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Cooper v. United States

United States District Court, W.D. North Carolina

September 30, 2017

CORVAIN T. COOPER, Petitioner,


          Robert J. Conrad, Jr. United States 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). Also pending are the following motions: the Government's Motion to Dismiss, (Doc. No. 6), the Government's Motion to Amend/Correct Motion to Dismiss, (Doc. No. 8), and Petitioner's Motion to Supplement Motion to Vacate, (Doc. No. 9). Petitioner is represented by Patrick Michael Megaro.

         I. BACKGROUND

         From 2004 through 2013, Petitioner Corvain T. Cooper participated in a drug conspiracy that distributed marijuana from California to co-conspirators on the East Coast, including those in North Carolina. See (Crim. Case No. 3:11-cr-337-RJC-DSC-12, Doc. No. 400 at 171-74: Trial Tr.). Petitioner worked with others to obtain marijuana in California and then to package and ship it to co-conspirators on the East Coast. (Id.). The East Coast co-conspirators distributed the marijuana and returned the proceeds to Petitioner and his co-conspirators in California. Petitioner used FedEx, UPS, and other private shippers to transport thousands of pounds of marijuana. (Id. at 196, 263).

         Distributors deposited proceeds into bank accounts in the names of several individuals, including Natalia Wade and Evelyn LaChapelle, and in amounts below $10, 000. (Id. at 175; 264-65; Doc. No. 401 at 27-30). Petitioner enlisted assistance from others to withdraw the marijuana proceeds from banks in California, also in amounts below $10, 000. (Id., Doc. No. 400 at 135-36; 214-16). The marijuana distribution operation generated millions of dollars. (Id. at 229).

         As a result of these activities, Petitioner was charged in a third superseding indictment with conspiracy to distribute and to possess with intent to distribute 1, 000 kilograms or more of marijuana, in violation of 21 U.S.C. §§ 841(b)(1)(A), 846 (Count One); money laundering, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1956(h) (Count Two); and structuring and aiding and abetting the structuring of financial transactions to avoid reporting requirements, in violation of 31 U.S.C. § 5324(a)(3), (d)(1), (d)(2); 18 U.S.C. § 2, and 31 C.F.R. §§ 103.11, 103.22 (Count Four). (Id., Doc. No. 288: Third Superseding Indictment). The Government filed an Information pursuant to 21 U.S.C. § 851, identifying Petitioner's two prior California felony drug convictions: a July 2011 conviction for selling/furnishing marijuana and hashish, and an August 2011 conviction for possession of a controlled substance (codeine). (Id., Doc. No. 419 at ¶ 52: PSR). Petitioner was sentenced to two years of imprisonment for each conviction. See (Id. at ¶¶ 51, 52).

         Petitioner was tried with two of his co-conspirators, LaChapelle and Wade. A number of witnesses, including co-conspirators Leamon Moseley, Darrick Johnson, and Daniel Crockett, testified that they personally worked with or observed Petitioner when Petitioner obtained marijuana in California, prepared it for shipment, and shipped it to the East Coast. Johnson testified that Petitioner procured marijuana from a Mexican source at Johnson's direction, and Moseley testified that he accompanied Petitioner when Petitioner procured marijuana from his source. (Id., Doc. No. 400 at 129-30, 181). Johnson and Moseley both testified that Petitioner packaged the marijuana for transport. (Id. at 127, 182). Johnson testified that Petitioner shipped marijuana at his direction, and Moseley testified that he helped Petitioner with shipping. (Id. at 127, 181-82). Crockett testified that he and Petitioner both obtained marijuana, obtained money or packaging materials, and prepared and shipped marijuana. (Id. at 199-201). Crockett also testified that he accompanied Petitioner to Charlotte to investigate when a crate of marijuana that they shipped was stolen. (Id. at 205-06).

