Johnson v. United States of America
MEMORANDUM AND ORDER...IT IS HEREBY ORDERED that Petitioner Walter Johnson's motion filed under 28 U.S.C. § 2255 to vacate, set aside, or correct his sentence is DENIED.IT IS FURTHER ORDERED that this Court will not issue a Certificate of Appealability, as Petitioner has not made a substantial showing of the denial of a federal constitutional right as required by 28 U.S.C. § 2253(c)(2). A separate Judgment shall accompany this Memorandum and Order.. Signed by District Judge Audrey G. Fleissig on 2/14/2018. (NEP)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE EASTERN DISTRICT OF MISSOURI
UNITED STATES OF AMERICA,
Case No. 4:15-cv-00281-AGF
MEMORANDUM AND ORDER
This matter is before the Court on Petitioner Walter Johnson’s motion filed under
28 U.S.C. § 2255 to vacate, set aside, or correct his sentence. On August 28, 2013,
Petitioner pled guilty to the lesser included offense of conspiracy to possess with the
intent to distribute cocaine, in violation of 21 U.S.C. §§ 846 and 841(a)(1). On February
20, 2014, the Court sentenced Petitioner to 102 months in prison and three years of
In his pro se motion to vacate and set aside his conviction and sentence, Petitioner
claims that: (1) the Government engaged in prosecutorial misconduct by pursuing a case
in which agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (“ATF”)
exhibited outrageous government misconduct; and (2) plea counsel was ineffective for
failing to assert the defenses of prosecutorial misconduct/outrageous government conduct
and entrapment. For the reasons set forth below, habeas relief will be denied.
On May 22, 2013, Petitioner and seven other co-defendants were indicted on two
counts: (1) conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute more than five kilograms of
cocaine, in violation of 21 U.S.C. §§ 846 and 841(a)(1); and (2) conspiracy to possess a
firearm during and in relation to a drug-trafficking crime, in violation of 18 U.S.C.
§ 924(o). The charges arose out of a reverse sting operation, in which Petitioner and the
other defendants agreed to rob and steal a substantial amount of cocaine from what they
believed to be a drug stash house. As charged, Count One carried a mandatory minimum
sentence of at least ten years, and not more than life.
During the pretrial phase of the case, the prosecutors disclosed discovery to
Petitioner, and Petitioner was given the opportunity to file pretrial motions. Petitioner
did not elect to file pretrial motions, however, and instead appeared before the Magistrate
Judge and knowingly and voluntarily waived his right to file pretrial motions. United
States v. Johnson, et al, No. 4:13-CR-192-AGF-1, ECF Nos. 158, 159 (E.D. Mo.). As
reflected in the audio recording of the hearing, Petitioner represented, under oath, that he
had discussed his case with defense counsel, that he was satisfied with his representation
by counsel, that he was aware of his right to file pretrial motions, and that he was electing
to waive that right. Id. at ECF No. 158.
On August 28, 2013, Petitioner entered into a guilty plea under Federal Rule of
Criminal Procedure 11(c)(1)(A). Pursuant to the parties’ Guilty Plea Agreement, in
exchange for Petitioner’s voluntary plea of guilty to the lesser included offense in Count
One, the Government agreed to dismiss Count Two. With respect to the sentence, the
parties agreed that so long as Defendant did not request a sentence of less than 96
months, Defendant could request a sentence below the United States Sentencing
Guideline (the “Guideline”) range. The Government agreed not to seek a sentence above
the applicable Guideline range. By permitting Petitioner to plead to the lesser included
offense, Petitioner was no longer subject to the ten-year mandatory minimum sentence.
In the Guilty Plea Agreement, signed by both parties, Petitioner stipulated to the
following facts. On or about May 2, 2013, Petitioner told a confidential informant of the
ATF (“informant”) that Petitioner intended to rob a marijuana dealer. 1 The informant
advised Petitioner that the informant knew a person (hereinafter the “undercover agent”)
who could set up Mexican drug traffickers to be robbed of a large amount of cocaine.
