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United States v. Sanchez

United States District Court, D. Rhode Island

January 24, 2017



          Mary M. Lisi Senior United States District Judge

         Pending before the Court are several motions filed by Petitioner Juan Espejo Sanchez (“Petitioner” or “Espejo Sanchez”), proceeding pro se: a Motion to Set Aside and Vacate Sentence Pursuant to 2255 or in the Alternative Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure 60(b)(1)-(6) (Doc. #8) (“Motion”); a Supplemental Motion to Vacate, Set Aside, or Correct Sentence Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2255 (Doc. #13) (“Supplemental Motion”)[1] and Affidavit in support thereof (Doc. #14) (“Affidavit”), and a request, which the Court treats as a motion, for a ruling on the Motion to Vacate (Doc. #15) (“Motion for Ruling”). The Government has filed a response in opposition to the Motion (Doc. #12) (“Response to Motion”). No hearing is necessary.


         On June 9, 2014, Espejo Sanchez pled guilty to one count of conspiracy to possess with the intent to distribute fifty grams or more of methamphetamine, in violation of 21 U.S.C. §§ 841(a)(1), 841(b)(1)(B), and 846.[2] He was sentenced to 72 months incarceration, followed by supervised release for ten years. Judgment entered on June 16, 2014. Pursuant to the Plea Agreement, Espejo Sanchez did not file a direct appeal.

         Espejo Sanchez filed the instant Motion on June 2, 2015, [3] and, subsequently, the Supplemental Motion and Motion for Ruling.


         I. Section 2255 and AEDPA

         Generally, the grounds justifying relief under 28 U.S.C. § 2255 are limited. A court may grant such relief only if it finds a lack of jurisdiction, a constitutional error, or a fundamental error of law. See United States v. Addonizio, 442 U.S. 178, 185 (1979)(“[A]n error of law does not provide a basis for collateral attack unless the claimed error constituted a fundamental defect which inherently results in a complete miscarriage of justice.”)(internal quotation marks omitted).

         Section 2255 states that:

(a) A prisoner in custody under sentence of a court established by Act of Congress claiming the right to be released upon the ground 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, may move the court which imposed the sentence to vacate, set aside or correct the sentence.

28 U.S.C. § 2255(a).

         In 1996, Congress enacted the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (“AEDPA”), which “imposed significant new constraints on proceedings under section 2255.” Trenkler v. United States, 536 F.3d 85, 96 (1st Cir. 2008)(footnote omitted). “Some of these constraints were temporal; for example, AEDPA established a one-year statute of limitations for filing a section 2255 petition.” Id. (citing 28 U.S.C. § 2255(f)). Others were numerical, requiring a petitioner to obtain preclearance from the circuit court before filing a second or successive petition. Id. (citing 28 U.S. § 2255(h)).

         II. Strickland

         A defendant who claims that he was deprived of his Sixth Amendment right to the effective assistance of counsel must demonstrate:

(1) that his counsel's performance fell below an objective standard of reasonableness; and
(2) a reasonable probability that, but for counsel's unprofessional errors, the result of the proceeding would have been different.

Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 687-88 (1984); United States v. Manon, 608 F.3d 126, 131 (1st Cir. 2010)(same). In assessing the adequacy of counsel's performance, a defendant “‘must identify the acts or omissions of counsel that are alleged not to have been the result of reasonable professional judgment, ' and the court then determines whether, in the particular context, the identified conduct or inaction was ‘outside the wide range of professionally competent assistance.'” Manon, 608 F.3d at 131 (quoting Strickland, 466 U.S. at 690); see also Strickland, 466 U.S. at 689 (noting that the court “must indulge a strong presumption that counsel's conduct falls within the wide range of reasonable professional assistance ...”). To show prejudice under Strickland, the defendant must demonstrate that “there is a reasonable probability that, but for counsel's unprofessional errors, the result of the proceeding would have been different.” Strickland, 466 U.S. at 694. A reasonable probability is one “sufficient to undermine confidence in the outcome.” Id. In making the prejudice assessment, the court focuses on the “fundamental fairness of the proceeding.” Manon, 608 F.3d at 131; see also Strickland, 466 U.S. at 696. “Unless a defendant makes both showings, it cannot be said that the conviction ... resulted from a breakdown in the adversary process that renders the result unreliable.” Strickland, 466 U.S. at 687; see also Reyes-Vejerano v. United States, 117 F.Supp.2d 103, 106 (D.P.R. 2000) (“The petitioner has the burden of proving both prongs of this test, and the burden is a heavy one.”). “The benchmark for judging any claim of ineffectiveness must be whether counsel's conduct so undermined the proper functioning of the adversarial process that the trial cannot be relied on as having produced a just result.” Strickland, 466 U.S. at 686.