         Shondu Lynch and Sharon Janette Kelsey-Brown (Brown), two of the distributors operating in North Carolina with whom Petitioner worked, testified about what happened to the marijuana after it was shipped and how the distributors paid for it. Lynch testified that he received the marijuana by FedEx and by crate and that he paid for it by depositing money into bank accounts in the name of Wade and LaChapelle. (Id. at 263-65). Brown testified that she received marijuana by FedEx and by crate and that Petitioner discussed with her when the marijuana was to arrive, how much was coming, and how much money she was to send back. (Id., Doc. No. 401 at 26-27, 30-31). Brown also testified that she was told to deposit the money into particular accounts, including those of Wade and LaChapelle, in amounts below $10, 000. (Id. at 27, 29-30). Multiple witnesses testified about how Petitioner and Crockett retrieved marijuana proceeds in California. (Id., Doc. No. 400 at 135-36, 210, 212-16, 227).

         A number of witnesses who participated in the drug-trafficking operation testified about the quantity of marijuana that was shipped from California to the East Coast. Crockett testified that he and Petitioner shipped 40-80 pounds of marijuana five days a week, year round, every year. (Id. at 195-96, 263). Crockett also testified that on about 40-50 occasions he and Petitioner shipped crates containing 300-500 pounds of marijuana by truck. (Id. at 197-203). Brown testified that she received approximately a dozen crates and that she received approximately 500 pounds of marijuana per day from California. (Id., Doc. No. 401 at 26, 31-32, 36). Johnson testified that when he was working with Petitioner, he was distributing 100-120 pounds of marijuana per week, and that he worked with Petitioner from about 2004 until 2009 and then again from 2012 until 2013. (Id., Doc. No. 400 at 171-72, 177). Lynch testified that he received approximately 40 pounds a day from Petitioner and Crockett five days a week from January through May 2009. (Id. at 263). Lynch also testified that Petitioner was involved in selling him marijuana on three separate occasions that totaled 550 pounds. (Id. at 262, 269-70).

         During the trial, law enforcement agents testified about the results of their extensive investigation of the marijuana distribution operation in which Petitioner participated. Detective James Beaver, who worked with the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department and who was a task force officer with Homeland Security Investigations, testified that he had been involved in hundreds of marijuana investigations. (Id., Doc. No. 403 at 31-32). Beaver testified that he had more than 21 years of experience investigating drug-trafficking charges and through that experience had become “familiar with the methods of trafficking to include packaging, distribution, movement of proceeds, [and] pricing” of marijuana. (Id. at 32). Beaver testified that on January 9, 2009, he discovered 338 pounds of a substance that tested positive for marijuana in a crate that had been sent from California to North Carolina. (Id. at 31, 39-41). Through surveillance of this crate, Beaver was able to identify the man who picked up the crate as Gerren Darty. (Id. at 42-43, 46). Darty met with Crockett after he picked up the crate. (Id. at 47). Phone records showed Darty called Petitioner the same day that the crate arrived. (Id. at 62-63). Shipping records for the crate showed that it was sent through the Freight Center, a Florida company. (Id. at 70-71).

         In February 2009, Beaver found two abandoned crates almost identical to the one found on January 9, 2009. (Id. at 71). Although the crates were opened, they smelled like marijuana. (Id. at 73). A shipping label from the crates was connected to Darty through records obtained from the Freight Center. (Id. at 73-75). In July 2009, officers discovered a third crate that had been discarded behind a business in Charlotte. (Id. at 75). Records showed that it had been sent from California by Crockett. (Id. at 77-78). Based on records from the Freight Center, Beaver was able to determine that approximately 24 crates had been shipped from California to Charlotte. (Id. at 78). Phone numbers associated with the shipping records were connected to members of the conspiracy. See, e.g., (Id. at 84-87). Based on the weight of the original crate, which contained 338 pounds of marijuana, or approximately 48% of the crate's total weight, and the weight of the crates from the shipping records, Beaver estimated that the 24 crates contained approximately 5, 000 pounds of marijuana. (Id. at 80-81).

         Agents also testified about the results of surveillance they conducted of participants in the drug-trafficking operation in California and North Carolina, searches they conducted, and interviews of people who interacted with the participants. (Id. at 104-15). Agents additionally described telephone records that revealed a host of contacts between Petitioner and other co-conspirators, including 1, 336 contacts from January to March of 2009 between Petitioner and LaChapelle. (Id. at 66). Agents reviewed records of cash deposits and withdrawals in bank accounts of individuals involved in the drug-trafficking operation, including those of Petitioner and LaChapelle. (Id. at 176-97; Doc. No. 400 at 7-10). Special Agent Glen MacDonald with Homeland Security Investigations testified that he had investigated over 100 people for money laundering and that the term “CTR” referred to a cash transaction report, which is a report that a bank must complete for cash transactions that involve over $10, 000. (Id., Doc. No. 403 at 168- 69). MacDonald testified that people often make transactions under $10, 000 in the hope of avoiding a CTR. (Id. at 171). He testified that, in this case, money was being deposited in North Carolina and elsewhere and then, shortly thereafter, was being withdrawn in California. (Id.).