Petitioner met with the undercover agent, who told Petitioner that he was a disgruntled
drug courier for a Mexican drug trafficking organization, and that he (undercover agent)
would be picking up about four to five kilos of cocaine from the stash house in the next
week or so. The undercover agent told Petitioner that he would inform Petitioner of the
stash house’s location in order for Petitioner and any of his recruited associates to rob it.
The undercover agent told Petitioner that Petitioner and his associates would have to
devise their own plan as to how to execute the robbery. Petitioner agreed to conduct the
robbery and told the undercover agent that he would recruit associates.
The description of the offense conduct in the Presentence Investigation Report
states that the investigation began when the informant advised the ATF that Petitioner
and his associates were planning to rob a marijuana dealer in St. Louis. United States v.
Johnson, et al, ECF No. 312, at 4. Petitioner did not object to those facts.
On May 13, 2013, Petitioner and some of his associates met the undercover agent
at a gas station, at which time the undercover agent explained the basic operations of the
Mexican drug cartel and the dangers associated with their plan. Petitioner and his
associates all acknowledged that they wished to participate in the robbery, agreed to pay
the undercover agent eight kilograms of cocaine in exchange for brokering the robbery,
and confirmed that they had access to firearms. Petitioner and his associates decided at
some point after this meeting to recruit more individuals to assist in the robbery and the
acquisition of the cocaine.
On May 15, 2013, the undercover agent advised Petitioner that he had been
contacted by the Mexican drug cartel and was told to pick up cocaine from the stash
house on May 16, 2013. That day, the undercover agent met with Petitioner and his
associates an hour before the alleged drug pick-up to ensure that they were prepared to do
the robbery. Petitioner advised the undercover agent that everyone was ready, and the
undercover agent went through the plan for the robbery. Petitioner had the undercover
agent drive him to collect additional associates to assist in the robbery, and the
undercover agent then met with Petitioner and all of his associates in a fenced-in parking
lot for a final meeting. The undercover agent again reviewed the plan, and Petitioner and
his associates acknowledged the plan and agreed to proceed. The undercover agent then
received a phone call from another ATF agent. The undercover agent pretended that the
call was from a member of the Mexican drug cartel providing him with the address of the
stash house. ATF agents who were located in the immediate area then moved in and
arrested Petitioner and his seven associates. Id. at ECF No. 195.
At the change-of-plea hearing, Petitioner represented to the Court that he had
enough time to discuss the charges, his case, and the plea agreement with his attorney.
He further represented that he was satisfied with the representation he received from his
attorney, and that there was nothing he wanted his attorney to do for him that the attorney
had not done in representing Petitioner. Id. at ECF No. 375, at 7-8. Additionally,
Petitioner represented that he had sufficient time to review the terms of the plea
agreement with his attorney and address any questions Petitioner had about the plea
agreement, and that he understood the terms of the plea agreement. The facts recited in
the plea agreement were also reviewed, in detail, and Petitioner agreed, under oath, that
the statements contained in the plea agreement were true. Id. at 11-13. Petitioner also
represented that he understood that he would normally have the right to appeal both his
conviction and his sentence, but that in the plea agreement, he was waiving his right to
appeal all non-jurisdictional, non-sentencing issues, and all sentencing issues other than
the calculation of his criminal history. Id. at 13-14. Petitioner also waived his right to
contest his conviction and sentence in any post-trial proceedings, except for claims of
prosecutorial misconduct and ineffective assistance of counsel. Id.
The Court ascertained the factual basis for the guilty plea and accepted the plea as
knowing, intelligent, and voluntary. Id. at 39-40.
At the sentencing on February 20, 2014, the Court granted Petitioner’s motion for
a variance from the Guideline range, 2 and sentenced Petitioner to 102 months in prison,
As set forth in the Presentence Investigation Report (“PSR”), the Guideline calculations
provided for a base offense level of 33, and a criminal history score of III, resulting in a
and a three-year term of supervised release. At the sentencing hearing, the Court again
advised Petitioner that he had entered into a plea agreement that waived some or all of his
rights to appeal his sentence, but advised Petitioner that if he believed that the waiver was
not valid or did not cover some ground he wished to raise, he could present that theory to
the appellate court. Petitioner was also advised that he could appeal his conviction if he
believed that his guilty plea was somehow unlawful or involuntary, or if there was some
other fundamental defect in the proceedings that was not waived by his guilty plea. Id. at
ECF No. 376, at 21-22. Petitioner did not file a direct appeal.
