood it. (Id. at 5). After hearing from the parties and receiving evidence related to a series of objections, this Court adopted the advisory guidelines range of life in prison set forth in the presentence report. (Id. at 50). Defense counsel argued for a downward variance sentence of 20 years in prison, while the Government recommended life imprisonment. (Id. at 51-59; 61-67). At the hearing, the Government explained that it "did a reverse proffer" with Petitioner and "advised him that he was going to get a life sentence, but that his one chance was to cooperate." (Id. at 63). As the Government explained, however, Petitioner "decided not to cooperate." (Id.). After hearing from both sides, this Court sentenced Petitioner to a term of life imprisonment, citing the seriousness of the offense and characterizing Petitioner as the "kingpin" in a case involving the importing and distributing of large quantities of drugs. (Id. at 70-74).

This Court entered judgment on December 7, 2012, ( Id., Doc. No. 92: Judgment), and Petitioner filed a timely notice of appeal six days later. ( Id., Doc. No. 94: Notice of Appeal). On November 7, 2013, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit affirmed this Court's judgment in an unpublished, per curiam opinion, in part, rejecting Petitioner's argument that his guilty plea was not knowing and voluntary. Petitioner did not seek a writ of certiorari from the Supreme Court but placed the instant motion to vacate in the prison mailing system on April 22, 2014, and it was stamp-filed in this Court on April, 30, 2014. In his motion, Petitioner asserts a long list of claims involving the advice he received before entering into his plea agreement. (Doc. No. 1-1). Specifically, Petitioner claims: (1) counsel advised him to plead guilty based on her belief he would only receive five to six years in prison, without explaining the potential for a life sentence; (2) counsel failed to explain the sentencing guidelines, the preponderance of the evidence standard for sentence enhancements, and the potential application of these enhancements to Petitioner's sentence, including relevant conduct; (3) counsel failed to advise Petitioner of the deportation consequences of his conviction; and (4) his guilty plea was not knowing and voluntary. (Id.).


Rule 4(b) of the Rules Governing Section 2255 Proceedings provides that courts are to promptly examine motions to vacate, along with "any attached exhibits ad the record of prior proceedings..." in order to determine whether the petitioner is entitled to any relief on the claims set forth therein. After examining the record in this matter and Respondent's response, the Court finds that the motion to vacate can be resolved without an evidentiary ...

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