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United States v. Peralta-Castro

United States District Court, S.D. Texas, Houston Division

June 3, 2019




         The defendant, Edwin Jassiel Peralta-Castro, has filed a Motion Under 28 U.S.C. § 2255 to Vacate, Set Aside, or Correct Sentence By a Person in Federal Custody ("§ 2255 Motion") (Docket Entry No. 576) and Petitioner's Memorandum of Law and Supporting Appendix in Support of Motion to Vacate, and/or Set-Aside Conviction Pursuant to Title 28 U.S.C. § 2255 ("Memorandum of Law") (Docket Entry No. 577), [1] The government has filed United States' Response to Peralta-Castro's Motion for Relief Under 28 U.S.C. § 2255 and Motion for Judgment on the Record ("United States' Response") (Docket Entry No. 600), and Peralta-Castro has filed Peralta's Reply to the United States Response In Opposition to Title 28 U.S.C. § 2255 ("Defendant's Reply") (Docket Entry No. 605) . The court has carefully reviewed all of the parties' arguments. Based on this review, the court's recollection of the relevant proceedings, and the application of governing legal authorities, the pending § 2255 Motion will be denied and the corresponding Civil Action No. H-18-2581 will be dismissed for the reasons explained below.

         I. Background

         Peralta-Castro was charged along with several codefendants in connection with a conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute 1 kilogram or more of heroin and 50 grams or more of methamphetamine.[2] On April 7, 2016, the government filed a Superseding Information, charging Peralta-Castro with engaging in monetary transactions in property derived from unlawful activity in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1957.[3] Specifically, the Superseding Information charged Peralta-Castro with purchasing a 2007 Honda Pilot Sport Utility Vehicle with proceeds derived from the distribution of controlled substances in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 841(a) .[4]

         Peralta-Castro waived a formal indictment on the charges in the Superseding Information and entered a guilty plea on May 12, 2016, pursuant to a written Plea Agreement.[5] In exchange for his plea, the government agreed to dismiss the drug-trafficking charges against him in the Superseding Indictment and not to oppose a decrease in sentence if he clearly accepted responsibility for his role in the drug-trafficking conspiracy.[6]

         The Probation Office prepared a Presentence Investigation Report (``PSR") using the 2015 edition of the United States Sentencing Guidelines Manual.[7] The Probation Office determined that Peralta-Castro's base offense level score was 34 based on the amount of controlled substances attributable to his relevant conduct, which involved loading vehicles with narcotics in concealed compartments on multiple occasions.[8] With a one-level increase for specific offense characteristics under U.S.S.G. § 2S1.1(b)(2)(A), which applies to convictions under 18 U.S.C. § 1957, and a reduction of three levels for acceptance of responsibility, Peralta-Castro's total offense level was 32.[9]Because Peralta-Castro had no criminal history points, he faced a potential range of 121-151 months in prison under the Guidelines. Because the statute for the offense of conviction, 18 U.S.C. § 1957, had a maximum term of 10 years, the Probation Office recommended a sentence of 12 0 months' imprisonment.[10] The court denied defense counsel's objections to the PSR and sentenced Peralta-Castro to serve 12 0 months' imprisonment followed by a three-year term of supervised release.[11]

         Peralta-Castro challenged his sentence on direct appeal, arguing that the court erred when it found him accountable for aiding and abetting a drug trafficking offense as relevant conduct and by denying him a reduction in sentence for having a mitigating role. The Fifth Circuit rejected Peralta-Castro's arguments and affirmed the sentence in an unpublished opinion. See United States v. Peralta-Castro, 699 Fed.Appx. 407 (5th Cir. Oct. 26, 2017) (per curiam).[12] The Supreme Court denied Peralta-Castro's petition for a writ of certiorari on February 26, 2018. See Peralta-Castro v. United States, 138 S.Ct. 1179 (2018) .

         Peralta-Castro now seeks relief under 28 U.S.C. § 2255 arguing that he was denied effective assistance of counsel because his defense attorney failed to properly research his "sentencing exposure before advising him to plead guilty."[13] The government argues that Peralta-Castro is not entitled to relief and that the § 2255 Motion must be denied because his claims lack merit.[14]

         II. Standard of Review

          A prisoner serving a sentence imposed by a federal court "claiming the right to be released upon the ground that the sentence was imposed in violation of the Constitution or laws of the United States . . . may move the court which imposed the sentence to vacate, set aside or correct the sentence." 2 8 U.S.C. § 2255(a). If the court concludes that the prisoner's motion is meritorious, it must "vacate and set the judgment aside and shall discharge the prisoner or resentence him or grant a new trial or correct the sentence as may appear appropriate." 2 8 U.S.C. § 2255(b).

