Datqunn Sawyer v. USA
Filed opinion of the court by Judge Bauer. The judgment as to Count II of Sawyer s petition is VACATED and the case is REMANDED for proceedings consistent with this opinion. William J. Bauer, Circuit Judge; Frank H. Easterbrook, Circuit Judge and David F. Hamilton, Circuit Judge. [6877900-1]  [15-2508]
United States Court of Appeals
For the Seventh Circuit
UNITED STATES OF AMERICA,
Appeal from the United States District Court for the
Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division.
No. 14 C 7665 — Charles P. Kocoras, Judge.
ARGUED SEPTEMBER 6, 2017 — DECIDED OCTOBER 20, 2017
Before BAUER, EASTERBROOK, and HAMILTON, Circuit Judges.
BAUER, Circuit Judge. On November 21, 2011, a jury con‐
victed Datqunn Sawyer of multiple counts of sex trafficking,
conspiracy to commit sex trafficking, and attempted sex
trafficking, in violation of 18 U.S.C. §§ 1591(a) and 1594(c). The
district court sentenced Sawyer to 50 years in prison.
On September 30, 2014, after his convictions were upheld
on appeal, Sawyer filed a timely petition for a writ of habeas
corpus under 28 U.S.C. § 2255, setting forth eight individual
claims for relief. Only one of those—a claim of ineffective
assistance of trial counsel—is relevant to this appeal.
In Count II of his petition, Sawyer stated that “the Govern‐
ment offered the Petitioner a plea offer, which included a term
of imprisonment of 15 years in exchange for a plea of guilty.”
According to Sawyer, his trial counsel told him of the offer, but
advised him to reject it because “the Government’s case against
him was weak and [because] the Petitioner was better served
by proceeding to trial.” After conferring with his mother and
grandmother, he relied on counsel’s advice and proceeded to
trial. Sawyer attached to his petition affidavits from both his
mother and grandmother, in which they attest to discussing
the plea offer with Sawyer.
In its response, the government argued that Sawyer’s
petition failed to provide sufficient evidence that the govern‐
ment ever made him a plea offer. The government also argued
that Sawyer had not sufficiently pleaded the required elements
of a claim of ineffective assistance.
On May 6, 2015, the district court denied Sawyer’s petition
without holding an evidentiary hearing. It noted that Sawyer
did not attach a proposed plea agreement or an affidavit from
trial counsel regarding any such agreement. The court found
that Sawyer’s “unsubstantiated claims” did not “rise to the
level of evidence needed to receive habeas relief or an eviden‐
tiary hearing.” Sawyer timely appealed.
Sawyer’s sole argument on appeal is that the district court
erred by failing to hold an evidentiary hearing on his claim that
he received ineffective assistance of counsel regarding the plea‐
bargaining process. We review a district court’s decision to
rule on a § 2255 petition without an evidentiary hearing for an
abuse of discretion. Boulb v. United States, 818 F.3d 334, 339 (7th
Cir. 2016) (citation omitted).
A prisoner in federal custody may seek his release through
a § 2255 petition by arguing that his “sentence was imposed in
violation of the Constitution or the laws of the United
States … .” 28 U.S.C. § 2255(a). The district court in which the
petition is filed is required to hold an evidentiary hearing
“[u]nless the motion and the files and records of the case
conclusively show that the prisoner is entitled to no relief … .”
Id. § 2255(b).
Under the Sixth Amendment, criminal defendants are
entitled to the effective assistance of competent counsel during
the plea‐bargaining process. Lafler v. Cooper, 566 U.S. 156, 162
(2012). The two‐part test set forth in Strickland v. Washington,
466 U.S. 668 (1984), applies to claims that counsel provided
ineffective assistance by advising a defendant to reject a plea
offer. Lafler, 566 U.S. at 162–63. Under that test, a defendant
must show first, that his counsel’s performance fell below an
objective standard of reasonableness; and second, that “the
outcome of the plea process would have been different with
competent advice.” Id. at 163. In the specific context presented
here, the second prong of the test requires Sawyer to show that
“there is a reasonable probability that the plea offer would
have been presented to the court, the court would have
accepted it, and that the conviction or sentence or both would
have been less severe than the judgment imposed.” Foster v.
United States, 735 F.3d 561, 566 (7th Cir. 2013) (citing Lafler, 566
U.S. at 163–64).
