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Kantete v. United States

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

April 1, 2019

HOPE K. KANTETE, Petitioner,
v.
UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Respondent.

          OPINION

          ROBERT B. KUGLER UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Petitioner, Hope Kantete, is a federal prisoner currently incarcerated at FMC Carswell in Fort Worth, Texas. She is proceeding through counsel with a motion to vacate, set aside, or correct her sentence pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2255. For the reasons set forth below, Petitioner's motion will be denied and a certificate of appealability shall not issue.

         I. FACTUAL BACKGROUND AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         On direct appeal, the Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit succinctly described the underlying circumstances as follows:

Kantete owned and operated Safari Auto Sales, a car dealership in Jersey City, New Jersey, but did not limit her stake in the automotive trade to legitimate business. Instead, Kantete worked with several sources to obtain stolen vehicles-typically high-end luxury vehicles, such as Range Rovers, Mercedes-Benzes, BMWs, and Porsches-and employed other individuals to change the Vehicle- Identification Numbers (“VINs”) and obtain counterfeit Certificates of Title. She also located customers for those vehicles, including many in Africa.
Kantete was ultimately convicted of one count of conspiracy to transport stolen motor vehicles and ten counts of transportation of stolen motor vehicles, in violation of 18 U.S.C. §§ 371 and 2312. At sentencing, the District Court determined that Kantete was responsible for a loss amount between $2.5 million and $7 million, resulting in an eighteen-level Guidelines enhancement. The District Court also found applicable a number of other enhancements that resulted in a Guidelines range of 262 to 327 months' imprisonment. After considering the parties' arguments, the District Judge sentenced Kantete to the bottom of that range, ordering her to serve 262 months' imprisonment and concurrent three-year terms of supervised release and to pay restitution in the amount of $346, 936.91.

United States v. Kantete, 610 Fed.Appx. 173, 175 (3d Cir. 2015).

         Petitioner appealed to the Third Circuit. See Id. On May 7, 2015, the Third Circuit denied her appeal and affirmed the sentence imposed by the District Court. See id. at 178-79. Petitioner then filed the instant § 2255 motion in August 2016. (See ECF No. 1.) In November 2016, Respondents submitted their Answer. (See ECF No. 4). Petitioner filed a traverse thereafter. (See ECF No. 5).

         II. LEGAL STANDARD

         Under 28 U.S.C. § 2255, a motion to vacate, set aside or correct a sentence of a person in federal custody entitles a prisoner to relief if “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.” 28 U.S.C. § 2255(a). When considering a § 2255 motion, a district court “‘must accept the truth of the movant's factual allegations unless they are clearly frivolous on the basis of the existing record.'” United States v. Tolliver, 800 F.3d 138, 141 (3d Cir. 2015) (quoting United States v. Booth, 432 F.3d 542, 545 (3d Cir. 2005)). Additionally, a district court must hold an evidentiary hearing on the motion if “‘the files and records do not show conclusively that [the movant] was not entitled to relief.'” United States v. Tolliver, 800 F.3d 138, 141 (3d Cir. 2015) (alteration in original) (quoting Solis v. United States, 252 F.3d 289, 294 (3d Cir. 2001)).

         III. DISCUSSION

         Petitioner raises two ineffective assistance of counsel claims in her § 2255 action. First, Petitioner asserts that her trial counsel was ineffective for advising her “to proceed to trial rather than to seek a plea deal, or, at a minimum plead guilty ‘open.'” (See Id. at 5.) Second, Petitioner argues that her trial counsel was ineffective for failing to “properly preserve [her] objection to the ‘serious bodily injury' upward adjustment.” (See ECF No. 1 at 4.)

         An ineffective assistance of counsel claim has two components:

First, the defendant must show that counsel's performance was deficient. This requires showing that counsel made errors so serious that counsel was not functioning as the “counsel” guaranteed the defendant by the Sixth Amendment. Second, the defendant must show that the deficient performance prejudiced the defense. This requires showing that counsel's errors were so serious as to deprive the defendant of a fair trial, a trial whose result is reliable.