         A prisoner seeking relief under 28 U.S.C. § 2255 "must clear a significantly higher hurdle" than the standard that would exist on direct appeal. United States v. Fradv, 102 S.Ct. 1584, 1593 (1982) . After a conviction has been affirmed on appeal, a court is "entitled to presume that the defendant stands fairly and finally convicted." United States v. Willis, 273 F.3d 592, 595 (5th Cir. 2001) (citations omitted). For this reason, `` [r] elief under 28 U.S.C.A. § 2255 is reserved for transgressions of constitutional rights and for a narrow range of injuries that could not have been raised on direct appeal and would, if condoned, result in a complete miscarriage of justice." United States v. Vaughn, 955 F.2d 367, 368 (5th Cir. 1992).

         Mindful of the defendant's pro se status, the court has liberally construed his § 2255 Motion and related filings. See Estelle v. Gamble, 97 S.Ct. 285, 292 (1976) ("[A] pro se document is to be liberally construed."); Haines v. Kerner, 92 S.Ct. 594, 596 (1972) (per curiam) (stating that pro se pleadings are held "to less stringent standards than formal pleadings drafted by lawyers"). Nevertheless, a pro se petitioner's "mere conclusory allegations on a critical issue are insufficient to raise a constitutional issue." United States v. Woods, 870 F.2d 285, 288 n.3 (5th Cir. 1989) (citing Ross v. Estelle, 694 F.2d 1008, 1012 (5th Cir. 1983)) .

         III. Discussion

         A. Ineffective Assistance of Counsel

         The Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution guarantees criminal defendants the right to effective assistance of counsel. See Yarboroucrh v. Gentry, 124 S.Ct. 1, 4 (2003). "The benchmark for judging any claim of ineffectiveness must be whether counsel's conduct so undermined the proper functioning of the adversarial process that the trial cannot be relied on as having produced a just result." Strickland v. Washington, 104 S.Ct. 2052, 2064 (1984). A defendant asserting ineffective assistance of counsel therefore must demonstrate that (1) counsel's performance was deficient and (2) counsel's deficient performance prejudiced the defense. Id. "Failure to prove either deficient performance or actual prejudice is fatal to an ineffective assistance claim." Carter v. Johnson, 131 F.3d 452, 463 (5th Cir. 1997) . "A court need not address both components of the inquiry if the defendant makes an insufficient showing on one." Armstead v. Scott, 37 F.3d 202, 210 (5th Cir. 1994) .

         "The performance prong of Strickland 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) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). "Therefore, courts may not fall prey to `the distorting effect of hindsight' but must be `highly deferential' to counsel's performance." Carter, 131 F.3d at 463 (quoting Strickland, 104 S.Ct. at 2065-66). "Hence, there is a strong presumption that the performance `falls within the wide range of reasonable professional assistance.'" Id. (same) . The burden is on the defendant to overcome this presumption. Id.

         To establish Strickland prejudice a defendant must show that there is "a reasonable probability that, but for counsel's unprofessional errors, the result of the proceeding would have been different." Strickland, 104 S.Ct. at 2068. The prejudice inquiry under Strickland is altered in the guilty-plea context, where the defendant bears the burden of demonstrating that "there is a reasonable probability that, but for counsel's errors, he would not have pleaded guilty and would have insisted on going to trial." Hill v. Lockhart, 106 S.Ct. 366, 370 (1985); see also Premo v. Moore, 131 S.Ct. 733, 743 (2011) (quoting Lockhart) .

         A habeas petitioner must "affirmatively prove prejudice." Strickland, 104 S.Ct. at 2067. Conclusory allegations are insufficient to make this showing. See Day v. Quarterman, 566 F.3d 527, 540-41 (5th Cir. 2009). The Supreme Court has clarified that the prejudice inquiry in the context of a guilty plea requires a case-by-case examination of the totality of the evidence against the defendant. Lee v. United States, 137 S.Ct. 1958, 1966 (2017). A reviewing court should not upset a guilty plea "solely because of post hoc assertions from a defendant about how he would have pleaded but for his attorney's deficiencies," but "should instead look to contemporaneous evidence to substantiate a defendant's expressed preferences." Lee, 137 S.Ct. at 1967.

