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Gonzalez v. United States

UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT DISTRICT OF NEW JERSEY


February 19, 2009

RE: GONZALEZ
v.
UNITED STATES

The opinion of the court was delivered by: William J. Martini Judge

LETTER OPINION

Dear Counsel:

This matter comes before the Court on pro se Petitioner Luis Gonzalez's motion to vacate, set aside, or correct his sentence pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2255. There was no oral argument. Fed. R. Civ. P. 78. For the reasons stated below, the motion is DISMISSED WITH PREJUDICE and the relief requested therein is DENIED.

I. BACKGROUND

Luis Gonzalez was charged by information with conspiracy to distribute 1 kilogram or more of heroin, in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 841(a)(1) and (b)(1)(A). Gonzalez's arrest came in November 2004, after federal drug enforcement agents executed a search warrant at a house in Clifton, New Jersey. During the search of this house, agents found, inter alia, over thirteen kilograms of heroin, $70,000, and Petitioner Gonzalez. (Pet'r's Br. 1). Subsequent to his arrest, Gonzalez spoke to the agents and admitted assisting in the processing of heroin at the Clifton house. Id. Further, Gonzalez told the agents that he was paid "anywhere between $300.00 and $500.00 per week." Id.

The Government offered Gonzalez a plea agreement, dated June 28, 2005, which Gonzalez rejected. (Resp't Br. 2). On February 14, 2006, Gonzalez pled guilty to the one-count information before this Court, without a plea agreement. The Court then sentenced Gonzalez to eighty-seven months in prison and three years of supervised release.

II. DISCUSSION

28 U.S.C. § 2255 provides that a prisoner in custody under a sentence from a federal court may move the court that imposed the sentence to either vacate, set aside, or correct the sentence. A prisoner can challenge his or her sentence on the ground that: (1) the sentence was imposed in violation of the Constitution or laws of the United States; (2) the court was without jurisdiction to impose such sentence; (3) the sentence was in excess of the maximum authorized by law; or (4) the sentence is "otherwise subject to collateral attack."

28 U.S.C. § 2255.

Gonzalez's petition attacks his sentence on Fifth and Sixth Amendment grounds. The crux of Gonzalez's claim is that his attorney did not advise him of the full consequences of his plea. Accordingly, Gonzalez brings an ineffectiveness challenge, as well as a claim that his plea was not knowing and voluntary.

A. Ineffective Assistance of Counsel

Gonzalez first attacks his sentence on Sixth Amendment grounds, arguing that defense counsel was "deplorably ineffective" because she did not advise him fully as to the consequences of his plea and did not "protect his legal rights." (Pet'r's Br. 4). To set forth an ineffective assistance of counsel claim, petitioner is required to demonstrate that: (1) his attorney's performance was deficient, and (2) he was prejudiced by this deficiency.

Strickland v. United States, 466 U.S. 668, 687 (1984).

Gonzalez alleges that his attorney's performance was deficient because she failed to explain the consequences of accepting the plea agreement offered by the Government. Gonzalez states that the plea agreement exposed him to "open-ended liability" by waiving the statute of limitations for any criminal conduct deemed by the Government to be related to the original charges. (Pet'r's Br. 4).

As an initial matter, the Court notes that Gonzalez did not plead pursuant to a plea agreement. He rejected the Government's offer.*fn1 Consequently, Gonzalez's attempt to vitiate his sentence based on his lawyer's failure to explain the terms of the plea agreement must fail, as the agreement cited was not in effect.

Beyond his plea agreement allegations, Gonzalez also alleges that his attorney pressured him and overstated the benefits of pleading guilty. As such, Gonzalez contends that his attorney's performance fell below an "objective standard of reasonableness," Strickland, 466 U.S. at 688; however, he provides only vague and conclusory arguments in support of this claim. See Pet'r's Br. 5 ("A reasonable attorney would have properly and accurately counseled his client regarding the consequences of pleading guilty, rather than effectively coercing his client to plead guilty. A reasonable attorney would not misrepresent the benefits of pleading guilty or the risks associated with proceeding to trial.").

Gonzalez provides no facts to substantiate that his attorney pressured him or made misrepresentations regarding his plea. This is striking, given both the vagueness of his claims and the fact that they are belied by the record. For example, under oath at his plea hearing, Gonzalez represented to the court that he was satisfied with his attorney's services. See Tr. 4 ("[The Court:] You have an attorney, Ms. Richman. Correct? Are you satisfied with her services? [Gonzalez:] Yes, your honor."). Later at his plea hearing, Gonzalez informed the court that nobody forced, threatened, or coerced him to plead guilty:

[The Court:] No one is forcing you to plead guilty here today?

