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Hall v. United States

United States District Court, E.D. North Carolina, Western Division

April 17, 2019

TORELL HALL, Petitioner,



         This matter comes before the court on petitioner's motion to vacate, set aside, or correct sentence under 28 U.S.C. § 2255 (DE 33), and respondent's motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) (DE 37).[1] Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1) and Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 72(b), United States Magistrate Judge Robert B. Jones, Jr., conducted an evidentiary hearing and entered a memorandum and recommendation (M&R), wherein it is recommended that the court deny petitioner's motion and allow respondent's motion (DE 58). Petitioner filed several objections to the M&R. In this posture, the issues raised are ripe for ruling. For the reasons that follow, the court denies petitioner's motion, allows respondent's motion, and denies a certificate of appealability.


         On September 27, 2016, petitioner was indicted for one count of conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute cocaine in violation of 21 U.S.C. §§ 841(a)(1) and 846. With the benefit of a plea agreement, petitioner pleaded guilty to the charge at hearing November 15, 2016. (Transcript of Plea Hearing (“Plea Tr.”) (DE 43)). On March 8, 2017, petitioner was sentenced to 60 months in prison, to be served consecutively to the term imposed in a prior proceeding. (Judgment (DE 27)). Defendant did not appeal his conviction.

         Petitioner was represented by Soyna Allen (“defense counsel”), an assistant federal public defender, at his arraignment and sentencing. On July 24, 2017, petitioner filed the instant motion to vacate, set aside, or correct his sentence pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2255. Petitioner claims defense counsel violated his Sixth Amendment right to counsel by providing ineffective assistance during his case.

         The court referred petitioner's motion to the magistrate judge for M&R. The magistrate judge conducted an evidentiary hearing on April 9, 2018. (Transcript of § 2255 Hearing (“§ 2255 Tr.”) (DE 56). The magistrate judge heard testimony from petitioner and defense counsel, and considered documentary evidence. Following hearing, the magistrate judge recommended denying petitioner's claims on the merits, based on findings of fact and determinations of law set forth in the M&R. Petitioner filed objections to the M&R.


         A. Standard of Review

         The district court reviews de novo those portions of a magistrate judge's M&R to which specific objections are filed. 28 U.S.C. § 636(b). The court does not perform a de novo review where a party makes only “general and conclusory objections that do not direct the court to a specific error in the magistrate's proposed findings and recommendations.” Orpiano v. Johnson, 687 F.2d 44, 47 (4th Cir. 1982). Absent a specific and timely filed objection, the court reviews only for “clear error, ” and need not give any explanation for adopting the M&R. Diamond v. Colonial Life & Accident Ins. Co., 416 F.3d 310, 315 (4th Cir. 2005); Camby v. Davis, 718 F.2d 198, 200 (4th Cir.1983). Upon careful review of the record, “the court may accept, reject, or modify, in whole or in part, the findings or recommendations made by the magistrate judge.” 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1).

         A petitioner seeking relief pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2255 must show that “the sentence was imposed in violation of the Constitution or 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.” 28 U.S.C. § 2255(a). “Unless the motion and the files and records of the case conclusively show that the prisoner is entitled to no relief, the court shall . . . grant a prompt hearing thereon, determine the issues and make findings of fact and conclusions of law with respect thereto.” Id. § 2255(b). “The Federal Rules of Civil Procedure and the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure, to the extent that they are not inconsistent with any statutory provisions, or the [§ 2255 Rules], may be applied to” § 2255 proceedings. Rules Governing Section 2255 Proceedings, Rule 12.

         B. Analysis

         Petitioner seeks § 2255 relief for ineffective assistance of counsel. To sustain an ineffective assistance of counsel claim, petitioner must demonstrate defense counsel's performance fell below an objective standard of reasonableness and there is a reasonable probability that defense counsel's deficient performance prejudiced petitioner. See Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 687-88, 694 (1984); Merzbacher v. Shearin, 706 F.3d 356, 363 (4th Cir. 2013). Petitioner raises two grounds for his ineffective assistance of counsel claim: 1) defense counsel should have challenged the basis for his guilty plea, and 2) that defense counsel should have appealed his conviction. The court addresses each ground for relief below.

         1. Basis for Conviction

         In evaluating allegations of deficiency, “[c]ourts indulge a strong presumption that counsel's conduct falls within the wide range of reasonable professional assistance, in order to avoid the distorting effects of hindsight.” Merzbacher, 706 F.3d at 363 (4th Cir. 2013) (internal quotation marks and citations omitted). To prove prejudice, petitioner “must show that 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 v. Lockhart, 474 U.S. 52, 59 (1985). “[P]etitioner must convince the court that a decision to reject the plea bargain would have been rational under the circumstances.” Padilla v. Kentucky, 559 U.S. 356, 372 (2010). “The challenger's subjective ...

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