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

         The first prong of the test “requires a defendant to show ‘that counsel's representation fell below an objective standard of reasonableness.'” Lafler v. Cooper, 132 S.Ct. 1376, 1384 (2012) (quoting Hill v. Lockhart, 474 U.S. 52, 57 (1985) (quoting Strickland, 466 U.S. at 688)). There is “a strong presumption that counsel's conduct falls within the wide range of reasonable professional assistance; that is, the defendant must overcome the presumption that, under the circumstances, the challenged action ‘might be considered sound trial strategy.'” Strickland, 466 U.S. at 689 (quoting Michel v. Louisiana, 350 U.S. 91, 101 (1955)). “The Sixth Amendment guarantees reasonable competence, not perfect advocacy judged with the benefit of hindsight.” Yarborough v. Gentry, 540 U.S. 1, 8 (2003) (citing Bell v. Cone, 535 U.S. 685, 702 (2002); Kimmelman v. Morrison, 477 U.S. 365, 382 (1986); Strickland, 466 U.S. at 689; United States v. Cronic, 466 U.S. 648, 656 (1984)).

         The second prong of the Strickland test, prejudice, requires a defendant to “show 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.'” Collins v. Sec. of Pennsylvania Dept. of Corr., 742 F.3d 528, 547 (3d Cir. 2014) (quoting Strickland, 466 U.S. at 694). A court need not address both components of the ineffective assistance inquiry. Strickland, 466 U.S. at 697. “If it is easier to dispose of an ineffectiveness claim on the ground of lack of sufficient prejudice [. . .] that course should be followed.” Id.

         A. Guilty Plea

         Petitioner's first ineffective assistance of counsel claim arises out of the plea process itself. Petitioner argues that her trial counsel was ineffective for allegedly advising her “to proceed to trial rather than seek a plea deal or, at minimum plead guilty ‘open.'” (See ECF No. 1 at 5.) To demonstrate ineffective assistance of counsel in the context of a rejected plea offer, a defendant must show that:

but for the ineffective advice of counsel, there is a reasonable probability that the plea offer would have been presented to the court (i.e. that the defendant would have accepted the plea and the prosecution would not have withdrawn it in light of intervening circumstances); that the court would have accepted its terms; and that the conviction or sentence, or both, under the offer's terms would have been less severe than under the judgment and sentence ultimately imposed.

Lafler, 132 S.Ct. at 1385.

         The Third Circuit has recognized that “counsel must provide defendants facing a potential guilty plea ‘enough information to make a reasonably informed decision whether to accept a plea offer.'” United States v. Vaughn, 704 Fed.Appx. 207, 212 (3d Cir. 2017) (quoting United States v. Bui, 795 F.3d 363, 367 (3d Cir. 2015)). Significantly, “[k]nowledge of the comparative sentence exposure between standing trial and accepting a plea offer will often be crucial to the decision whether to plead guilty.” United States v. Day, 969 F.2d 39, 43 (3d Cir. 1992). But the Third Circuit has also cautioned that courts should be “wary” of claims that trial counsel did not adequately advise a defendant about the benefits and consequences of a plea offer because “defendants will always want the best of both worlds: the chance at acquittal at trial, yet the chance to plead guilty if the trial defense fails.” Id. at 46 n.9.

         Here, Petitioner contends that:

[H]er attorney performed in an objectively unreasonable manner by advising Kantete to proceed to trial rather than to plead guilty. By negotiating a plea agreement and pleading guilty there was certainly a reasonable probability Kantete would have obtained some concessions from the Government as inducement for the guilty plea, as is usually the case. But if not, Kantete would certainly have received a three point “acceptance of responsibility” reduction.

(ECF No. 1-1 at 9.)

         However, contrary to Petitioner's assertion that counsel should have negotiated a plea offer on her behalf, Petitioner did, in fact, receive two plea agreement offers from the Government. (See ECF No. 4 at 5-7.) Petitioner was initially offered the opportunity to plead guilty after the first indictment was brought against her, but she ultimately rejected that offer. (See Id. at 5.) Petitioner was then again offered the opportunity to plead guilty after the third superseding indictment was handed down. (See Id. at 6.) At arraignment on that indictment, the Government detailed on the record the charges contained in the indictment, as well as Petitioner's sentencing exposure if convicted of each of those offenses. (See ECF No. 4-1 at 3-5.)

THE COURT: Mr. Almonte, can you tell us what the penalty -- can you the defendant what the penalties are if convicted on ...

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