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Hill v. United States

United States District Court, Third Circuit

January 27, 2014

DAVID HILL, Petitioner,


KATHARINE S. HAYDEN, District Judge.


Pro se movant David Hill seeks to vacate, set aside, or correct his sentence pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2255. In 2005, Hill pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to distribute a controlled substance in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 846, and on July 27, 2006, the Court sentenced him to 151 months of imprisonment. Hill now contends that counsel was ineffective for failing to argue for a sentencing variance based on the inhumane conditions of the Passaic County Jail where he was detained for approximately two years prior to sentencing. For the following reasons, his § 2255 motion will be denied.


Hill was charged with conspiracy to distribute a controlled substance and detained pretrial at the Passaic County Jail. When he entered his plea, Hill was represented by Ronald Sampson. At the sentencing hearing, Paul Bergrin took over his representation. Hill appealed his sentence of 151 months, the Third Circuit summarily affirmed in September 2008 ( see C.A. No. 06-3834), and he then timely filed this § 2255 motion.


Section 2255 provides relief to a federal prisoner on the following grounds: (1) the judgment was rendered without jurisdiction; (2) the sentence imposed was not authorized by law or otherwise open to collateral attack; or (3) there has been such a denial or infringement of the constitutional rights of the prisoner as to render the judgment vulnerable to collateral attack. 28 U.S.C. § 2255(a). A § 2255 motion is liberally construed when a prisoner proceeds pro se. United States v. Otero , 502 F.3d 331, 334 (3d Cir. 2007). The Court may dismiss the motion without holding an evidentiary hearing if 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); Liu v. United States , No. 11-4646, ___ F.Supp.2d ___, 2013 WL 4538293, at *9 (D.N.J. Aug. 26, 2013) (Simandle, J.) (citing United States v. Booth , 432 F.3d 542, 545-46 (3d Cir. 2005)).


A. Statute of Limitations

The government initially argues that Hill's motion is untimely inasmuch as the date of filing exceeds the one-year statute of limitations. 28 U.S.C. § 2255(f). The Third Circuit has held (with exceptions not relevant here) that a conviction becomes final on "the later of (1) the date on which the Supreme Court affirms the conviction and sentence on the merits or denies the defendant's timely filed petition for certiorari, or (2) the date on which the defendant's time for filing a timely petition for certiorari review expires." Kapral v. United States , 166 F.3d 565, 577 (3d Cir. 1999). Because a litigant has 90 days to seek certiorari under Supreme Court Rule 13- which Hill did not do-his conviction became final, and his one-year statute of limitations began to run, on December 4, 2008. Having filed his motion on November 3, 2009, [1] Hill has made a timely application for relief.

B. Waiver of the Right to File a Collateral Attack

The government next contends that Hill's petition should be denied because his plea agreement included a conditional waiver of appeal and post-conviction rights, whereby he waived the right to file a § 2255 motion attacking his sentence if he was sentenced within or below the Guidelines range that results from an offense level of 33. (Plea Agmt., Sched. A ¶ 7.) The plain text of the waiver applies to the present collateral attack, which challenges the sentence only and not the validity of the underlying conviction. Cf. Cedeno v. United States , 455 F.Appx. 241, 244 (3d Cir. 2011) (nonprecedential) (deciding that a similar § 2255 waiver did not apply when movant "did not waive the right to challenge the legal basis of the conviction itself"). Further, the Court sentenced Hill at level 33, which, based on his agreed-upon criminal history category II, provided for a range between 151 and 188 months. (Sentencing Hrg. Tr. 9:2, 10:1-10.) Hill received a sentence at the very bottom of that range.

While Hill's agreement to waive his right to file a motion under § 2255 did not bind the Court, the Third Circuit has held that such agreements are enforceable if "they are entered into knowingly and voluntarily and their enforcement does not work a miscarriage of justice." United States v. Mabry , 536 F.3d 231, 237 (3d Cir. 2008). Hill does not contend that he was uninformed or forced to make his waiver, and in any event, the record shows otherwise. At Hill's plea hearing, the Court specifically asked him, "[D]o you understand that if you are sentenced at a level 33 or lower, you give up your right to file an appeal or a post conviction challenge to your conviction or sentence[?]" (Plea Hrg. Tr. 22:7-10.) Hill responded that he did understand. ( Id. 22:11.) Shortly after that exchange, the Court again asked, "And do you understand that... you will not be able to file an appeal of your sentence of file for post conviction relief challenging your conviction or sentence, understood?" ( Id. 22:23-24: 3.) Hill again said "Yes." ( Id. 23:4.) The Court also questioned Hill at length about the factual bases for the plea and whether his decision to plead was of his own accord, after which it made a finding that "his guilty plea is a knowing and voluntary plea." ( Id. 29:20-21.)

"Plea agreements, although arising in a criminal context, are analyzed under contract law standards." United States v. Nolan-Cooper , 155 F.3d 221, 236 (3d Cir. 1998). And as contracts, plea agreements, and the waivers contained within, will not lightly be set aside if voluntarily and knowingly entered into. See, e.g., United States v. Castro , 704 F.3d 125, 135-36 (3d Cir. 2013) (discussing standard for review of plea agreements and appellate waivers). The Court "find[s] no evidence that the plea agreement was not entered into knowingly or voluntarily, and [] also find[s] no other exceptional circumstances that would justify disregarding its terms." United States v. Yeage r, 351 F.Appx. 718, 721 (3d Cir. 2009) (nonprecedential). Hence, the Court concludes that ...

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