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United States v. Brownlee

United States District Court, E.D. Michigan, Southern Division

August 14, 2019




         Before the court is Defendant's Motion to Vacate Sentence under 28 U.S.C. § 2255 based on ineffective assistance of counsel. Defendant initially filed his motion using a (court-approved) pro se form without an accompanying brief. He later filed an Amended Motion developing his claims. (ECF Nos. 98, 108). The motion has been fully briefed (ECF Nos. 107, 116, 118) and, for the reasons explained below, will be denied.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Defendant was charged in a nine-count superseding indictment with: conspiracy to distribute controlled substances causing death (Count 1); distribution of controlled substances (Count 2); attempted distribution of controlled substances (Counts 5 and 8); being a felon in possession of a firearm (Counts 3, 6, 9); and engaging in a firearms business without a license (Counts 4 and 7). (ECF No. 20, PageID.47-55.) The government offered to dismiss Counts 2-9 if Defendant would plead guilty to Count 1, which would carry a 20-year mandatory minimum sentence for him. (ECF No. 105, PageID.1176-78.) Defendant pleaded not guilty and went on to trial. (ECF No. 66, PageID.293-95.)

         The jury returned a verdict finding Defendant guilty on all nine counts. (Id.) Count One of the verdict form contained a special question asking whether the jury found that the controlled substances distributed during the course of the conspiracy caused a specified victim's death. (Id.) The jury answered no. (Id.)

         Because of his prior convictions, Defendant was deemed both a career offender and an armed career criminal eligible for sentencing enhancements under §§ 4B1.1 and 4B1.4 of the Federal Sentencing Guidelines. (ECF No. 105.) He was sentenced to 360 months imprisonment followed by five years of supervised release. (ECF No. 84, PageID.1066-1071.) His conviction was affirmed by the Sixth Circuit, and his petition for a writ of certiorari was denied. (ECF Nos. 91, 94.)

         II. STANDARD

         Under § 2255, a prisoner sentenced by a federal court may “move the court which imposed the sentence to vacate, set aside or correct the sentence” on the grounds “that the sentence was imposed in violation of the Constitution or laws of the United States, or that the court was without jurisdiction to impose such sentence, or that the sentence was in excess of the maximum authorized by law, or is otherwise subject to collateral attack.” 28 U.S.C. § 2255(a). This statute “is not a substitute for a direct appeal, ” and “a prisoner must clear a significantly higher hurdle than would exist on direct appeal” to merit relief. Regalado v. United States, 334 F.3d 520, 528 (6th Cir. 2003) (citing United States v. Frady, 456 U.S. 152, 166-68 (1982)).

         Defendant grounds his motion upon the alleged inadequacy of his legal representation. To establish ineffective assistance of counsel under the Sixth Amendment, Defendant must satisfy the two-prong test set forth in Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984). First, Defendant must show that his counsel's performance was deficient, which “requires a showing that counsel made errors so serious that counsel was not functioning as the ‘counsel' guaranteed the defendant by the Sixth Amendment.” Id. at 687. Second, Defendant “must show that the deficient performance prejudiced the defense.” Id. at 687-88.


         Defendant's original motion claims ineffective assistance of counsel based on his counsel's performance at the plea-negotiations, trial, and sentencing stages. (ECF No. 98, PageID.1152; ECF No. 108, PageID.1231, 1235.) He does not allege any conduct by counsel related to his plea negotiations, however, and the record does not suggest any deficient representation in that regard. Defendant's arguments based on counsel's alleged errors at trial and related to sentencing will be addressed in turn.

         First, Defendant argues that counsel was ineffective at trial because he failed to object to the jury instructions or move to set aside the verdict as to Count One. Specifically, he argues that the jury failed to establish all the elements of Count One because they answered “no” to the special question. (ECF No. 118, PageID.1285-86.) Defendant argues that without the jury finding that he caused the death of the victim, there should have been a finding of not guilty on Count One. (Id.)

         The Sixth Circuit rejected this argument on appeal, explaining:

Count 1 of the indictment charged Brownlee with violating 21 U.S.C. § 841(a)(1) and § 846. Taken together, the two statutes make it a crime to conspire to distribute controlled substances. Count 1 also listed the associated penalty provision, § 841(b)(1)(C). Although § 841(b)(1)(C) generally permits a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison for violations of § 841(a), it imposes a minimum sentence of 20 years “if death . . . results from the use of” the drugs involved in the conspiracy. The jury found Brownlee guilty of the substantive offense, conspiring to distribute drugs. But it found that the sentencing enhancement did not apply because the drugs sold by Brownlee did not cause Benny's death. There is nothing inconsistent ...

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