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Eric Sims v. United States of America

April 11, 2012

ERIC SIMS, PETITIONER,
v.
UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, RESPONDENT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Walls, Senior District Judge

OPINION

Pro se Petitioner Eric Sims moves to vacate, set aside or correct his sentence under 28 U.S.C. § 2255. Sims argues that counsel was ineffective because counsel did not advise him that he could take an "open plea" rather than plead guilty under the Government's offer. Sims argues that the failure to inform him of an open plea option invalidates his waiver of his appellate rights. He also argues that he was prejudiced by counsel's ineffective conduct because he would have been sentenced to less time in incarceration if he had taken an open plea. Respondent filed an Answer, and Petitioner filed a Reply. Pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 78 and 28 U.S.C. § 2255(b), the Court decides this motion without oral argument. The motion is denied.

FACTUAL AND PRODEDURAL HISTORY

On December 2, 2008 Sims was charged with conspiring to possess with intent to distribute 100 grams or more of a substance containing heroin, in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 846. Crim. Case No. 09-419, Compl. Eric Sims, Dec. 2, 2008, ECF No. 1. He was arrested on December 4, 2008, at which point he retained an attorney, Robert DeGroot, who entered an appearance on that date. Crim. Case No. 09-419, Notice Att'y Appearance, Dec. 4, 2008, ECF No. 5. On June 8, 2009 Sims waived prosecution by indictment and pled guilty based on a plea agreement with the Government. Crim. Case No. 09-419, June 8, 2009, ECF Nos. 14, 17-18.

The plea agreement stated that 21 U.S.C. § 846 "carries a statutory maximum prison sentence of 40 years and a mandatory minimum sentence of 5 years .." Crim. Case No. 09-419, Plea Agreement Eric Sims, June 8, 2009, ECF No. 18. The Appendix to the agreement explained that "the parties agree that the total Guidelines offense level applicable to Eric Sims is 31 .." Id. It also stated "that neither party will argue for the imposition of a sentence outside the Guidelines range that results from the agreed total Guidelines offense level." Id.

At the June 8, 2009 plea hearing the Court engaged in a colloquy with Mr. Sims during which it emphasized that he would be giving up his right to appeal or to file petitions, writs of habeas corpus or motions of any kind provided that he was sentenced at a level not greater than 31. At his sentencing hearing on March 25, 2010, Petitioner was again informed on the record of his limited right to appeal or collaterally attack his sentence in light of his waiver. On March 31, 2010 the Court entered a Judgment in a Criminal Case, adjudicating Petitioner guilty of conspiracy to distribute 100 grams or more of heroin, a controlled substance. He was sentenced to a term of imprisonment of 188 months, a sentence that represents the lowest point in the range at guidelines level 31 and a criminal history category of VI. Crim. Case No. 09-419, J. Eric Sims, March 31, 2010, ECF No. 21.

EVIDENTIARY HEARING

A district court must hold an evidentiary hearing on a § 2255 motion "[u]nless 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); see also United States v. Booth, 432 F.3d 542, 545-46 (3d Cir. 2005); Page v. United States, 462 F.2d 932, 933 (3d Cir, 1972). The record in this case conclusively shows that Sims is not entitled to relief. Sims cannot demonstrate that he suffered prejudice as a result of his counsel's alleged ineffective assistance. In Booth, the defendant did not receive the benefit of a reduction under the Sentencing Guidelines' acceptance-of-responsibility provision. Booth had been convicted at trial after refusing a plea offer because he did not want to cooperate against anyone else involved. Booth's counsel's failure to inform him of the option to enter an open plea prejudiced him because had he entered an open plea he "would have likely received a three-level reduction for acceptance of responsibility." Booth, 432 F.3d at 548. Sims' case is different because he received the benefit of a reduction for acceptance-of-responsibility. There is no other sentencing reduction he would have likely received had he entered an open plea. An evidentiary hearing is not required.

STANDARD OF REVIEW

Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2255, a federal prisoner may move the court that imposed the sentence to vacate, set aside, or correct the sentence "on the ground that the sentence was imposed in violation of the Constitution or laws of the United States . or is otherwise subject to collateral attack[.]" 28 U.S.C. § 2255(a). If the violation of the Constitution on which the motion is based is ineffective assistance of counsel, Petitioner must show "that counsel's performance was deficient" and "that the deficient performance prejudiced the defense." Strickland v. Washington, 466 US 668, 687-88 (1984). The prejudice prong requires Sims to show that but for ineffective counsel there was a reasonable probability that the outcome would have been different. See Id. at 694. The Third Circuit endorses "the practical suggestion in Strickland to consider the prejudice prong before examining the performance of counsel prong[.]" Booth, 432 F.3d at 546. In this case, Sims must show that had his counsel informed him of his option to enter an open plea, he would have done so and likely received a lower sentence.

DISCUSSION

Sims stated under oath during his plea colloquy that he understood that he was waiving his right to appeal or collaterally attack his sentence if he was sentenced at a guidelines level of 31. The Court explained to the Petitioner that under his plea agreement he was still subject to a maximum sentence of 40 years. He was given time to speak to his attorney regarding what it would mean to agree that a sentence at the level of 31 is reasonable. He now attempts to collaterally attack a sentence that is within the range to which he agreed. He hopes to escape his waiver of the right to appeal because he argues he did not know he could enter an open plea. ...


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