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Williford v. United States

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

March 13, 2018




         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). The Government has filed a Response, (Doc. No. 3), and Petitioner has filed a Reply, (Doc. No. 4).

         I. BACKGROUND

         Petitioner was charged in the underlying criminal case in connection with a Ponzi scheme with: Count (1), securities fraud; Count (2), wire fraud; and Counts (3)-(7), transactional money laundering. (3:13-cr-329, Doc. No. 1). Petitioner pled guilty to Count (1) in exchange for the Government's dismissal of Counts (2)-(7) pursuant to a written plea agreement. (3:13-cr-329, Doc. No. 15). In the written agreement, Petitioner acknowledges that the maximum sentence for the securities fraud count is 20 years' imprisonment, $5, 000, 000 fine, or both, and up to three years of supervised release. (3:13-cr-329, Doc. No. 15 at 1). He acknowledges that the advisory guidelines will be considered in determining the sentence, and that the Court will impose a sentence within its discretion up to the statutory maximum. (3:13-cr-329, Doc. No. 15 at 2). The parties agreed on a non-binding loss amount of more than $2, 500, 000 but less than $20, 000, 000, and retained the right to seek a variance from the guideline range. (3:13-cr-329, Doc. No. 15 at 2). Petitioner acknowledged the rights he was waiving by pleading guilty. (3:13-cr-329, Doc. No. 15 at 5). He further expressly waived the right to appeal or raise a post-conviction collateral attack on his conviction or sentence except for claims of ineffective assistance of counsel or prosecutorial misconduct. (3:13-cr-329, Doc. No. 15 at 5).

         In a written factual proffer, Petitioner admitted that, “[f]rom in or about January 2007 through in or about July 2013, the defendant, [Petitioner] executed what is commonly known as a “Ponzi” scheme to defraud investors by inducing victims in Charlotte, North Carolina, and elsewhere, to invest with … entities … controlled by [Petitioner].” (3:13-cr-329, Doc. No. 18 at 1).

         Petitioner came before the Court on July 22, 2014, for a Rule 11 hearing. (3:13-cr-329, Doc. No. 19). He stated under oath that his mind was clear and that he understood he was there to enter a guilty plea which could not later be withdrawn. (3:13-cr-329, Doc. No. 19 at 2). He reviewed and discussed the Bill of Indictment with counsel and discussed the decision to plead guilty. (3:13-cr-329, Doc. No. 19 at 3). He understood the essential elements of the securities fraud offense and the maximum possible penalty. (Id.). Petitioner agreed that he understood the charges and his sentencing exposure, each element of the offense charged, that the Government would be required to prove each element beyond a reasonable doubt were he to plead not guilty, and that the Government would also have to prove that the unlawful acts were committed knowingly, willfully, intentionally, and unlawfully. (3:13-cr-329, Doc. No. 19 at 4). Petitioner acknowledged that he and counsel had discussed the Sentencing Guidelines and how they may apply to his case, that they are advisory, and that the Court could sentence him within the statutory limits notwithstanding the guidelines, and that he may receive a sentence higher or lower than that called for by the guidelines. (3:13-cr-329, Doc. No. 19 at 5). He understood he has the right to plead not guilty, have a speedy trial before a jury with the assistance of counsel, summon witnesses to testify, and confront witnesses against him. (3:13-cr-329, Doc. No. 19 at 6). He acknowledged that he is, in fact, guilty of the count in the Bill of Indictment to which he is pleading guilty, and that the guilty plea is not the result of coercion, threats, or promises. (3:13-cr-329, Doc. No. 19 at 7). Petitioner confirmed that he read the plea agreement, counsel explained it to him, and he fully understands the terms of the agreement, and he signed it. (Id.). He agreed that there is a factual basis for the plea and that it constitutes a factual basis for his guilty plea. (3:13-cr-329, Doc. No. 19 at 8). His willingness to plead guilty is the result of prior discussions between Petitioner and counsel, he has had ample time to discuss any possible defense with counsel and he has told counsel everything that he wanted counsel to know about the case. (Id.). Petitioner stated that he is entirely pleased with counsel. (Id.). Petitioner confirmed that he knows and understands what he is doing, heard and understood all parts of the proceeding, and wants the Court to accept his plea. (Id.). He did not have any questions, statements, or comments. (3:13-cr-329, Doc. No. 19 at 8-9).

         The Court accepted Petitioner's knowing and voluntary guilty plea, adjudicated him guilty of Count (1), and sentenced him to 110 months' imprisonment followed by three years of supervised release, and imposed restitution of $17, 915, 013.35. (3:13-cr-329, Doc. Nos. 19, 38).