Petitioner claims in this pro se motion to vacate and set aside his conviction and
sentence that plea counsel was ineffective for failing to assert the defenses of outrageous
government conduct and entrapment and that the Government engaged in prosecutorial
misconduct by pursuing a case in which law enforcement agents exhibited outrageous
government misconduct. Specifically, Petitioner argues that he “was never anything
more than a car thief, with absolutely no experience or inclination to rob a drug stash
house.” ECF No. 1-1, at 3. Therefore, he contends he had no predisposition to commit
the crime charged and that the Government wrongfully targeted him in its reverse sting
Guideline range of 168-210 months. Id. at ECF No. 312, at 8-12. At the sentencing
hearing, however, the parties agreed to request that Petitioner be given the benefit of the
two-level reduction for narcotics offenses that had been proposed by the Sentencing
Commission but had not yet been adopted by Congress. The Court agreed, applied the
two-level reduction, and approached Petitioner’s sentencing as though his total offense
level was 31, resulting in a Guideline range of 135-168 months. Id. at ECF No. 376, at
operation. Petitioner supplemented his habeas petition on several occasions, pointing the
Court to sources criticizing the use of reverse-sting operations. ECF Nos. 5 and 28.
Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2255, a federal prisoner may seek relief from a sentence
imposed against him on the ground that “the sentence was imposed in violation of the
Constitution or law 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.
“Issues raised and decided on direct appeal cannot ordinarily be relitigated in a
collateral proceeding based on [§ 2255],” and the Eighth Circuit has only deviated from
that general rule in cases involving convincing new evidence of actual innocence or
similarly extraordinary circumstances. See United States v. Wiley, 245 F.3d 750, 752 (8th
Cir. 2001). A petitioner’s ineffective assistance of counsel claim is properly raised under
§ 2255 rather than on direct appeal. United States v. Davis, 452 F.3d 991, 994 (8th Cir.
Claims brought under § 2255 may also be limited by procedural default. A
movant “cannot raise a nonconstitutional or nonjurisdictional issue in a § 2255 motion if
the issue could have been raised on direct appeal but was not.” Anderson v. United
States, 25 F.3d 704, 706 (8th Cir. 1994). Furthermore, even constitutional or
jurisdictional claims that could have been but were not raised on direct appeal cannot be
raised in a § 2255 motion unless the movant can establish “(1) cause for the default and
actual prejudice or (2) actual innocence.” United States v. Moss, 252 F.3d 993, 1001 (8th
Cir. 2001) (citing Bousley v. United States, 523 U.S. 614, 621 (1998)).
“A petitioner is entitled to an evidentiary hearing on a section 2255 motion unless
the motion and the files and the records of the case conclusively show that he is entitled
to no relief.” Anjulo–Lopez v. U.S., 541 F.3d 814, 817 (8th Cir. 2008) (internal quotation
marks and citation omitted). However, when the claim is inadequate on its face, or when
the record affirmatively refutes the assertions on which a claim lies, no hearing is
required. Id. As set forth more fully below, because Petitioner’s claims are either refuted
by the record or facially inadequate, the Court concludes that no hearing is required.
Petitioner first argues that “government attorneys committed prosecutorial
misconduct by electing to prosecute the instant matter where the ATF engaged in
outrageous government conduct.” ECF No. 1-1. Petitioner argues that he should not
have been targeted in the Government’s reverse sting operation, which is considered to be
an “unpopular practice.” Id.
At the outset, the Court notes that Petitioner’s claim of prosecutorial misconduct
has been procedurally defaulted because it was not raised on direct appeal, and Petitioner
has not offered any allegations that would support findings of cause for the default and
actual prejudice. See Turner v. United States, No. 4:10CV01350 ERW, 2011 WL
2580104, at *2 (E.D. Mo. June 28, 2011) (finding procedural default where movant failed
to assert claim of prosecutorial misconduct on direct appeal) (citing United States v.
