Hicks v. USA
ORDER re: 1 Motion to Vacate Sentence - 2255. Hicks's motion for relief under 28 U.S.C. § 2255 (doc. no. 1) is denied. The court declines to issue a certificate of appealability. The clerk of court shall enter judgment accordingly and close the case. So Ordered by Judge Landya B. McCafferty.(de)
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE DISTRICT OF NEW HAMPSHIRE
Civil No. 16-cv-041-LM
Opinion No. 2017 DNH 021
United States of America
O R D E R
Roger Hicks pleaded guilty to one count of bank robbery in
this court and was sentenced to 37 months in prison. See United
States v. Hicks, 14-cr-160-LM (D.N.H. May 8, 2015).
seeks relief from his sentence under 28 U.S.C. § 2255, alleging
three claims of ineffective assistance of counsel.
appointed counsel to represent him and, on January 13, 2017,
held an evidentiary hearing.
For the reasons that follow, the
court denies Hicks’s motion.
Standard of Review
Under § 2255, a federal prisoner may ask the court to
vacate, set aside, or correct a sentence that “was imposed in
violation of the Constitution or laws of the United States.”
U.S.C. § 2255(a).
The burden of proof is on the petitioner.
Wilder v. United States, 806 F.3d 653, 658 (1st Cir. 2015)
(citing David v. United States, 134 F.3d 470, 474 (1st Cir.
On October 3, 2014, Hicks went to the Members First Credit
Union in Manchester, New Hampshire and attempted to withdraw
funds using several cash advance credit/debit cards.
identified himself to the bank teller as Roger Hicks.
teller attempted to process the transactions, but the cards were
Hicks grew agitated and asked to see the bank
After speaking with the manager, Hicks tried using the
cards at the ATM and, when that failed, made several calls to
the debit card company.
Hicks then asked the teller to attempt
the transactions again.
She tried multiple times, but the cards
were again rejected.
Hicks then handed the teller a note on the
reverse side of a business card that said, “Give me cash. I have
The teller gave Hicks all the money in her cash drawer,
The Manchester Police arrested Hicks shortly
On January 23, 2015, Hicks pleaded guilty to one count of
bank robbery in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 2113(a).
States v. Hicks, 14-cr-160-LM.
The presentence report (“PSR”)
calculated Hicks’s criminal history category to be III.
doc. no. 18 at 10.1
His total offense level was 21, which
included a two-level increase pursuant to U.S.S.G. §
2B3.1(b)(2)(F) because Hicks made a threat of death during the
robbery (i.e. “I have a gun”).
Id. at 6.
calculations yielded a guideline range of 46-57 months.
On May 7, 2015, the court sentenced Hicks.
attorney, Bjorn Lange, filed a sentencing memorandum and argued
that the court should sentence Hicks to 37 months in prison.
See cr. doc. no. 14.
Attorney Lange first argued that the court
should not impose the two-level threat-of-death enhancement
under U.S.S.G. § 2B3.1(b)(2)(F).
He argued that due to the
unusual circumstance of the robbery and the fact that the bank
teller recognized Hicks as a frequent customer, his conduct
would not have instilled “in a reasonable person, who is a
victim of the offense, a fear of death.”
Cr. doc. no. 14 at 2.
Attorney Lange argued that Hicks made no threatening or menacing
gestures, and did nothing to show that he in fact possessed a
firearm that he intended to use.
Id. at 3.
objected, noting that Hicks grew increasingly angry and
“Cr. doc. no.” refers to document numbers in the docket of
the underlying criminal proceeding (14-cr-160-LM). “Doc. no.”
refers to document numbers in the instant proceeding.
frustrated as his cards were declined, which made the teller
The government also referenced the police
incident report, which stated that the victim teller was
“visibly upset and shaking” after the robbery.
Cr. doc. no.
The court rejected the defendant’s argument and applied
the threat-of-death enhancement under U.S.S.G. § 2B3.1(b)(2)(F).
Second, Attorney Lange requested that the court depart
horizontally from criminal history category III to II.
argued that category III overstated Hicks’s criminal history.
The court granted the departure, which lowered Hicks’s guideline
range to 41-51 months.
Finally, Attorney Lange requested that the court grant a
four-month variance under 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a).
Attorney Lange argued a variance was appropriate because Hicks’s
PTSD and mental-health problems contributed to the commission of
Hicks was present at the World Trade Center on
9-11 and had experienced other traumatic events in his life.
His PSR indicated that he had a history of PTSD and mentalhealth treatment, including several hospitalizations for
Cr. doc. no. 18 at 15.
The court granted
the variance and sentenced Hicks to 37 months in prison.
On January 29, 2016, Hicks filed a § 2255 motion, claiming
that Attorney Lange was ineffective for failing to request a
diminished-capacity departure under U.S.S.G. § 5K2.13.
