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Pillault v. United States

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

April 4, 2019

JOSHUA BRANDON PILLAULT MOVANT
v.
UNITED STATES OF AMERICA RESPONDENT

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          MICHAEL P. MILLS UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         This matter comes before the court on the motion of Joshua Brandon Pillault to vacate, set aside, or correct his sentence under 28 U.S.C. § 2255. The government has responded to the motion, and the matter is ripe for resolution. For the reasons set forth below, the instant motion to vacate, set aside, or correct sentence will be denied.

         Habeas Corpus Relief Under 28 U.S.C. § 2255

         The writ of habeas corpus, a challenge to the legal authority under which a person may be detained, is ancient. Duker, The English Origins of the Writ of Habeas Corpus: A Peculiar Path to Fame, 53 N.Y.U.L.Rev. 983 (1978); Glass, Historical Aspects of Habeas Corpus, 9 St. John’s L.Rev. 55 (1934). It is “perhaps the most important writ known to the constitutional law of England,” Secretary of State for Home Affairs v. O’Brien, A.C. 603, 609 (1923), and it is equally significant in the United States. Article I, § 9, of the Constitution ensures that the right of the writ of habeas corpus shall not be suspended, except when, in the case of rebellion or invasion, public safety may require it. Habeas Corpus, 20 Fed. Prac. & Proc. Deskbook § 56. Its use by the federal courts was authorized in Section14 of the Judiciary Act of 1789. Habeas corpus principles developed over time in both English and American common law have since been codified:

The statutory provisions on habeas corpus appear as sections 2241 to 2255 of the 1948 Judicial Code. The recodification of that year set out important procedural limitations and additional procedural changes were added in 1966. The scope of the writ, insofar as the statutory language is concerned, remained essentially the same, however, until 1996, when Congress enacted the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, placing severe restrictions on the issuance of the writ for state prisoners and setting out special, new habeas corpus procedures for capital cases. The changes made by the 1996 legislation are the end product of decades of debate about habeas corpus.

Id.

         Section 2255 Proceedings

         Section 28 U.S.C. § 2255 permits an inmate serving a sentence after conviction of a federal crime “to move the court which imposed the sentence to vacate, set aside or correct the sentence.” 28 U.S.C. § 2255(a). As with the writ of habeas corpus, see 28 U.S.C. §§ 2241, 2254, a § 2255 motion sets forth only four bases on which a motion may be made: (1) the sentence was imposed in violation of the Constitution or laws of the United States; (2) the court was without jurisdiction to impose the sentence; (3) the sentence exceeds the statutory maximum sentence; or (4) the sentence is “otherwise subject to collateral attack.” 28 U.S.C. § 2255(a). Thus, a prisoner must claim either a constitutional violation or want of subject matter jurisdiction to invoke 28 U.S.C. § 2255. In the absence of constitutional or jurisdictional defects, a federal prisoner may invoke § 2255 only if the error constitutes “a fundamental defect which inherently results in a complete miscarriage of justice.” United States v. Addonizio, 442 U.S. 178, 185 (1979).

         The district court must first conduct a preliminary review of a section 2255 motion, and “[i]f it plainly appears from the motion, any attached exhibits, and the record of the prior proceeding that the moving party is not entitled to relief, the judge must dismiss the motion.” Rules Governing Section 2255 Proceedings, Rule 4(b). If the motion raises a non-frivolous claim to relief, the court must order the Government to file a response or to take other appropriate action. Id. The judge may then require the parties to expand the record as necessary and, if good cause is shown, authorize limited discovery. Rules Governing Section 2255 Proceedings, Rules 6–7.

         After reviewing the government’s answer, any transcripts and records of prior proceedings, and any supplementary materials submitted by the parties, the court must decide whether an evidentiary hearing is warranted. Rules Governing Section 2255 Proceedings, Rule 8. Under the statute, an evidentiary hearing must be held unless “the motion and the files and records of the case conclusively show that the prisoner is entitled to no relief.” 28 U.S.C. § 2255(b). However, the court need not hold an evidentiary hearing if the prisoner fails to produce “independent indicia of the likely merit of [his] allegations.” United States v. Edwards, 442 F.3d 258, 264 (5th Cir. 2006) (quoting United States v. Cervantes, 132 F.3d 1106, 1110 (5th Cir. 1998)).