Moss, 252 F.3d 993, 1001 (8th Cir. 2001)). In any event, however, Petitioner would not
be entitled to relief, even if the procedural bar were inapplicable.
Generally, to be entitled to relief due to prosecutorial misconduct, Petitioner must
show that the prosecutor’s conduct was improper and that the conduct affected his
substantial rights so as to deprive him of a fair trial. Id. (citing United States v. Fenner,
600 F.3d 1014, 1022 (8th Cir. 2010)). Petitioner maintains that the Government engaged
in outrageous conduct by conducting a reverse sting operation. He also contends that the
Government’s conduct of targeting him in this particular reverse sting operation was
outrageous because he was a car thief with no inclination to rob a drug stash house.
The Court is unable to find legal authority for the proposition that prosecuting a
case based on evidence obtained from a reverse sting operation, i.e. outrageous
government conduct, constitutes prosecutorial misconduct. The outrageous-conduct
argument often arises in cases where the Government has been involved in sting or
reverse-sting operations, and it focuses on the government’s conduct. See United States
v. Berg, 178 F.3d 976, 979 (8th Cir. 1999); United States v. Cannon, 88 F.3d 1495, 1506
(8th Cir. 1996). The case law recognizes that the defense of outrageous government
conduct applies if the action of a government agent “falls within the narrow band of the
most intolerable government conduct.” United States v. Bugh, 701 F.3d 888, 894 (8th
Cir. 2012). “Law enforcement agents’ conduct is so outrageous that due process
principles bar the Government from using the judicial process to obtain a conviction only
when agents’ conduct violates ‘that fundamental fairness, shocking the universal sense of
justice, mandated by the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment.’” Id. (citing
United States v. Russell, 411 U.S. 423, 432 (1973)).
Like the Supreme Court in Russell, the Eighth Circuit has left open the possibility
that, in rare instances, the investigative methods employed by law enforcement could be
“so outrageous that due process bars the government from invoking the judicial process
to obtain a conviction.” United States v. King, 351 F.3d 859, 867 (8th Cir. 2003).
However, the Eighth Circuit recently identified only two cases—both from the 1970s—in
which a court of appeals deemed the Government’s conduct so outrageous as to violate
due process. United States v. Combs, 827 F.3d 790, 794 (8th Cir. 2016) (citing United
States v. Twigg, 588 F.2d 373 (3d Cir. 1978) and Greene v. United States, 454 F.2d 783
(9th Cir. 1971)). It opined that “[a] sting operation involving a fake stash-house robbery
is a common investigative tool designed to prevent actual stash-house robberies” and that
“[i]nfiltration of a criminal enterprise is a ‘recognized and permissible means of
investigation’ that often requires the Government agent to employ subterfuge, to
participate in the planning of a crime, and even to provide resources for the crime.” Id.
(citing United States v. Sanchez, 138 F.3d 1410, 1413 (11th Cir. 1998)); see also Bugh,
701 F.3d at 894 (holding that while the Government engaged in “an aggressive and
persistent investigation,” it was “not conduct that shocks the conscience”). The Eighth
Circuit concluded that “[c]onduct by investigators to present a realistic stash-house
robbery scenario, to establish rapport with [the petitioner], or to facilitate commission of
an offense by a preexisting robbery crew do not shock a universal sense of justice.”
Combs, 827 F.3d at 795.
Petitioner cannot establish that the Government’s conduct in this case shocked the
universal sense of justice mandated by the Due Process Clause. Although Petitioner is
correct that reverse sting operations have been criticized, the cases he cites do not support
his theory that the actions of the Government in this reverse sting operation rose to the
level of conduct so outrageous as to violate due process.