The court appointed counsel to represent Hicks (doc. no. 5),
but he later requested that his counsel be dismissed (doc. no.
The court granted Hicks’s motion and appointed substitute
counsel to represent him.
On December 5, 2016, Hicks’s
substitute counsel filed a supplemental memorandum, arguing that
Attorney Lange was ineffective for failing to request a more
substantial variance under 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a) and failing to
properly investigate Hicks’s mental-health condition in order to
further this argument.
Doc. no. 12.
On December 19, 2016,
Hicks filed a petition for leave to supplement his § 2255 motion
with an additional ineffective-assistance-of-counsel claim.
Doc. no. 14.
Hicks claimed that Attorney Lange was ineffective
for failing to obtain the bank teller’s testimony and confirm
that she did not actually fear for her life or believe Hicks
possessed a gun during the robbery.
According to Hicks, such
testimony would have supported his sentencing argument against
application of the threat-of-death enhancement.
On January 13, 2017, the court held an evidentiary hearing.
Attorney Lange testified at the hearing, and Hicks presented
arguments on his three ineffective-assistance-of-counsel claims.
In his § 2255 petition and supplemental filings, Hicks
raises three ineffective-assistance-of-counsel claims.
§ 2255 petition is based on ineffective assistance of counsel,
the petitioner “must demonstrate both: (1) that ‘counsel’s
performance was deficient,’ meaning that ‘counsel made errors so
serious that counsel was not functioning as the “counsel”
guaranteed the defendant by the Sixth Amendment’; and (2) ‘that
the deficient performance prejudiced the defense.’”
States v. Valerio, 676 F.3d 237, 246 (1st Cir. 2012) (quoting
Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 687 (1984)).
Under the deficiency prong, the petitioner “must show that
counsel’s representation fell below an objective standard of
Strickland, 466 U.S. at 688.
There is a
“strong presumption that counsel’s conduct falls within the wide
range of reasonable professional assistance,” and the petitioner
“must overcome the presumption that, under the circumstances,
the challenged action might be considered sound trial strategy.”
Id. at 689 (internal quotation marks omitted).
prejudice prong, the petitioner “must show that there is a
reasonable probability that, but for counsel’s unprofessional
errors, the result of the proceeding would have been different.”
Id. at 694.
Failure to satisfy either the deficiency or
prejudice prong defeats an ineffective-assistance-of-counsel
Id. at 700.
First Claim: Failure to Request Diminished-Capacity
Departure Under U.S.S.G. § 5K2.13
Hicks first argues that trial counsel was ineffective for
failing to request a sentencing departure based on Hicks’s
diminished mental capacity under U.S.S.G. § 5K2.13.
A downward departure may be warranted if (1) the
defendant committed the offense while suffering from a
significantly reduced mental capacity; and (2) the
significantly reduced mental capacity contributed
substantially to the commission of the offense.
Similarly, if a departure is warranted under this
policy statement, the extent of the departure should
reflect the extent to which the reduced mental
capacity contributed to the commission of the offense.
However, the court may not depart below the applicable
guideline range if (1) the significantly reduced
mental capacity was caused by the voluntary use of
drugs or other intoxicants; (2) the facts and
circumstances of the defendant’s offense indicate a
need to protect the public because the offense
involved actual violence or a serious threat of
violence; (3) the defendant’s criminal history
indicates a need to incarcerate the defendant to
protect the public; or (4) the defendant has been
convicted of an offense under chapter 71, 109A, 110,
or 117, of title 18, United States Code.
Hicks argues that at the time of the robbery, he was
suffering from a significantly diminished mental capacity due to
his PTSD, which contributed to his commission of the crime.
Hicks argues that he was eligible for this sentencing departure
because the robbery did not involve actual violence or a serious
threat of violence.
Hicks claims that if Attorney Lange had
requested a § 5K2.13 departure based on his PTSD, he could have
received a five-level downward departure, resulting in a
guideline sentence of 20 months.2
In support of his claim, Hicks
cites a number of cases where courts found a § 5K2.13 departure
See United States v. Risse, 83 F.3d 212, 217 (8th
Cir. 1996) (affirming § 5K2.13 departure); United States v.
Cantu, 12 F.3d 1506, 1516-17 (9th Cir. 1993) (remanding because
the district court erred in ruling that it lacked discretion to
grant a § 5K2.13 departure); United States v. Royal, 902 F.
Supp. 268, 273 (D.D.C. 1995) (granting five-level downward
departure); United States v. Perry, No. 4:CR94-3035, 1995 WL
137294, at *11 (D. Neb. Mar. 27, 1995) (granting five-level
Hicks requests that the court reduce his
sentence from 37 months to 20 months.
