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United States v. James

United States District Court, M.D. Florida, Tampa Division

May 9, 2017

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
v.
SAMUEL THAMAR JAMES

          ORDER

          STEVEN D. MERRYDAY UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Samuel Thamar James moves (Doc. 1) under 28 U.S.C. § 2255 to vacate his sentence. James challenges the validity of his conviction for possession with intent to distribute less than five grams of cocaine base. James serves 262 months of imprisonment. The United States admits that James timely moved to vacate. (Doc. 12 at 3) Also, James moves to supplement the motion. (Docs. 4, 23, and 24)

         FACTS

         On February 9, 2009, a Tampa police officer attempted to stop a vehicle for illegal window tint.[1] The officer witnessed the driver, a man with medium-length dreadlocks and a black shirt, drop a plastic bag containing a white substance in a driveway. A test revealed that the plastic bag contained 5.8 grams of cocaine base.

         After the vehicle stopped, the officer saw the driver crawl from the driver's seat to the backseat. The officer approached the vehicle and observed two passengers, each with short hair and a white shirt. The officer identified James, based on his dreadlocks and black shirt, as both the driver and the person who dropped the plastic bag.

         PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         Count I of the indictment charged James with possession with intent to distribute five grams or more of a mixture and substance containing cocaine base under 21 U.S.C. §§ 841(a)(1) and (b)(1)(B)(iii). (Doc. 1 in 09-cr-89) In 2009 a jury convicted James of the lesser offense of possession with intent to distribute less than five grams of cocaine base under 21 U.S.C. § 841(b)(1)(C). Offense Level 34 and Criminal History Category VI yielded an advisory guidelines range of 262 to 327 months of imprisonment. The circuit court affirmed James's sentence of 262 months of imprisonment.[2] United States v. James, 642 F.3d 1333 (11th Cir. 2011), cert. denied, 565 U.S. 958 (2011).

         INEFFECTIVE ASSISTANCE OF COUNSEL

         James claims ineffective assistance of counsel, a difficult claim to sustain. “[T]he cases in which habeas petitioners can properly prevail on the ground of ineffective assistance of counsel are few and far between.” Waters v. Thomas, 46 F.3d 1506, 511 (11th Cir. 1995) (en banc) (quoting Rogers v. Zant, 13 F.3d 384, 386 (11th Cir. 1994)). As Sims v. Singletary, 155 F.3d 1297, 1305 (11th Cir. 1998), explains, Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984), governs an ineffective assistance of counsel claim:

The law regarding ineffective assistance of counsel claims is well settled and well documented. In Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 104 S.Ct. 2052, 80 L.Ed.2d 674 (1984), the Supreme Court set forth a two-part test for analyzing ineffective assistance of counsel claims. According to Strickland, 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, 466 U.S. at 687, 104 S.Ct. 2052.

         Strickland requires proof of both deficient performance and consequent prejudice. Strickland, 466 U.S. at 697 (“There is no reason for a court deciding an ineffective assistance claim . . . to address both components of the inquiry if the defendant makes an insufficient showing on one.”); Sims, 155 F.3d at 1305 (“When applying Strickland, we are free to dispose of ineffectiveness claims on either of its two grounds.”). “[C]ounsel is strongly presumed to have rendered adequate assistance and made all significant decisions in the exercise of reasonable professional judgment.” Strickland, 466 U.S. at 690. “[A] court deciding an actual ineffectiveness claim must judge the reasonableness of counsel's challenged conduct on the facts of the particular case, viewed as of the time of counsel's conduct.” Strickland, 466 U.S. at 690. Strickland requires that “in light of all the circumstances, the identified acts or omissions were outside the wide range of professionally competent assistance.” 466 U.S. at 690.

         James must demonstrate that counsel's alleged error prejudiced the defense because “[a]n error by counsel, even if professionally unreasonable, does not warrant setting aside the judgment of a criminal proceeding if the error had no effect on the judgment.” Strickland, 466 U.S. at 691-92. To meet this burden, James must show “a reasonable probability that, but for counsel's unprofessional errors, the result of the proceeding would have been different. A reasonable probability is a probability sufficient to undermine confidence in the outcome.” Strickland, 466 U.S. at 694.

         Strickland cautions that “strategic choices made after thorough investigation of law and facts relevant to plausible options are virtually unchallengeable; and strategic choices made after less than complete investigation are reasonable precisely to the extent that reasonable professional judgments support the limitations on investigation.” 466 U.S. at 690-91. James cannot meet his burden by showing only that the avenue chosen by counsel proved unsuccessful.

The test has nothing to do with what the best lawyers would have done. Nor is the test even what most good lawyers would have done. We ask only whether some reasonable lawyer at the trial could have acted, in the circumstances, as defense counsel acted at trial . . . . We are not interested in grading lawyers' performances; we are interested in whether the adversarial process at trial, in fact, worked adequately.

White v. Singletary, 972 F.2d 1218, 1220-21 (11th Cir. 1992); accord Chandler v. United States, 218 F.3d 1305, 1313 (11th Cir. 2000) (“To state the obvious: the trial lawyers, in every case, could have done something more or something different. So, omissions are inevitable . . . . [T]he issue is not what is possible or ‘what is prudent or appropriate, but only what is constitutionally compelled.'”) (en banc) (quoting Burger v. Kemp, 483 U.S. 776, 794 (1987)); Jones v. Barnes, 463 U.S. 745, 751 (1983) (holding that counsel has no duty to raise a non-frivolous claim).

         Ground One

         Counsel purportedly advised James that the right to testify required James to first cooperate with the United States. (Doc. 1 at 12) James alleges that, but for counsel's advice, James would have testified that he owned the illicit drugs for personal use. James asserts that the exculpatory testimony would have changed the trial's outcome.

         A criminal defendant possesses a fundamental constitutional right to testify at trial. Rock v. Arkansas, 483 U.S. 44, 51-53 (1987). “Defense counsel bears the primary responsibility for advising the defendant of his right to testify or not to testify, the strategic implications of each choice, and that it is ultimately for the defendant himself to decide.” United States v. Teague, 953 F.2d 1525, 1533 (11th Cir. 1992).

         Even if counsel performed deficiently, the following colloquy ensured that James understood fully the right to testify:

THE COURT: At this stage in a criminal case, almost always the defendant has to consider a very important decision, and that is the decision of whether or not that witness will testify. That is not my decision to make by any means.
THE DEFENDANT: Yes, Sir.
THE COURT: But I wanted to discuss some things about that decision with you to make sure that you understand how the law ...

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