         B. The Defendant's Ineffective-Assistance Claims

         Peralta-Castro contends that his defense counsel (Adrian Almaguer) was deficient for failing to research his potential sentencing exposure under the Guidelines and the applicable statutory maximum for the charged offense, 18 U.S.C. § 1957, before advising him to plead guilty.[15] He alleges that his defense counsel "misunderstood the Guidelines and advised [him] that he faced at most 15 to 21 months in prison, and to therefore plead guilty."[16]He alleges that he was prejudiced because, but for the alleged deficiency in his counsel's representation, he would have plead not guilty and insisted on a trial.[17]

         As support for his claim Peralta-Castro provides his own affidavit, in which he states that defense counsel "assured" him that he "would be sentenced to 15-20 months incarceration."[18] He also points to a page from Defendant's Sentencing Memorandum, in which defense counsel argued for a Guidelines calculation that would yield a total offense level score of 14, resulting in a range of 15-21 months' imprisonment for an offender in Criminal History Category I.[19] Peralta-Castro argues that counsel's deficient performance is further supported by the fact that several of his codefendants subsequently received much lighter sentences and by the fact that counsel raised "legally baseless" arguments that were inadequately briefed on appeal.[20]

         The government argues that Peralta-Castro's sworn statements during the rearraignment proceeding refute his contention that his guilty plea was not voluntarily and knowingly made with a full understanding that he faced a 10-year maximum sentence and that his punishment would not be determined until after a PSR was prepared.[21]The transcript of the rearraignment hearing confirms that the court expressly advised Peralta-Castro that he was pleading guilty to a felony that had a maximum sentence of 10 years or 12 0 months in prison.[22] Peralta-Castro replied that he understood.[23] The court also advised Peralta-Castro that there had been no determination yet about what his sentence would be and that a probation officer would prepare a PSR, which he would be given an opportunity to review and submit objections.[24]

         The court also expressly addressed the Sentencing Guidelines. The court explained to Peralta-Castro that "no one knows what advisory guideline range the probation officer will recommend, or what advisory guideline range [the court] will find to be applicable, or what sentence [the court] will impose."[25] When asked if he understood, Peralta-Castro replied, "Yes."[26] The court emphasized that Peralta-Castro would be bound by his guilty plea even if the sentence imposed was greater than what his attorney or anyone else may have predicted.[27] Peralta-Castro responded that he understood.[28] The court specifically asked Peralta-Castro if his counsel had told him what sentence he would receive if he pled guilty.[29] Peralta-Castro replied, "No."[30] When the court asked if anyone else had told him what sentence he would receive if he pled guilty, Peralta-Castro again replied, "No."[31]

         The court recited the statutory elements of the offense outlined in the Superseding Information and the Plea Agreement, which included a factual statement setting out Peralta-Castro's involvement in the offense.[32] The written Plea Agreement, which also advised Peralta-Castro that the "statutory maximum penalty" was "imprisonment of not more than ten (10) years" for the offense found in 18 U.S.C. § 1957, [33] contains the following factual basis for the plea:

a. In early 2013, law enforcement officials in Houston, Texas, determined that a drug trafficking organization (DTO) based in Michoacan, Mexico, was recruiting individuals to drive vehicles fit with hidden compartments filled with narcotics across the Mexican border into the Southern District of Texas. Once these vehicles entered the United States, they were driven from Texas to their ultimate destination, typically, New York. In New York, the drivers would give possession of the vehicle to a specified individual; that individual would take the vehicle for a day or two; and the vehicle would subsequently be returned to the driver. At the time of the vehicle's return, it housed United States currency in its hidden compartment as opposed to narcotics. The vehicle, complete with its cache of hidden currency, would then be driven back to Mexico.
b. As this investigation progressed, several narcotics/bulk currency seizures in the Southern District of Texas were linked to this Mexican DTO. Further, a Confidential Source (CS) working with DEA officials advised that the DTO was operating a narcotics "stash house" at 14907 Leila Oaks in Houston, Texas. Via surveillance, agents determined that one of the occupants of 14907 was the defendant, Edwin Jassiel Peralta-Castro.
c. Ultimately, DEA investigators tied Peralta-Castro directly to several of the vehicles utilized by the DTO to transport narcotics and/or narcotics proceeds. The first vehicle tied to Peralta-Castro was a Volvo observed by police on June 3, 2013, at 14907 Leila Oaks. The following day, M.S. was stopped in Beaumont, Texas, driving this Volvo.[34] Police ultimately searched the Volvo, locating approximately sixteen kilograms of methamphetamine secreted inside a hidden compartment. M.S. agreed to cooperate with officials and would have testified at trial that on June 3, 2013, she gave the Volvo to Peralta-Castro, who had the vehicle in his possession for several hours. Peralta-Castro subsequently returned the Volvo to M.S. later that evening at Whataburger, ...

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