         The same principles apply in the context of guilty pleas. See Hill v. Lockhart, 474 U.S. 52, 57 (1985). The Hill Court held that “the two-part Strickland v. Washington test applies to challenges to guilty pleas based on ineffective assistance of counsel.” Id. at 58; see also Padilla v. Kentucky, 559 U.S. 356, 371 n.12 (2010)(“In Hill, the Court recognized-for the first time-that Strickland applies to advice respecting a guilty plea.”). The first prong of the Strickland test is nothing more than a restatement of the standard of attorney competence described above. Hill, 474 U.S. at 58.

The second, or “prejudice” requirement, on the other hand, focuses on whether counsel's constitutionally ineffective performance affected the outcome of the plea process. In other words, in order to satisfy the “prejudice” requirement, the defendant 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.

Id. at 59. The Hill Court reiterated that, as stated in Strickland, “these predictions of the outcome at a possible trial, where necessary, should be made objectively ....” Id. at 59-60; see also Padilla, 559 U.S. at 372 (noting that “to obtain relief on this type of claim, a petitioner must convince the court that a decision to reject the plea bargain would have been rational under the circumstances”).

         III. Analysis

         A. Motion and Supplemental Motion

         Espejo Sanchez raises arguments under both the Fifth and Sixth Amendments to the United States Constitution. First, he argues that the Court should set aside his guilty plea in the interest of justice for failing to allow him to represent himself. Motion at 3. Second, he contends that he received ineffective assistance of counsel . Id. at 4; Supplemental Motion at 14.

         1. Failure to allow Espejo Sanchez to represent himself

         Espejo Sanchez first argues that he was denied his Sixth Amendment right to “Self-Representation.” Motion at 3. He states that he made numerous requests to represent himself, explaining why he chose to do so, which were all denied by the Court. Id.

         Espejo Sanchez bases his argument on Faretta v. California, 422 U.S. 806 (1975), in which the Supreme Court held that a state could not force counsel on a defendant who voluntarily and intelligently chooses to represent himself. Id. at 807. “It is well-settled that the Sixth Amendment encompasses a right to self-representation by criminal defendants.” United States v. Gomez-Rosario, 418 F.3d 90, 95 (1st Cir. 2005)(citing Faretta, 422 U.S. at 814-17). The right to self-representation is not absolute, however. “[I]n order to represent himself, the accused must ‘knowingly and intelligently' forgo those relinquished benefits [associated with the right to counsel].” Faretta, 422 U.S. at 835 (quoting Johnson v. Zerbst, 304 U.S. 458, 464-65 (1938)). A self-represented defendant must be able and willing to abide by rules of trial procedure and courtroom protocol. McKaskle v. Wiggins, 465 US. 168, 173 (1984); Faretta, 422 U.S. at 836. Moreover, a court may appoint “standby counsel” to assist the defendant, McKaskle, 465 US. at 170; Faretta, 422 U.S. at 834 n.46, even if the defendant objects, Gomez-Rosario, 418 F.3d at 99.

