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Saldana v. United States

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

April 11, 2018



          Frank D. Whitney Chief 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).

         I. BACKGROUND

         A. Petitioner participates in selling crystal methamphetamine.

         Between 2007 and 2012, Petitioner Martin Martinez Saldana sold large quantities of crystal methamphetamine to customers in Ashe County, North Carolina and Western Virginia. By 2012, law enforcement officers were investigating Petitioner as part of a larger investigation into methamphetamine trafficking in the region. United States v. Saldana, 664 Fed.Appx. 326, 328 (4th Cir. 2016), cert. denied, 137 S.Ct. 1353 (2017). After employing confidential informants to make purchases of crystal methamphetamine from two of Petitioner's customers, Danny Eller and Bobby Shore, investigators obtained a search warrant for the men's residences, where the investigators found methamphetamine and firearms. Id. Eller and Shore agreed to cooperate in the investigation. Id. Eller informed investigators that Petitioner was his source for methamphetamine and that Jose Pina, who rented a trailer from Petitioner and lived on Petitioner's property, worked for Petitioner as a courier and conducted methamphetamine transactions on Petitioner's behalf when Petitioner was in Mexico. (Crim. No. 5:12-cr-49-FDW-DCK-1, Trial Tr. at 98, 288-90, 405-06, 410, 444).[1]

         After he began cooperating with investigators, Eller twice bought crystal methamphetamine from Pina. Saldana, 664 Fed.Appx. at 328. Following the second controlled buy, Pina stopped responding to Eller's attempts to reach him, prompting investigators to send Eller to Petitioner's property on December 11, 2012, to try to buy methamphetamine from either Petitioner or Pina. Id. Eller was unable to buy methamphetamine from Petitioner, but he was able to record a conversation with him, in which Petitioner told him that it was “too hot” and that Eller should “lay low.” Id.

         The next day, Shore recorded a conversation with Petitioner. Id. During this conversation, Petitioner, who traveled frequently to Mexico, told Shore that he would be returning to Mexico the following day because it was “too hot” as a result of law enforcement seizures and arrests and directed Shore not to tell anyone he was leaving. Id. Concerned that Petitioner would not return from Mexico, investigators immediately obtained a search warrant for Petitioner's home and an adjacent property that Petitioner also owned. Id.; see also United States v. 148 Ervin Houck Dr., No. 3:12MJ327 (W.D. N.C. Dec. 20, 2012), Doc. Nos. 1 (148 Ervin Houck Dr.) and 2 (178 Ervin Houck Dr.). During their search, investigators found four firearms, including an unregistered, short-barreled shotgun; ammunition; electrical tape, cellophane, and dryer sheets used in packaging methamphetamine; latex gloves; and cell phones, two of which were on Petitioner's person. Saldana, 664 Fed.Appx. at 328-29.

         In February 2013, Harmon interviewed Pina, who told the agents where Petitioner had hidden money and methamphetamine on his property. (Id. at 329; Crim. No. 5:12-cr-49-FDW-DCK-1, Trial Tr. at 76-77). Based on this new information, agents obtained state search warrants to search Petitioner's property. (Crim. No. 5:12-cr-49-FDW-DCK-1, Trial Tr. at 76-77; see also Civ. Doc. No. 3-1, 3-2: Gov. Civ. Exs. 1 & 2, Search Warrants, In re 148 and 178 Ervin Houck Road ( N.C. Sup. Ct. Feb. 12, 2013) (Yearick, Etoyle, M.J.)). During this search, investigators found nearly $50, 000 in cash contained in PVC pipes buried in the ground, several ounces of methamphetamine wrapped in electrical tape and cellophane with a dryer sheet, PVC tubes used for stashing controlled substances or currency, magazines for a sub-machine gun, and ammunition. Saldana, 664 Fed.Appx. at 329; see also (Crim. No. 5:12-cr-49-FDW-DCK-1, Trial Tr. at 78, 240-48).

         B. A jury convicts Petitioner of participating in a methamphetamine-trafficking conspiracy and a firearm offense, and this Court imposes a within-Guidelines term of life in prison.

         On December 13, 2012, a federal grand jury indicted Petitioner and charged him with conspiracy to distribute and to possess with intent to distribute methamphetamine, in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 846 (Count One); possession of a firearm in furtherance of a drug-trafficking offense, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 924(c) (Count Two); possession of a firearm by a convicted felon, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1) (Count Three); possession of a firearm as a person convicted of a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(9) (Count Four); and possession of a short-barreled shotgun that was not registered to him, in violation of 26 U.S.C. §§ 5841, 5861(c) and (d), and 5871 (Count Five). (Crim. No. 5:12-cr-49-FDW-DCK-1, Doc. No. 50: First Superseding Bill of Indictment). The Government later dismissed without prejudice the charges under 18 U.S.C. § 922(g) (Counts Three and Four). (Id., Doc. Nos. 62-63).

         On December 26, 2012, and on January 29, 2013, this Court sua sponte issued orders to continue the matter because it had been joined for trial with a co-defendant who had not been severed and as to whom the time for trial had not run. (Id., Doc. Nos. 12, 19). On March 19, 2013, June 4, 2013, and July 31, 2013, Petitioner's counsel moved for continuances, citing the voluminous discovery in the case and the additional time needed to prepare for trial. (Id., Doc. Nos. 39, 45, 47). This Court granted each motion, specifically stating in each order that the ends of justice outweighed the best interest of the public and the defendant to a speedy trial. (Id., Doc. Nos. 12, 19, 40, 46, 48).

