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United States v. Liggins

United States District Court, D. Nebraska

April 20, 2015



JOHN M. GERRARD, District Judge.

This matter is before the Court upon initial review of the pro se motion to vacate under 28 U.S.C. § 2255 (filing 100) filed by the defendant, Teresa Liggins. The motion was timely filed less than 1 year after the defendant's conviction became final. See § 2255(f). The Court's initial review is governed by Rule 4(b) of the Rules Governing Section 2255 Proceedings for the United States District Courts, which provides:

The judge who receives the motion must promptly examine it. If it plainly appears from the motion, any attached exhibits, and the record of prior proceedings that the moving party is not entitled to relief, the judge must dismiss the motion and direct the clerk to notify the moving party. If the motion is not dismissed, the judge must order the United States attorney to file an answer, motion, or other response within a fixed time, or to take other action the judge may order.

A § 2255 movant is entitled to an evidentiary hearing unless the motion and the files and records of the case conclusively show that the movant is entitled to no relief. § 2255(b); Sinisterra v. United States, 600 F.3d 900, 906 (8th Cir. 2010). Accordingly, a motion to vacate under § 2255 may be summarily dismissed without a hearing if (1) the movant's allegations, accepted as true, would not entitle the movant to relief, or (2) the allegations cannot be accepted as true because they are contradicted by the record, inherently incredible, or conclusions rather than statements of fact. Engelen v. United States, 68 F.3d 238, 240 (8th Cir. 1995); see also Sinisterra, 600 F.3d at 906.


The defendant was charged by indictment with one count of conspiring to distribute 280 grams or more of crack cocaine. Filing 1. She pled guilty pursuant to a plea agreement that provided she would be held responsible for at least 280 grams but not more than 840 grams of crack cocaine. Filing 49 at 4. The plea agreement also provided that if the defendant was determined to be a career offender, she would automatically fall into criminal history category VI pursuant to U.S.S.G. § 4B1.1(b). Filing 49 at 5.

In her petition to enter a guilty plea, the defendant indicated her knowledge that she faced a sentence of 10 years to life imprisonment. Filing 48 at 4. She also acknowledged that the sentence she would receive would be solely a matter for the Court to decide, and that there was no guarantee her sentence would be within any particular sentencing range. Filing 48 at 4. Her guilty plea, she wrote, would be based on the fact that she "conspired and agreed with others to sell crack cocaine to others" and "ultimately sold crack cocaine to others as charged in the Indictment." Filing 48 at 8.

At her change of plea hearing, the defendant was again advised that she faced 10 years to life imprisonment. Filing 54 at 11. And she was advised that the Court could sentence her within the Sentencing Guidelines range she had discussed with her counsel, but that the Court could go above or below that range based on its findings about the defendant's relevant conduct. Filing 54 at 12. The defendant was directly asked whether she was responsible for at least 280, but not more than 840, grams of crack cocaine, and she said she was. Filing 54 at 18, 23-24. The defendant was also asked about the factual basis for her plea: several witnesses could testify that they were involved in buying crack cocaine from her or providing it to her, and more than 10 ounces of crack cocaine had been involved. Filing 54 at 21. The defendant agreed that was true. Filing 54 at 22. The defendant agreed that she was "sort of the distributor in the middle of a chain of people that were buying and selling crack cocaine." Filing 54 at 22.

The Court accepted the defendant's guilty plea, finding that there was a factual basis for it and that it was knowing, intelligent, and voluntary. Filing 55. The presentence investigation report (PSR) found that the defendant's base offense level was 32, based on a drug quantity of 350.05 grams of cocaine base. Filing 73 at 8. But the PSR also found that the defendant was a career offender, based on two prior controlled substance convictions. Filing 73 at 9. So, the defendant's offense level was set at 37 pursuant to § 4B1.1(b)(1), and her total offense level (after a three-level reduction for acceptance of responsibility) was 34. Filing 73 at 9. That offense level, combined with the criminal history category VI also required by § 4B1.1(b)(1), resulted in a Guidelines range of 262 to 327 months' imprisonment. Filing 73 at 21. The Court imposed a sentence of 262 months' imprisonment.[1] Filing 76 at 2.


The defendant's § 2255 motion is based on alleged ineffective assistance of counsel. The defendant alleges that her counsel was constitutionally ineffective on four grounds: (1) failing to file a notice of appeal; (2) failing to challenge the quantity and quality of cocaine base; (3) failing to file a motion for bill of particulars to establish her "position" in the conspiracy; and (4) underestimating the sentencing range, "therefore inducing a guilty plea." Filing 100 at 4-5.

To establish a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel, the defendant must show that her attorney's performance was deficient and that this prejudiced her defense. Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 687 (1984). Deficient performance can be shown by demonstrating that counsel's performance fell below an objective standard of reasonableness. Id. at 688. However, the Court's scrutiny of counsel's performance is highly deferential, because the Court must indulge a strong presumption that counsel's conduct falls within the wide range of reasonable professional assistance. Id. at 689.

To satisfy the prejudice prong of Strickland, the defendant must show that counsel's error actually had an adverse effect on the defense. Gregg v. United States, 683 F.3d 941, 944 (8th Cir. 2012). The defendant must do more than show that the errors had some conceivable effect on the outcome of the proceeding. Id. Rather, the defendant must show that there is a reasonable probability that, but for counsel's unprofessional errors, the result of the proceeding would have been different. Id. A "reasonable probability" is less than "more likely than not, " but it is more than a possibility; it must be sufficient to undermine confidence in the outcome of the case. Paul v. United States, 534 F.3d 832, 837 (8th Cir. 2008).

In the context of a challenge to a guilty plea, the deficient performance and prejudice are demonstrated if the defendant can prove that (1) her counsel's representation fell below an objective standard of reasonableness, and (2) there is a reasonable probability that, but for counsel's alleged errors, she would not have pleaded guilty and would have insisted on going to trial. Hill v. ...

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