         Ultimately, the petitioner bears the burden of establishing his claims of error by a preponderance of the evidence. See Wright v. United States, 624 F.2d 557, 558 (5th Cir. 1980). For certain “structural” errors, relief follows automatically once the error is proved. See Burgess v. Dretke, 350 F.3d 461, 472 (5th Cir. 2003). For other errors at the trial court level, the court may grant relief only if the error “had substantial and injurious effect or influence” in determining the outcome of the case. Brecht v. Abrahmson, 507 U.S. 619, 637 (1993); see also United States v. Chavez, 193 F.3d 375, 379 (5th Cir. 1999) (applying Brecht’s harmless error standard in a § 2255 proceeding). If the court finds that the prisoner is entitled to relief, it “shall vacate and set the judgment aside and shall discharge the prisoner or resentence him or grant a new trial or correct the sentence as may appear appropriate.” 28 U.S.C. § 2255(b).

         Mr. Pillault’s Claims

         Joshua Pillault raises four issues with various sub-points. He alleges that he was denied effective assistance of counsel and his rights under the 14th, 1st, and 4th Amendments were violated. None of his arguments has merit.

         Mr. Pillault first argues that his Sixth Amendment right to effective assistance of counsel was violated, as well as his right to trial by a fair and impartial jury of his peers, because: (1) he had no attorney when his home was searched, (2) his public defender failed to visit him, (3) he was misled by his attorney, (4) he pled guilty based on his attorney’s bad advice, (5) he is actually innocent, (6) his accuser would not testify against him, and (7) his attorney ineffectively cross-examined witnesses during sentencing.

         He next argues that his Fourteenth amendment right to due process was violated because arresting officers coerced him into signing away his right to counsel and be interviewed and because defense counsel advised him to plead guilty, resulting in a feeling that he had no defense, and no one was defending his rights.

         Third, Mr. Pillault argues that his First Amendment right to freedom of speech was violated because only his mother or parental figure possessed the authority to censor his expressive activities on the internet, and his threatened acts of violence were protected under the First Amendment.

         Finally, Mr. Pillault argues that his Fourth Amendment rights were violated by the search of his home at the time of his arrest – and because he was denied an interview for a determination of the facts prior to his arrest and the search of his home.

         Facts and Procedural Posture[1]

         On October 4, 2012, Joshua Pillault, while playing the online multiplayer game “RuneScape” and using the display name “PaulGilbert (Merlan91),” threatened to use firearms, pipe bombs, and Molotov cocktails to recreate the Columbine massacre at Oxford High School in Oxford, Mississippi (ROA.15-17).[2] Pillault told other players that he planned to commit suicide, but it would be a waste to just kill himself, and that he had to kill other people first (ROA.15). He stated that he needed to get “at least two guns,” and “backup clips, mopolotov(sic) cocktails, [and] pipe bombs” all of which he was going to use to “level oxford hish (sic) school” (ROA.16). Pillault further stated, “If I have anything to say about it, that school is going to be gravel” (Id.). He went on to state, “look for the last name Pillault on the news 4-20-13….. because 4-20-13 is the anniversary of Columbine” (Id.). Pillault explained that he was consumed by the Columbine Massacre, stating multiple times, “We’ll never forget: The Columbine Massacre….Ask me anything about the massacre. I know it all” (ROA.17). Pillault continued his threats, stating, “I can’t wait to blow brains out of skulls,” and “the world is going to know my wrath god dammit” (Id.).

         These same threats had been communicated to two of Pillault’s former girlfriends. One of these girlfriends, Jane Doe[3], was with him when he made these specific threats on “RuneScape” (ROA.281). Doe testified that while Pillault was intoxicated at the creation of these threats, Pillault discussed and planned to carry out the threats when both sober and intoxicated (ROA.281-282).

         Another former girlfriend, Susan Roe[4], testified that Pillault had researched at length how to make bombs (ROA.253). Roe drove Pillault to a Home Depot store where he obtained a piece of copper pipe, which he told Roe could be used to make a pipe bomb (ROA.253). Later, Pillault told her that he tested the pipe bomb and it worked. (ROA.254). Pillault had told Roe to stay home from school on April 20, 2013, the anniversary of Columbine (Roe testified she later discovered April 20th would be a Saturday) (Id.).