With that framework in mind, we find that the district court
abused its discretion in determining that the record before it
conclusively showed that Sawyer was not entitled to relief, and
therefore, that no evidentiary hearing was required. The
government’s main argument against that conclusion is that
Sawyer’s petition did not provide sufficient evidence that the
government ever made a plea offer. As support, it cites to cases
in which we have held that a petitioner must provide some‐
thing more than his own conclusory allegation that the
government made an offer. See Martin v. United States, 789 F.3d
703 (7th Cir. 2015); Gallo‐Vasquez v. United States, 402 F.3d 793
(7th Cir. 2005).
It is important to clarify that the petitioners’ allegations in
Martin and Gallo‐Vasquez were problematic primarily because
of their conclusory nature, rather than the fact that they came
from the petitioners as interested parties. We take this opportu‐
nity, then, to emphasize that district courts may not discount
a petitioner’s declarations simply because they may be self‐
serving. See Hill v. Tangherlini, 724 F.3d 965, 967 (7th Cir. 2013);
Payne v. Pauley, 337 F.3d 767, 772 (7th Cir. 2003). To the extent
the district court did so here, that was error.
Additionally, unlike the petitioners in Martin and Gallo‐
Vasquez, Sawyer provided the court with more than his own
allegations on this point. His petition included affidavits from
his mother and grandmother, both of which attested to
discussions with Sawyer regarding a plea offer. Sawyer’s
mother stated in her affidavit that Sawyer’s attorney told her
the government offered a 15‐year plea deal, but he advised
Sawyer to reject it. Sawyer’s grandmother stated in her
affidavit that she “was informed that the prosecution made a
plea offer of 15 years.”
The government contends that the affidavits are unreliable
due to factual inconsistences between, and at times within,
their accounts. Regardless of the extent to which the affidavits
may be inconsistent as to the timing of an offer and when it
was communicated to Sawyer, they certainly do not conclu‐
sively show that the government never made an offer. Instead,
they present precisely the types of factual issues the district
court must resolve through an evidentiary hearing.
It is also important to note that, in both its brief and at oral
argument, the government could not state unequivocally that
no offer was made. It could only state that it never made a
“formal offer.” In our view, that equivocation confirms the
need for a hearing to determine the precise factual details of
any plea bargaining that occurred.
If he is able to prove on remand that the government did
offer a plea deal, Sawyer still will have to establish that his
attorney’s advice was objectively unreasonable and that, with
competent advice, he would have accepted the plea deal. See
Lafler, 566 U.S. at 162–63. At this point in the proceedings,
however, Sawyer has sufficiently alleged both of those re‐
His petition stated that his attorney advised him to reject
the government’s 15‐year plea offer because he would be better
served by proceeding to trial. That allegation stood uncon‐
tested on the record below and, if true, could support a finding
that counsel’s performance was objectively unreasonable,
particularly given the ensuing guilty verdict and 50‐year
sentence. The details and veracity of those allegations, though,
should be determined through an evidentiary hearing. It is
certainly possible that Sawyer’s counsel had valid strategic
reasons behind the advice she provided. However, the record,
as it stands now, does not contain sufficient information (e.g.,
testimony or an affidavit from Sawyer’s counsel) for the
district court to make that determination.
As to the prejudice prong, Sawyer’s allegations and
supporting affidavits are also sufficient to warrant a hearing.
His own affidavit stated clearly that, absent his attorney’s
advice, he would have accepted a 15‐year plea deal. His
grandmother stated that, although he maintained his inno‐
cence, Sawyer told her he was willing to accept a 15‐year offer.
His mother stated that, based on discussions with Sawyer, she
believed he would have accepted an offer for a sentence of less
than 20 years. Finally, aside from the fact that Sawyer main‐
tained his innocence throughout the proceedings, the govern‐
ment did not offer any other evidence to suggest, much less
conclusively establish, that Sawyer would not have accepted
such an offer. Sawyer’s belief in his innocence does not
conclusively demonstrate that he would have rejected a 15‐
year offer when advised properly on the prospect of receiving
a much greater sentence.
For the foregoing reasons, the judgment as to Count II of
Sawyer’s petition is VACATED and the case is REMANDED
for proceedings consistent with this opinion.
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