Moreover, Petitioner does not dispute that he approached a confidential informant
indicating his intent to rob a marijuana dealer, and Petitioner recruited all of the codefendants to assist him. Thus, the Government’s action of targeting Petitioner in a
reverse sting operation based on his statements to the confidential informant does not rise
to the level of a constitutional violation. See, e.g. United States v. Dixon, 626 F. App’x
959, 961 (11th Cir. 2015) (concluding that launching a reverse sting operation after
learning that the defendant wanted to rob a drug dealer was not outrageous government
conduct). Accordingly, Petitioner’s claim for habeas relief on the basis of prosecutorial
misconduct, which necessarily requires a finding of outrageous government conduct,
Ineffective Assistance of Counsel
Petitioner also contends that his attorney should have filed a motion to dismiss his
indictment on the basis of outrageous government conduct and entrapment, and that his
failure to do so constitutes ineffective assistance of counsel. Petitioner argues that his
attorney failed to properly analyze these defenses and their potential for success.
“To establish ineffective assistance during plea negotiations, the petitioner must
show ‘counsel’s representation fell below an objective standard of reasonableness’ and
‘that such deficient performance prejudiced’ the defense.” Davis v. United States, 858
F.3d 529, 532 (8th Cir. 2017) (quoting Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 688
(1984)). Prejudice in this context requires the petitioner to show that “that there is a
reasonable probability that, but for counsel’s errors, he would not have pleaded guilty and
would have insisted on going to trial.” Hill v. Lockhart, 474 U.S. 52, 59 (1985).
“[W]here the alleged error of counsel is a failure to advise the defendant of a potential
affirmative defense to the crime charged, the resolution of the ‘prejudice’ inquiry will
depend largely on whether the affirmative defense likely would have succeeded at trial.”
As discussed more fully above, Petitioner has failed to make the necessary
showing that the defense of outrageous government conduct likely would have succeeded
at trial. 3 Similarly, he cannot show that the entrapment defense would have been
successful at trial, thereby failing to demonstrate prejudice for the purposes of an
ineffective assistance of counsel claim.
The issue of entrapment also often rises in cases involving reverse-sting
operations. While the defense of outrageous conduct focuses on the government’s
conduct, the entrapment defense focuses on the defendant’s predisposition to commit a
crime. Berg, 178 F.3d at 979. The entrapment defense “recognizes that law enforcement
officers go too far when they implant in the mind of an innocent person the disposition to
commit the alleged offense and induce its commission in order that they may prosecute.”
United States v. Warren, 788 F.3d 805, 810 (8th Cir. 2015). “Entrapment has two
Further, as set forth above, Petitioner received a substantial benefit from the plea
agreement, as he was otherwise facing a mandatory minimum sentence of ten years.
And, the Guideline range on the lesser included offense in Count I, with application of
the proposed two-level reduction under the Guidelines for narcotics offenses, was 135
elements: government inducement and a lack of predisposition on the part of the
defendant to engage in the crime.” Id. (citing Mathews v. U.S., 485 U.S. 58, 62 (1988)).
Here, Petitioner does not dispute that the investigation began when he told a
confidential informant that he and his associates intended to rob a marijuana dealer.
Moreover, the plea agreement and Petitioner’s statements to the Court, which carry a
“strong presumption” of truth and “pose a formidable barrier” to a habeas challenge,
refute Petitioner’s contention that he had no predisposition to commit the crime charged.
Nguyen v. United States, 114 F.3d 699, 703 (8th Cir. 1997). Petitioner fails to provide
any evidence that he did not approach the undercover agent, nor has he provided any
evidence that he did not understand his right to challenge the government’s allegations
and evidence, or that he did not understand the plea agreement.
As a result, Petitioner cannot demonstrate prejudice as a result of plea counsel’s
failure to raise the defenses of outrageous government conduct and entrapment.
IT IS HEREBY ORDERED that Petitioner Walter Johnson’s motion filed under
28 U.S.C. § 2255 to vacate, set aside, or correct his sentence is DENIED.
IT IS FURTHER ORDERED that this Court will not issue a Certificate of
Appealability, as Petitioner has not made a substantial showing of the denial of a federal
constitutional right as required by 28 U.S.C. § 2253(c)(2).
A separate Judgment shall accompany this Memorandum and Order.
AUDREY G. FLEISSIG
UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
Dated this 14th day of February, 2018.
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