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Hicks v. United States

United States Court of Appeals, Seventh Circuit

April 2, 2018

Isaiah Hicks, Petitioner-Appellant,
United States of America, Respondent-Appellee.

          Argued February 28, 2018

          Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division. No. 15-CV-3078 - James B. Zagel, Judge.

          Before Manion, Sykes, and Hamilton, Circuit Judges.

          Hamilton, Circuit Judge.

         A jury found Isaiah Hicks guilty of multiple drug offenses. He was sentenced to 360 months in prison. After we upheld his convictions and sentence on direct appeal, he filed a pro se motion under 28 U.S.C. § 2255 claiming that that he had received ineffective assistance of counsel. Hicks asserted that his attorney failed to explain to him the breadth of conspiracy law, understated the evidence against him, and failed to confer with him about pleading guilty. Going to trial cost him a potential reduction in his offense level at sentencing, Hicks claimed, which would have lowered his recommended guideline range and ultimate sentence. The district court denied the § 2255 motion without a hearing. We affirm. Hicks's argument that his attorney's performance prejudiced him is too speculative to require an evidentiary hearing.

         I. Factual and Procedural Background

         Hicks led an organization that processed, packaged, and sold drugs on Chicago's south side. United States v. Long, 748 F.3d 322, 325 (7th Cir. 2014). A jury found him and four co-defendants guilty of, among other offenses, conspiracy with intent to distribute over 50 grams of crack cocaine. See 21 U.S.C. § 841(b)(1)(A). Hicks's presentence investigation report put his offense level at 46, corresponding to a guideline sentence of life imprisonment. An offense level of 43 or higher results in a guideline recommendation of life imprisonment, even for defendants in criminal history category I. U.S.S.G. Ch. 5, pt. A. An offense level of 42 would have produced a range of 360 months to life for Hicks. At Hicks's sentencing hearing, the government requested a sentence of at least 30 years. Hicks's attorney argued for 20.

         The district judge observed at sentencing that "the proper . . . offense level in this case probably is 45, but, of course the table stops at 43 and I thought it was immaterial to decide" the exact offense level. The judge noted that the "basic question" was whether to impose life imprisonment. The judge said that the recommended life sentence for Hicks would be fair given the large quantity of drugs at issue and Hicks's leadership role in the drug-distribution organization. But the judge decided to impose a below-guideline sentence of 360 months because he thought that Hicks was capable of reform.

         After his unsuccessful direct appeal, Hicks moved under 28 U.S.C. § 2255 to vacate his sentence. In his motion and accompanying affidavit, Hicks asserted that his lawyer was ineffective because he did not explain federal conspiracy law to him and did not confer with him about the advantages of pleading guilty versus going to trial. Hicks further claimed in his reply brief that his lawyer had advised him that "there was a strong chance at walking." If the attorney had adequately explained Hicks's exposure from the conspiracy charge and the benefits of pleading guilty, Hicks swore, he would have pleaded guilty.

         In response, the government argued that Hicks had failed to show that his attorney's actions prejudiced him because the § 2255 motion was not supported by evidence showing that the prosecutor had offered Hicks a plea agreement. The district judge agreed with the government and denied Hicks's motion without an evidentiary hearing. The judge reasoned that a guilty plea offered without any agreement would have had "no value" to Hicks. The scenario Hicks proposed-that his sentence would have been shorter if he had received an offense-level reduction for acceptance of responsibility- "would not have reduced the guideline range [below] 360 months to life."

         We granted Hicks a certificate of appealability under 28 U.S.C. § 2253(c)(2) on the issue whether he had been denied effective assistance of counsel if, as he says, his lawyer failed to inform him about the benefits of pleading guilty without a plea agreement.

         II. Analysis

         On appeal, Hicks argues that he was entitled to an evidentiary hearing on whether his lawyer was ineffective. A hearing is required unless the record conclusively shows that the movant is not entitled to relief. 28 U.S.C. § 2255(b); Sawyer v. United States, 874 F.3d 276, 278 (7th Cir. 2017). We review the denial of an evidentiary hearing for abuse of discretion, Galbraith v. United States, 313 F.3d 1001, 1009 (7th Cir. 2002), so the issue is whether the district court abused its discretion by finding "conclusively" that Hicks could not establish ineffective assistance of counsel.

         To demonstrate ineffective assistance of counsel, Hicks must show that his attorney's performance was objectively deficient and that the deficient representation caused him prejudice. Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 687 (1984); Galbraith, 313 F.3d at 1008. Because "a court need not determine whether counsel's performance was deficient before examining the prejudice suffered by the defendant as a result of the alleged deficiencies, " Strickland, 466 ...

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