         On August 20, 2013, a grand jury returned a first superseding indictment, which charged Petitioner with the same offenses, but did not name Pina in the charges. (Id., Doc. No. 50). On September 23, 2013, Petitioner's counsel moved for another continuance. (Id., Doc. No. 53). This Court denied the motion. (Id., Doc. No. 56). On October 8, 2013, counsel filed a sealed motion for a continuance, which this Court granted. (Id., Doc. Nos. 58, 59). On November 22, 2013, Petitioner's counsel filed another sealed motion for a continuance, which this Court also granted. (Id., Doc. Nos. 60, 61). Again, the Court stated in both orders granting these two continuances that the ends of justice outweighed the best interest of the public and the defendant to a speedy trial. (Id., Doc. Nos. 59, 61).

         The day before trial, this Court issued a sequestration order, prohibiting witnesses from talking with anyone who was or might become a witness “about any subject matter related to this trial.” (Id., Doc. No. 77). Trial began on March 4, 2014. (Id., Doc. No. 131). During the trial, the Government presented testimony from law enforcement officers and five cooperating witnesses about methamphetamine transactions conducted with or on Petitioner's behalf.

         Clara Jean Caudell testified that she and Petitioner were friends and that he had sold her at least half an ounce of methamphetamine for about five years before her arrest. (Id., Trial Tr. at 327, 330-34). Caudell testified that Petitioner had several couriers who worked for him and that she had picked up drugs from Petitioner's house on one occasion. (Id. at 335-36). On cross-examination, Caudell admitted that she cooperated by taking responsibility for her part in the offense conduct and that whether she received a reduction in her sentence was up to the judge. (Id. at 344). On redirect, she identified her plea agreement, and the Government moved it into evidence. (Id. at 346-47; Gov. Trial Ex. 24).

         Eller testified that he had pleaded guilty to his involvement in the methamphetamine-trafficking conspiracy and that Petitioner had been a co-conspirator. (Id., Trial Tr. at 394). Eller stated that he began buying half an ounce of methamphetamine every two or three weeks from Petitioner, but he eventually worked up to buying about an ounce every three or four weeks. (Id. at 402-03, 445). Eller would use some of the methamphetamine and sell some of it. (Id. at 407). Eller also testified about his visit to Petitioner while wearing a wire, when Petitioner told him that it had been “hot” and that he should “lay low.” (Id. at 411, 415-17). Eller testified on cross-examination that he had a plea agreement, but that he had not been promised anything for testifying. (Id. at 431-32). He admitted that he was hoping that he would receive “[s]ome kind of help.” (Id. at 433). The Government moved to admit Eller's plea agreement on redirect, id. at 447, and Eller testified that the plea agreement required him to tell the truth and that it would be up to the judge to decide what sentence to impose, id. at 448-49; Gov. Tr. Ex. 20.

         James Hawkins also testified that he sold methamphetamine for Petitioner. (Id., Trial Tr. at 494). On cross-examination, he stated that he was hoping to “get a little time off” for cooperating, but he had not been sentenced yet. (Id. at 503-04, 509). On re-direct, Hawkins testified that he had not been promised anything for his cooperation, that he was required to tell the truth, and that the judge would decide his sentence. (Id. at 509, 511).

         Shore also identified Petitioner as a co-conspirator in his methamphetamine-trafficking activities. (Id. at 456). Shore testified that he bought half an ounce of methamphetamine from Petitioner once a month for about a year before he increased his monthly purchases to one ounce. (Id. at 458-59). He later bought four to six ounces a month. (Id. at 459).

         Pina testified that he worked for Petitioner and that Petitioner told him where to hide Petitioner's money, including where to bury it. (Id. at 480-82, 488). Pina identified April Blevins as his girlfriend. (Id. at 489). He admitted telling her where she could find some of the money on Petitioner's property and that she took money that she believed was Petitioner's and used it to buy a truck. (Id. at 488-89).

         Petitioner did not present any evidence in his defense. (Id. at 529). The jury convicted Petitioner of conspiracy to distribute methamphetamine and possession of a firearm made in violation of the National Firearms Act, but acquitted him of possessing a firearm in furtherance of a drug-trafficking offense (Count Two). (Id., Doc. No. 81: Jury Verdict). This Court sentenced Petitioner to life imprisonment for the conspiracy offense and to a concurrent sentence of 120 months of imprisonment for the firearm offense and ordered him to pay a $200 special assessment. (Id., Doc. No. 113: Judgment).

         Petitioner appealed, challenging the denial of his motion for a judgment of acquittal and his life sentence. Saldana, 664 Fed.Appx. at 328. The Fourth Circuit affirmed his conviction and sentence. Id. The Fourth Circuit held that there was “more than sufficient evidence to convict Saldana” of the conspiracy offense, citing his leadership of the drug-trafficking operation, the testimony at trial, as well as the recorded conversations with Petitioner and the evidence found during the searches of his property. Id. at 331.

         Petitioner timely filed the present motion to vacate, correct, or set aside his sentence pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2255, arguing that this Court lacked subject-matter jurisdiction, that his speedy trial, double jeopardy, and Fourth Amendment rights were violated, that the Government engaged in prosecutorial misconduct, and that he received ineffective assistance of counsel. The Government filed its Response on March 12, 2018, and Petitioner filed his Reply on April 2, 2018, in which he asserts essentially the same arguments made in his original motion to vacate and supporting memorandum. (Doc. Nos. 3, 6).


         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 ...

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