         “[A] defendant's invocation of the right to self-representation must be contained in ‘unequivocal language.'” United States v. Robinson, 753 F.3d 31, 42 (1st Cir. 2014)(quoting United States v. Woodward, 291 F.3d 95, 109 (1st Cir. 2002)). The Court of Appeals for the First Circuit has further stated that:

[W]hen a defendant seeks to proceed pro se the trial judge must determine whether the defendant's waiver is intelligent and competent. In discharging this responsibility, the trial judge must keep in mind the strong presumption against waiver and investigate as long and as thoroughly as the circumstances of the case before him demand. As part of the inquiry into whether the defendant's waiver is intelligent, the trial judge must warn the defendant of the dangers and disadvantages of self-representation, so that the record will establish that [the defendant] knows what he is doing and his choice is made with eyes open.

United States v. Francois, 715 F.3d 21, 30 (1st Cir. 2013)(second alteration in original)(internal citations and quotation marks omitted); see also Robinson, 753 F.3d at 42 (“Before allowing pro se representation ... a trial judge must make sure that certain prerequisites have been satisfied because an individual who undertakes self-representation is at a significant disadvantage compared to someone defended by counsel.”).

         There are several problems with Espejo Sanchez's argument. First, it appears that he sought to represent himself in CR No. 13-32-ML, not in the case currently before the court. On May 20, 2013, Espejo Sanchez filed a Motion to Appoint New Counsel (Doc. #21 in CR No. 13-32-ML). Subsequently, on September 3, 2013, he filed a Motion for a Change of Counsel (Doc. #35 in CR No. 13-32-ML). Both motions were denied after hearing. See Docket in CR No. 13-32-ML. Espejo Sanchez filed no motions with respect to counsel in the instant matter. See Docket in CR No. 14-78-ML.

         In addition, although he included a request in the alternative to proceed pro se in the second motion, Espejo Sanchez did not press that argument at the hearing on the motion, Response to Motion, Ex. 1, September 23, 2013, Hearing Transcript (Doc. #12-1) (“9/23/13 Hrng. Tr.”). Therefore, it cannot be said that Espejo Sanchez's “invocation of the right to self-representation” was “contained in unequivocal language.” Robinson, 753 F.3d at 42 (internal quotation marks omitted). Further, the Court was denied the opportunity to make a determination as to whether any potential waiver of the right to counsel would have been knowingly, intelligently, and competently made. See id. at 43; Francois, 715 F.3d at 30.

         Lastly, Espejo Sanchez's current claim appears to be a case of “sour grapes.” In his Motion for a Change of Counsel, Espejo Sanchez argued that:

In this case now before this Court, Counsel has not entertained any pre-trial motions; nor hired an investigator to look into the very serious issue of an illegal search and seizure matter that the defendant has been trying to question his Counsel about since day one in this case, and a host of other matters as well ....

         Mot. for Change in Counsel. At the hearing on the motion, Espejo Sanchez brought up the search and seizure of the vehicle, asserting that he had a valid basis to challenge it. 9/23/13 Hrng. Tr. at 2.

         Two exchanges are particularly relevant to the issue of self-representation. After asking Espejo Sanchez if he had discussed the search and seizure issue with counsel and receiving an affirmative response, the Court stated:

THE COURT: And has she told you that she does not believe you have a valid basis for the filing of such a motion?
THE DEFENDANT: Yes, your Honor.
THE COURT: And what legal training do you have that makes you a better judge of whether or not you have such a legal basis for that motion?
THE DEFENDANT: Well, none, your Honor.
THE COURT: So what's the point?

9/23/13 Hrng. Tr. at 2-3. After admitting that the car belonged to his co-defendant, Doneri Sandoval, the Court advised Espejo Sanchez that he could not assert Mr. Sandoval's rights. Id. at 6. Espejo Sanchez continued to press the issue:

THE DEFENDANT: Well, there could be other ways we can -- I don't know.
THE COURT: That's the problem, Mr. Espejo. You don't know. You're trying to play lawyer, and you're not very good at it.

Id. The Court subsequently stated:

THE COURT: [I]f what you have is a disagreement about whether or not you've got these Fourth Amendment issues, which you've already admitted you're not a trained attorney, she has ...

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