[Gonzalez:] Oh, no, no, your Honor.

[The Court:] Are you doing it of your own free will?

[Gonzalez:] Yes, your honor.

Tr. 12.*fn2 As the Third Circuit has noted, "the representations of the defendant ... as well as any findings made by the judge accepting the plea, constitute a formidable barrier in any subsequent collateral proceedings. Solemn declarations made in open court carry a strong presumption of verity." Zilich v. Reid, 36 F.3d 317, 320 (3d Cir. 1994) (quoting Blackledge v. Allison, 431 U.S. 63, 73-74 (1977)).

To put forth a successful ineffective assistance of counsel challenge, "[a] convicted defendant ... must identify the acts or omissions of counsel that are alleged not to have been the result of reasonable professional judgment." Strickland, 466 U.S. at 690. There is no evidence here, either put forth by Gonzalez or established in the record, to support Gonzalez's allegations about his attorney's performance. Instead, the Court is left only with Petitioner's unspecific allegations in his motion and Petitioner's sworn statements to the contrary at his plea hearing. Based on this evidence, there is no specific and credible evidence to support Petitioner's claims that his attorney pressured or coerced him to plead guilty. Accordingly, as Petitioner has failed to demonstrate deficiency,*fn3 his ineffective assistance of counsel claim fails.*fn4

B. Voluntariness of Petitioner's Plea

Next, Petitioner argues that his plea was neither knowing nor voluntary, in contravention of the Fifth Amendment. Again, Petitioner claims that his attorney unduly pressured him to enter a guilty plea.

In order for a guilty plea to comport with the requirements of the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment, it must be knowing, voluntary and intelligent. Bousley v. United States, 523 U.S. 614, 618-19, 118 S.Ct. 1604 (1998). To that end, Fed. R. Crim. P. 11 provides that: "[b]efore the court accepts a plea of guilty ... the court must inform the defendant of, and determine that the defendant understands ... the right to plead not guilty, or having already so pleaded, to persist in that plea." Fed. R. Crim. P. 11(b). As the Third Circuit has noted, "A habeas petitioner challenging the voluntary nature of his or her guilty plea faces a heavy burden. The plea colloquy is designed to uncover hidden promises or representations as to the consequences of a guilty plea." Zilich, 36 F.3d at 320.

As noted above, the Court engaged in a lengthy plea colloquy with Petitioner, during which Petitioner affirmed that no one was forcing him to plead guilty:

[The Court:] No one is forcing you to plead guilty here today?

[Gonzalez:] Oh, no, no, your Honor.

[The Court:] Are you doing it of your own free will?

[Gonzalez:] Yes, your Honor.

[The Court:] You fully understand by pleading guilty here today you're exposing yourself to a sentence of a minimum of 10 years and a maximum of life in prison. Do you understand that?

[Gonzalez:] Yes.

Tr. 12.*fn5 Further, Petitioner stated that he was satisfied with his representation. See Tr. 4.

In spite of this, Petitioner alleges that his attorney misled him as to the risks associated with pleading guilty; however, Petitioner provides no specific facts to support this claim. See Zilich, 36 F.3d at 320. "A petitioner challenging the voluntary nature of a facially valid guilty plea based on unfulfilled promises or representations by counsel must advance specific and credible allegations detailing the nature and circumstances of such promises or representations." Since Petitioner has presented no specific and credible allegations to rebut the sworn affirmations he made to the Court during his plea colloquy, his Fifth Amendment challenge fails.

C. Request for an Evidentiary Hearing

Finally, Petitioner requests an evidentiary hearing on his motion. His petition advances no facts, only vague allegations; as such, in the absence of disputed facts, an evidentiary hearing is unnecessary. In addition, the motions, files, and records of the case show conclusively that Gonzalez is not entitled to relief. United States v. Booth, 432 F.3d 542, 546 (3d Cir. 2005). Accordingly, the Court denies his request for a hearing.

III. CONCLUSION

For the foregoing reasons, Gonzalez's motion to vacate, set aside, or correct his sentence pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2255 is hereby DISMISSED WITH PREJUDICE and the relief requested therein is DENIED. An appropriate Order accompanies this Letter Opinion.

WILLIAM J. MARTINI, U.S.D.J.


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