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United States v. Shoulders

United States District Court, N.D. Illinois, Eastern Division

May 7, 2018




         Petitioner Sandra Shoulders, proceeding pro se, moved to vacate, set aside, or correct her sentence pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2255. (Dkt. No. 1.) On September 10, 2015, Shoulders pleaded guilty to conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute and to distribute one kilogram or more of heroin, in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 841(a)(1), also in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 846 pursuant to an 11(c)(1)(C) plea agreement in which she agreed to waive her right to appeal in exchange for a motion for reduction in her sentence pursuant to both U.S. Sentencing Guidelines Manual (“Guidelines”) § 5K1.2 and 18 U.S.C. § 3553(e). Based on that agreement, the Court sentenced Shoulders to 101 months. See United States v. Shoulders, No. 14 CR 330-3, Dkt. No. 491. Because she waived her right to appeal Shoulders did not file a direct appeal, but now claims that she received ineffective assistance of counsel during the plea agreement process in violation of her Sixth Amendment right to counsel. For the reasons stated herein, the Court dismisses Shoulders' petition [1] and declines to certify any issue for appeal pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2253(c)(2).


         A grand jury returned an indictment against Shoulders charging her with two counts: (1) conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute and to distribute one kilogram or more of heroin, in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 846; and (2) possession with intent to distribute 100 grams or more of heroin, in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 841(a)(1). Shoulders, Dkt. No. 127. In exchange for her guilty plea and her cooperation, the Government dropped the second count against Shoulders. Id., Dkt. No. 239, at 2, 11, 13. The Plea Agreement included an anticipated advisory sentencing guideline range of 120-135 months based on a combination of the anticipated offense level and the anticipated criminal history category of the Defendant. Id. at 10 (emphasis added). After reviewing the plea with her counsel, Shoulders signed the Plea Agreement, which included an express acknowledgment that the preliminary sentencing guidelines were not binding. Id. at 10-11. The Agreement also discussed the Government's willingness to make known to the sentencing judge the extent of the defendant's cooperation pursuant to Guidelines § 5K1.1 and 18 U.S.C. § 3553(e), and that the parties agreed to a term of imprisonment in the Federal Bureau of Prisons totaling 75 percent of the low end of the applicable guideline range or the statutory minimum sentence which at the time equated to 90 months. Id. at 10, 12, 14.

         In her § 2255 motion, Shoulders alleges that her counsel told her that her sentence would be 6 years, or 72 months and that he would try to ensure that she would be placed at a federal prison close to the Chicago-area. (Dkt. No. 1, at 3-4.) After signing the Plea Agreement but before she was sentenced Shoulders was arrested and charged with felony retail theft and criminal damage to property in violation of her conditions of Pretrial release. Shoulders, Dkt. No. 451. As a result of Shoulders' untruthful explanation of the incident, the Government sought an increase in her guidelines based on this new obstruction of justice that occurred after her change of plea but did not move to revoke her acceptance of responsibility reduction. Id. Dkt. No. 488, at 2. This increased her anticipated sentencing range upward to 135 to 168 months. The Court agreed with the two level obstruction enhancement and also agreed to provide Shoulders with her three levels off for acceptance of responsibility in spite of that obstruction and accepted the 11(c)(1)(C) agreement and sentenced Shoulders to a term of 101 months imprisonment on November 18, 2016; which was the agreed sentence - a sentence of 75% of the lower end of her sentencing range. Id. Dkt. No. 491.


         A federal prisoner may move to vacate, set aside, or correct the sentence on the grounds that the court imposed the sentence in violation of the Constitution or laws of the United States, the court lacked jurisdiction to impose the sentence, the sentence exceeded that permitted by law, or the sentence is otherwise subject to collateral attack. 28 U.S.C. § 2255(a). Relief under § 2255 is considered an extraordinary remedy whereby the district court essentially reopens the criminal process to a person who has already had an opportunity for full process. Almonacid v. United States, 476 F.3d 518, 521 (7th Cir. 2007). If the record before the district court shows that a petitioner is not entitled to relief, the district court may dismiss a petition under § 2255 at an early stage and without an evidentiary hearing. Id.

         The Sixth Amendment provides defendants in criminal matters with the right to effective assistance of counsel. Koons v. United States, 639 F.3d 348, 351 (7th Cir. 2011). Courts presume that counsel “rendered adequate assistance and made all significant decisions in the exercise of reasonable professional judgment.” United States v. Lathrop, 634 F.3d 931, 937 (7th Cir. 2011) (quoting Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 690 (1984)). Thus, to establish a claim for ineffective assistance of counsel a defendant must show both that counsel's performance was so deficient that it could not be considered objectively “reasonable[] under the prevailing professional norms” and that the defendant suffered prejudice as a result of counsel's deficient performance. Strickland, 466 U.S. at 687-88. When a defendant has pleaded guilty, she must show prejudice by establishing a reasonable probability that, but for counsel's errors, she would not have pleaded guilty and would have insisted on going to trial. United States v. Carroll, 412 F.3d 787, 793 (7th Cir. 2005); see also United States v. Peterson, 711 F.3d 770, 780 n.4 (“[o]rdinarily, when a defendant challenges a sentence on the basis of ineffective assistance of counsel, the Strickland standard will apply”). “The benchmark for judging any claim to 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, 466 U.S. at 686.


         I. Shoulders waived her right to file a § 2255 motion

         In exchange for a reduction in her sentence from both the sentencing guidelines and the statutory ten year minimum sentence, Shoulders changed her plea from not guilty to guilty on September 10, 2015 pursuant to Fed. R. Crim. P. 11(c)(1)(C). Shoulders, Dkt. No. 234. Prior entering into the agreement, the Court placed her under oath and asked the following questions:

The Court: “Have you gone over [the plea agreement] with Mr. Willis (her appointed counsel)?”
Shoulders: “Yes, I did.”
The Court: “And did you ask him questions about the different paragraphs within the plea agreement?”
Shoulders: “Yes.”
The Court: “Okay. Did he answer those questions for you?”
Shoulders: “Yes, he did.”
The Court: “Did he talk to you about, for example, something called the federal ...

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