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Ahuama v. United States

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

November 5, 2019

AMAECHI ANTWAN AHUAMA, Petitioner,
v.
UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Respondent.

          OPINION

          PETER G. SHERIDAN UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         I. INTRODUCTION

         Petitioner, Amaechi Antwan Ahuama, has filed a pro se motion to vacate, set aside or correct his sentence pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2255. For the following reasons, this Court will deny the motion.

         II. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         Between February 2007 and October 2012, Petitioner, his co-defendants and unknown co-conspirators, worked together in an effort to steal several millions dollars in a scheme where they fraudulently induced victims to pay fees to secure non-existent funds or assets. (See Presentence Investigation Report, hereinafter ("PSR") at ¶ 2) The fraudulently obtained money was obtained from victims' bank accounts in multiple states including New Jersey. (Id. at ¶ 35)

         The conspiracy had varying categories of responsibilities, which included that of a "catcher[]," "handler[]," and "account holder[]." (Id. at ¶¶ 26-27, 29) A catcher "primarily operated overseas and w[as] tasked with identifying potential victims of the Advance Fee Fraud" and subsequently "sent emails out in mass quantity to various email addresses." (Id. at ¶ 26) A handler "primarily operated in the United States, and contacted the victims by email, phone, and sometimes in person, in furtherance of the Advance Fee Fraud. (Id. at ¶ 27) Finally, the "account holder" which Petitioner was identified as, "opened and/or managed one or more bank accounts used to receive fraudulently induced fee payments from the victims ("Drop Accounts"). (Id. at ¶ 29) The money obtained from the scheme was split between catchers, handlers and account holders. (Id. at ¶ 31) However, some account holders also acted as handlers and handled victims of their own. (Id.)

         Petitioner controlled a drop account in the name of "Cell Phone Unlimited LLC," which was used to receive the fraudulently induced payments. (Id. at ¶ 45) In December of 2011, the Cobb County, Georgia Sheriffs Office was contacted by an individual, D.L., to report fraud. (Id. at ¶ 58) D.L. had already sent over $150, 000 to an individual who he believed to be in Ghana. (Id.) D.L. also provided that he made deposits into a Bank of America account that belonged to A A Global Investments, located in Powder Springs, Georgia. (Id. at ¶ 59) An investigator later verified that AA Global Investments was a registered corporation in Georgia established on November 2, 2011, that listed Petitioner as the sole officer of the corporation. (Id. at ¶ 60) The Georgia authorities verified the existence of the Bank of America account which D.L. reported he deposited money into, and bank representatives advised that the account had numerous transfers into it and funds withdrawn locally. (Id. at ¶ 61) Bank of America subsequently blocked the account, prompting Petitioner to call the bank the following day. (Id.) The bank referred Petitioner to the Sheriffs Office, who in turn advised him to report to the office for an interview. (Id.) Petitioner agreed to do so but had no further contact with the law enforcement officers. (Id.)

         The investigation also uncovered that Petitioner had filed letters of incorporation with the Georgia Secretary of State's Office for several companies between 2007 and 2011. (Id. at ¶ 63)

         Ultimately, petitioner was arrested on January 11, 2013. (See PSR at ¶ 64) On October 17, 2013, Petitioner was indicted in a twelve-count second superseding indictment. (Id. at ¶ 4)

         On April 24, 2015, Petitioner pled guilty to laundering of money instruments in violation of 18 U.S.C. §§ 1956(a)(1)(A)(i), and (B)(i), and (B)(ii). (PSR ¶ 70)

