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Singleton v. United States

United States District Court, N.D. Mississippi, Greenville Division

March 20, 2017




         Christopher Singleton (“Singleton”) comes before the Court on a motion to vacate, set aside, or correct sentence pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2255. The Government has responded to Singleton's claims, and the Court has held an evidentiary hearing concerning Singleton's allegation that counsel refused to file an appeal on Singleton's behalf. Having considered the pleadings and the record, including the evidence adduced at the evidentiary hearing, along with the relevant law, the Court finds that the motion should be denied, for the reasons that follow.

         I. Background Facts and Procedural History

         On April 23, 2015, a federal grand jury returned an indictment against Christopher Singleton and several others in which Singleton was charged with conspiracy to distribute and possession with intent to distribute cocaine and marijuana, conspiracy to commit money laundering, and five counts of distribution of cocaine. The conspiracy involved the delivery of drugs from Texas to Mississippi, where the drugs were sold. The proceeds from the sale of the drugs were then placed in an 18-wheeler registered to a company of one of Singleton's co-defendants, and Singleton, under the guise of a legitimate trucking trip, would drive the drug proceeds to Texas. Upon arrival in Texas, Singleton would retrieve cocaine from a vehicle of one of the co-conspirators and transfer large amounts of the drug proceeds before returning to Mississippi and selling the cocaine to others.

         Several months after his arrest, and with the assistance of appointed counsel, Singleton entered into a binding plea agreement in which the parties agreed that the total amount of drugs attributable to Singleton was greater than 50 kilograms of cocaine hydrochloride but less than 150 kilograms. See Docs. #100 and 130 at 9-10; see also Fed. R. Civ. P. Rule 11(c)(1)(C). At the change of plea hearing, the Court advised Singleton of his rights, including the right to remain silent, the right to proceed to trial on a presumption of innocence, and the right to plead not guilty. See Doc. #130 at 4-5. Singleton stated at the hearing that he had discussed the terms of the plea agreement with his counsel, and he affirmed that counsel had given him adequate advice regarding the decision to enter a plea. Id. at 4, 6. When asked whether he had been threatened or forced into pleading guilty, or whether anyone made any promises, other than the plea agreement, to cause Singleton to plead guilty, Singleton answered in the negative. Id. at 7, 10.

         The plea agreement also contained a waiver provision in which Singleton, with limited exceptions, waived his right to appeal or collaterally attack his conviction. Id. at 9. The plea agreement's waiver paragraph was discussed on the record by counsel for the Government, who stated:

There's a waiver paragraph where the defendant[] [is] waiving any rights to appeal the conviction or sentence and the manner in which the sentence was imposed on any ground whatsoever, including 18 U.S.C. 3742 and 28 U.S.C. 2255. There is an exception where the defendant can appeal, and that[] [is] ineffective of assistance of counsel relating to the validity of the waiver of appeal or the validity of the guilty plea itself.

Doc. #130 at 9. It was additionally noted on the record that the plea supplement contained an agreement as to the amount of drugs attributable to Singleton for guideline purposes. Id. The Government set forth the elements that must be proved and the factual basis of proof, after which Singleton stated that he understood those elements and agreed with the factual basis. Id. at 11- 14. After the substance of the plea agreement was described by the Government, the Court insured Singleton understood the agreement:

The Court: Mr. Singleton, you've heard the prosecutor state the agreement that you entered into with the Government attorneys in regard to this particular case. Do you agree to the accuracy of what he said is the plea agreement? Singleton: Yes, sir.

Id. at 10. After the government went read the factual basis for the charges into the record, the Court addressed Singleton:

The Court: Mr. Singleton, did you do everything [the Government] just described you did; or are there some things that he said you did that you disagree with? Singleton: I did it, sir.

Id. at 14.

         Thereafter, Singleton pleaded guilty to conspiracy to distribute and possession with intent to distribute cocaine and marijuana, as well as conspiracy to commit money laundering, and the Court accepted his plea. See Doc. #130 at 15. Following Singleton's guilty plea, the United States Probation Service prepared its Pre-Sentence Investigation Report (“PSR”), and Singleton's sentencing guidelines range was calculated to be 135-168 months based on an offense level of 33 with a criminal history category of I. PSR ¶64. Singleton did not file any objections to the PSR and was sentenced on March 14, 2016, to a term of 135 months imprisonment. Judgment entered on March 16, 2016. See Doc. #172.[1]

         Singleton did not appeal the judgment. Instead, on August 11, 2016, Singleton filed the instant § 2255 motion, claiming that his attorney rendered ineffective assistance (1) in failing to inform Singleton of a plea deal offered by the Government that would have reduced his sentence; (2) in failing to move object to reduce Singleton's sentence on the basis of his alleged minor participation in the crimes; and (2) in refusing to file a notice of appeal as to Singleton's sentence. The Government responded to the motion, and the Court subsequently ordered an evidentiary hearing on Singleton's allegation that counsel refused to file an appeal. Counsel was appointed to Singleton for the purpose of the evidentiary hearing, which was held on March 14, 2017.

         II. Legal Standard

         After a defendant has been convicted and exhausted his appeal rights, a court may presume that “he stands fairly and finally convicted.” United States v. Frady, 456 U.S. 152, 164 (1982). A motion brought pursuant to § 2255 is a “means of collateral attack on a federal sentence.” Cox v. Warden, Federal Detention Ctr., 911 F.2d 1111, 1113 (5th Cir. 1990) (citation omitted). There are four separate grounds upon which a federal prisoner may move to vacate, set aside, or correct a sentence under 28 U.S.C. § 2255: (1) the judgment was imposed in violation of the Constitution or laws of the United States; (2) the court was without jurisdiction to impose the judgment; (3) the sentence exceeds the statutory maximum sentence; or (4) the judgment or sentence is otherwise subject to collateral attack. 28 U.S.C. § 2255(a). Collateral attack limits a movant's allegations to those of “constitutional or jurisdictional magnitude.” United States v. Samuels, 59 F.3d 526, 528 (5th Cir. 1995) (citation omitted). Relief under ยง 2255 is reserved, ...

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