         Doe stated that Pillault was saving money to have someone buy him a gun, and even went to Wal-Mart to look at guns (ROA.282). Doe added that Pillault attempted to make Molotov cocktails out of empty glass Sprite bottles, which did not work properly when tested (ROA. 283).

         Both Doe and Roe testified that Pillault had started making plans outside of just drawings and talking. Roe testified that Pillault created plans for the school shooting in a journal (ROA.254). Doe also testified that Pillault devised multiple plans to execute the school shooting. One plan was to break through large plate glass windows at the high school cafeteria, deploy either pipe bombs or smoke bombs, and proceed through the school, spraying bullets as he went. Another plan was to enter near the high school’s office entrance, and try to begin the attack by shooting the school principal in the head (ROA.282). Roe said she did not go to the authorities because Pillault told her if she did, he would kill her and her family (ROA.255).

         Both Doe and Roe testified that Pillault was obsessed with Columbine and admired the two shooters (ROA.251-252, 284). Doe testified that Pillault told her that he believed that school shootings were sometimes moral and necessary to achieve justice (ROA.252).

         On October 4, 2012, the Oxford Police Department received two phone calls alerting them to the threats against Oxford High School made on the “RuneScape” game (ROA.12). The first call came from a person in Virginia who had been playing “RuneScape” at the time and saw the threats being made. The second call came from Jagex Ltd, the London based company that operates “RuneScape” (Id.). Jagex provided account information and the messages that contained the threats to the Oxford Police Department (Id.). The Internet Protocol (IP) address from which the threats originated, which was provided by Jagex Ltd, was registered to a computer owned by Stacey Pillault, Pillault’s mother, and which was located at a residence on Combs St., in Oxford, Mississippi (ROA.12,15). The user account for Internet service was also registered to Stacey Pillault at the same address (ROA.15).

         Pillault, who had dropped out of high school and had over 20 disciplinary actions on his school record, was known by Officer Harper Thomas, the Oxford High School resource officer (ROA.473, 259). Officer Thomas told the Oxford Police Department that he was concerned for the safety of the Oxford High School students and that they should take these threats seriously because Pillault was a person who had “very impulsive tendencies, a lot of anger problems…a lot of outbursts and just a lot of anger” (ROA.259-260). On October 5, 2012, Officer Thomas was sent to find Pillault. Extra security was put in place for the Oxford High School football game that night (ROA.515).

         On October 8, 2012, the FBI obtained an arrest warrant for Pillault (ROA.18). At the same time, a court authorized search warrant was issued for any electronic device that connected to the internet at his residence (ROA.35). Pillault was arrested later that day at his residence (ROA.18). Pillault admitted to police that he had been playing “RuneScape” on October 4, 2012, under the display name “PaulGilbert(merlan91)” (ROA.515). When the police read the threats to him, Pillault admitted that he probably wrote them but did not remember them because he was drunk (ROA.104). Pillault also admitted to police that he had attempted to download the controversial online game “Super Columbine Massacre RPG,” in which players assume the roles of the Columbine shooters and act out the massacre. (Id.).

         At the same time as the arrest, the FBI also executed the search and seizure warrant (ROA.37). The FBI seized four laptop computers and two cellular telephones from the residence, including the computer Pillault used. (Id.). According to the FBI computer examiner, who testified at the sentencing hearing, on Pillault’s computer he found a folder named “4chan” (ROA.515). The “4chan” folder contained a folder named “columbine” and a folder named “serialkiller,” both of which contained pictures related to the Columbine shooting and the two Columbine shooters, along with other famous serial killers (Id.). The “4chan” directory also contained files with instructions on how to make “DIY Thermite,” “Carbon Tet” pipe bombs, and how to use a bicycle to ignite a blasting cap (Id.). Pillault had also conducted the following Google searches “pipe bomb”; “jolly-rogers cookbook”; “how to make bomb explodes[sic]”; “anarchistcookbook”; and “timothy mcveigh” (ROA.516). Pillault also conducted the following Youtube searches: “tennis ball ...


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