         Prior to sentencing, the United States Probation Office prepared a PSR. The PSR determined that the offense carried a base offense level of 8, however because the value of the laundered funds was more than $1, 500, 000 but less than $3, 500, 000, a sixteen-level increase was imposed resulting in a 24-base offense level. (See PSR at ¶¶ 70, 120) Petitioner also received a two-level enhancement pursuant to United States Sentencing Guidelines (hereinafter, "USSG") § 3B1.1(a) because the offense of conviction was in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1956. (Id. at ¶ 121) Additionally, a two-level increase was imposed pursuant to USSG § 2S 1.1 (b)(3), because (A) subsection (b)(2)(B) applied and (B) the offense involved sophisticated laundering. (PSR ¶ 122) The PSR then decreased the total offense level by two for acceptance of responsibility under § 3E1.1(a) and one level pursuant to § 3E1.1(b)(2). (Id. at ¶¶¶ 118, 128-129) Thus, the PSR calculated a total offense level of 25. (Id. at ¶ 130) The PSR determined a criminal history score of 0 and a corresponding criminal history category of I. (Id. at ¶ 163) Petitioner's total offense level and criminal history category resulted in a guideline imprisonment range of 57 to 71 months and a supervised release term of one to three years. (Id. at ¶¶ 160, 163)

         At Petitioner's sentencing hearing on April 7, 2016, the Court granted a two-level downward variance because of the disparity in sentencing among the co-defendants which resulted in a 23-total offense level and a sentencing range of 46-57 months. (ECF No. 15-1 at 74-75) The Court sentenced Petitioner to a low-end guidelines-range sentence of 48-months followed by three years of supervised release. (Id. at 75)

         Shortly thereafter, Petitioner appealed his sentence to the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. United States v. Ahuama, 686 Fed.Appx. 82 (3d Cir. 2017). Before affirming Petitioner's conviction and sentence, the Third Circuit rejected all but one of Petitioner's claims, which was an ineffective assistance claim that it considered best suited for collateral review. Id. at *87.

         Petitioner then filed a pro se § 2255 motion[1] and a subsequent amended motion in this Court. (ECF Nos. 1, 3) Petitioner raises the following claims in his petition.

1. "Counsel's performance fell below an objective standard of reasonableness at the sentencing phase of the proceedings by failing to ensure that I received the proper guideline range."
2. "District Court's failure to include the two level downward adjustment that the court had previously granted."
3. "Restitution hearing more than ninety days after I had pled guilty."
4. "District Court erred in the victim loss calculation and restitution determination by holding me responsible, both jointly and severally liable for the entire loss amount."

(ECF No. 3 at 6-10)

         Respondent filed a response in opposition to petitioner's § 2255 motion. (ECF No. 15)

         III. LEGAL STANDARD FOR § 2255 MOTION

         A motion to vacate, set aside or correct a sentence of a person in federal custody pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2255 entitles a prisoner to relief if "the court finds . .. [t]here has been such a denial or infringement of the constitutional rights of the prisoner as to render judgment vulnerable to collateral attack." 28 U.S.C. § 2255(b). "In considering a motion to vacate a defendant's sentence, 'the court must accept the truth of the movant's factual allegations unless they are clearly frivolous based on the existing record.'" United States v. Booth, 432 F.3d 542, 545 (3d Cir. 2005) (quoting Gov't of Virgin Islands v. Forte, 865 F.2d 59, 62 (3d Cir. 1989)) (citing R. Governing § 2255 Cases R. 4(b)). A District Court "is required to hold an evidentiary hearing 'unless the motion and files and records of the case show conclusively that the movant is not entitled to relief" Id. (quoting Forte, 865 F.2d at 62). The Third Circuit has stated that this standard creates a '"reasonably low threshold for habeas petitioners to meet.'" Id. (quoting United States v. McCoy, 410 F.3d 124, 134 (3d Cir. 2005) (quoting Phillips v. Woodford, 267 F.3d 966, 973 (9th Cir. 2001))). Accordingly, this Court abuses its discretion "if it fails to hold an evidentiary hearing when the files and records of the case are inconclusive as to whether the movant is entitled to relief." Id. (citing McCoy, 410 F.3d at 134).

         IV. DISCUSSION

         A. Claim One

         In his first claim, Petitioner's asserts that trial counsel was ineffective. Petitioner was represented by Michael A. ...


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