         Petitioner filed the instant § 2255 motion to vacate on October 21, 2016, arguing (renumbered): (1) he is actually innocent of violating securities laws; (2) counsel was ineffective for misadvising Petitioner that the short-term notes he sold were securities, which induced him to plead guilty. (Doc. No. 1).

         The Government filed a Response arguing that Petitioner's claims fail as a matter of law because the acts to which he pled guilty constitute securities fraud. (Doc. No. 3).

         In his Reply filed on July 5, 2017, Petitioner argues that the Government does not contest, and therefore concedes, that the short-term instruments at issue are not securities, which confirms that he is being incarcerated for an offense of which he is actually innocent, and that counsel's performance during plea negotiations was constitutionally deficient because there was no factual basis for the plea. (Doc. No. 4). He additionally argues for the first time that counsel provided ineffective assistance at sentencing. (Doc. No. 4 at 2-3).


         A federal prisoner claiming that his “sentence was imposed in violation of the Constitution or the laws of the United States, or that the court was without jurisdiction to impose such sentence, or that the sentence was in excess of the maximum authorized by law, or is otherwise subject to collateral attack, may move the court which imposed the sentence to vacate, set aside or correct the sentence.” 28 U.S.C. § 2255(a).

         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 and 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, the Court finds that the arguments presented by Petitioner can be resolved without an evidentiary hearing based on the record and governing case law. See Raines v. United States, 423 F.2d 526, 529 (4th Cir. 1970).

         The Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees that in all criminal prosecutions, the accused has the right to the assistance of counsel for his defense. See U.S. Const. Amend. VI. To show ineffective assistance of counsel, Petitioner must first establish deficient performance by counsel and, second, that the deficient performance prejudiced him. See Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 687-88 (1984). The deficiency prong turns on whether “counsel's representation fell below an objective standard of reasonableness ... under prevailing professional norms.” Id. at 688. A reviewing court “must apply a ‘strong presumption' that counsel's representation was within the ‘wide range' of reasonable professional assistance.” Harrington v. Richter, 562 U.S. 86, 104 (2011) (quoting Strickland, 466 U.S. at 689).

         The Strickland standard is difficult to satisfy in that the “Sixth Amendment guarantees reasonable competence, not perfect advocacy judged with the benefit of hindsight.” See Yarborough v. Gentry, 540 U.S. 1, 8 (2003). The prejudice prong inquires into whether counsel's deficiency affected the judgment. See Strickland, 466 U.S. at 691. A petitioner must demonstrate “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. In considering the prejudice prong of the analysis, a court cannot grant relief solely because the outcome would have been different absent counsel's deficient performance, but rather, it “can only grant relief under . . . Strickland if the ‘result of the proceeding was fundamentally unfair or unreliable.'” Sexton v. French, 163 F.3d 874, 882 (4thCir. 1998) (quoting Lockhart v. Fretwell, 506 U.S. 364, 369 (1993)). Under these circumstances, the petitioner “bears the burden of affirmatively proving prejudice.” Bowie v. Branker, 512 F.3d 112, 120 (4th Cir. 2008). If the petitioner fails to meet this burden, a “reviewing court need not even consider the performance prong.” United States v. Rhynes, 196 F.3d 207, 232 (4th Cir. 1999), vacated on other grounds, 218 F.3d 310 (4th Cir. 2000).

         The Sixth Amendment right to the assistance of counsel during criminal proceedings extends to the plea-bargaining process. See Missouri v. Frye, 566 U.S. 134 (2012). Thus, criminal defendants are “entitled to the effective assistance of competent counsel” during that process. Lafler v. Cooper, 566 U.S. 156, 162 (2012) (internal quotation marks omitted); Merzbacher v. Shearin, 706 F.3d 356, 363 (4th Cir. 2013). Where a defendant enters his plea upon the advice of counsel, the voluntariness of the plea depends on whether counsel's advice was “within the range of competence demanded by attorneys in criminal cases.” Hill v. Lockhart, 474 U.S. 52, 56 (1985) (quoting McMann v. Richardson, 397 U.S. 759, 771 (1970)). To satisfy Strickland's prejudice prong, the defendant must show “there is a reasonable probability that, but for counsel's errors, he would not have pleaded guilty and would have insisted on going to trial.” Hill, 474 U.S. at 59; Meyer v. Branker, 506 F.3d 358, 369 (4th Cir. 2007).


         (1) Act ...

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