         Officer David Rudy of the Beverly Hills, California, police department testified that he had been involved with investigating drug offenses for eleven years. (Id., Doc. No. 400 at 97-98). Rudy testified that he recovered marijuana from Petitioner in Beverly Hills in January 2009. (Id. at 98-99). Rudy stopped Petitioner after observing his black Jaguar speeding and weaving in and out of traffic. (Id. at 99-100). Rudy detected the smell of marijuana, and Petitioner granted consent to search the vehicle. (Id. at 100-01). Rudy found a brick of marijuana wrapped in plastic wrap in the vehicle's trunk, as well as a “pays and owes” document, which Rudy recognized as a drug dealer's checkbook. (Id. at 101-03). Petitioner told Rudy that he was delivering the marijuana to his mother. (Id. at 101).

         Petitioner was not arrested on the charges in the indictment until January 2013. Detective Beaver was present and spoke with Petitioner at the time of his arrest. (Id., Doc. No. 403 at 118, 125, 136-37). Petitioner called no defense witnesses at trial. (Id., Doc. No. 401 at 187). The jury convicted him of all three charges. (Id., Doc. No. 351: Jury Verdict). A probation officer prepared a presentence report, calculating Petitioner's base offense level as 38, based on the offense involving 45, 000 pounds of marijuana and Petitioner having possessed a dangerous weapon. (Id., Doc. No. 419 at ¶ 22). A two-level enhancement applied because Petitioner was convicted under § 1956. (Id. at ¶ 23). A four-level enhancement applied because Petitioner was an organizer or leader of criminal activity that involved five or more participants, and a two-level increase for obstruction of justice applied because Petitioner sent a letter threatening a co-defendant. (Id. at ¶¶ 25-26). Based on these calculations, the probation officer found that Petitioner's total offense level was 46, but under the Guidelines this was treated as an offense level of 43. (Id. at ¶¶ 27, 38). Petitioner had 17 criminal history points, which placed him in criminal history category VI. (Id. at ¶ 55). Based on a total offense level of 43 and a criminal history category of VI, the guidelines range was life imprisonment. (Id. at ¶ 83). Pursuant to § 841(b)(1)(A), a mandatory life term applied to Petitioner's conviction of Count One because he had two prior felony drug convictions. (Id. at ¶ 82).

         At sentencing, Petitioner conceded the validity of the predicate convictions, but argued that imposition of a mandatory life sentence violated the Eighth Amendment. (Id., Doc. No. 488 at 3-6). This Court overruled that objection, but granted his objection to the two-level enhancement for obstruction of justice. (Id. at 6, 9). Although this reduced Petitioner's offense level to 44, it did not reduce his guidelines range. See (U.S.S.G. Ch. 5, Pt. A, cmt. 2 (offense levels above 43 are treated as level 43)). This Court sentenced Petitioner to concurrent sentences of life imprisonment on Count One, 240 months of imprisonment on Count Two, and 120 months of imprisonment on Count Four. (Id., Doc. No. 461: Judgment).

         Petitioner appealed, arguing that this Court erred in admitting evidence of his 2009 traffic stop and marijuana conviction, by denying his motion to sever, and by finding that the mandatory life sentence was not unconstitutional. United States v. Cooper, 624 F. App'x 819, 820 (4th Cir. 2015), cert. denied, 136 S.Ct. 1502 (2016). He also asserted that there was insufficient evidence to show that the conspiracy to distribute 1, 000 kilograms or more of marijuana was reasonably foreseeable to him, and that he had received ineffective assistance of counsel. Id. The Fourth Circuit affirmed Petitioner's conviction and sentence and dismissed his claims of ineffective assistance, finding ...

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