In his sentencing memorandum and at Hicks’s sentencing
hearing, Attorney Lange specifically cited Hicks’s PTSD and
mental-health condition in support of his request for a four-
A five-level downward departure would have brought Hicks’s
total offense level to 16, with a guideline sentencing range of
24-30 months. Thus, Hicks’s request for a 20-month sentence is
based on the adjusted offense level, plus the fourth-month
variance the court granted at his sentencing hearing.
In granting Attorney Lange’s motion, the court
noted that the robbery was “likely a result of what appears to
be Mr. Hicks’ undisputed PTSD diagnosis.”
Cr. doc. no. 22 at
The court added that Hicks’s conduct was “the impulsive
behavior of someone who suffers from PTSD, as you say you have,
and there is nothing to indicate that this is an inaccurate
Id. at 32.
The court also noted that it had
considered everything contained in the PSR and Attorney Lange’s
sentencing memorandum, both of which included references to
Hicks’s PTSD and mental-health issues.
Id. at 31.
court concluded that Hicks’s personal and criminal history
“corroborates [Hicks’s] PTSD after the tragic and traumatic
events of 9-11.”
Id. at 34.
Thus, the court explicitly
considered Hicks’s PTSD and mental-health issues when it granted
the four-month variance and sentenced Hicks to 37 months.
Hicks argues that Attorney Lange should have moved for a
§ 5K2.13 downward departure based on Hicks’s PTSD diagnosis.
However, Attorney Lange made essentially the same argument in
the form of a variance request.
He argued that a lower sentence
was appropriate for several reasons, including Hicks’s PTSD and
At the evidentiary hearing, Attorney Lange testified that
he discussed a § 5K2.13 departure with Hicks, but ultimately
chose to pursue a variance because it was less restrictive than
Under these circumstances, Attorney Lange was not
deficient for requesting a downward variance rather than a
See United States v. Morgan, Cr. No. 12-
10071-PBS, 2016 WL 526040, at *1 (D. Mass. Feb. 9, 2016)
(“Presenting an argument for a variance under § 3553(a) and §
5K2.0, rather than under § 5K2.13, is not objectively
unreasonable in light of the advisory nature of the Sentencing
Guidelines.” (citations omitted)).
Moreover, a § 5K2.13 departure is not available if the
robbery involved “a serious threat of violence”3 or the
defendant’s diminished capacity was “caused by the voluntary use
Here, as Attorney Lange explained, had he requested
a § 5K2.13 departure, he risked focusing the court’s attention
on whether Hicks’s reduced mental capacity was caused by his
Hicks would not have been eligible for a § 5K2.13
departure if the court determined that “the facts and
circumstances of the [robbery] indicate a need to protect the
public because the offense involved . . . a serious threat of
violence.” Courts faced with similar facts have reached
different conclusions on this issue. Compare United States v.
McFadzean, No. 98 CR 754, 1999 WL 1144909, at *5 (N.D. Ill. Dec.
8, 1999) (finding no serious threat of violence where defendant
handed note to teller that said “I have a gun,” but had no
weapon or means to harm anyone) with United States v. Anderson,
547 F.3d 831, 832 (7th Cir. 2008) (finding serious threat of
violence where defendant handed note to teller that said “as you
can see I have a gun,” but record did not indicate whether he
actually had a gun).
voluntary use of drugs.
Attorney Lange testified that discovery
revealed that Hicks told the police officers shortly after his
arrest that he “was going to use the money to buy drugs.”
Attorney Lange made a strategic decision to pursue a variance,
which allowed him to emphasize the mitigating facts in the case,
specifically Hicks’s PTSD diagnosis.
And, as the record
reveals, Attorney Lange was able to avoid a detailed inquiry
into whether Hicks’s history of substance abuse played a causal
role in the bank robbery.
Additionally, Hicks has not shown a reasonable probability
that a departure under § 5K2.13 would have resulted in a fivelevel decrease, or otherwise resulted in a sentence lower than
Because the facts here are different than the cases
cited in his motion, a § 5K2.13 departure in this case may not
have resulted in a five-level decrease.
See U.S.S.G. § 5K2.13
(“[T]he extent of the departure should reflect the extent to
which the reduced mental capacity contributed to the commission
of the offense.”).4
Thus, Hicks has not shown prejudice, that
is, a reasonable probability that a downward departure would
have resulted in a more lenient sentence.
If, for example, the court granted a one-level § 5K2.13
departure, the low end of Hicks’s guideline range would have
been 37 months. If the court granted a three-level departure,
the high end of his guideline range would have been 37 months.
In sum, Hicks has not satisfied either prong of the
Based on the
circumstances of this case, Attorney Lange’s decision to request
a downward variance rather than a departure was simply good
Accordingly, Hicks is not entitled to relief on his
first ineffective-assistance claim.
Second Claim: Failure to Request Further Variance
Hicks next argues that trial counsel was ineffective for
failing to request a more substantial variance under 18 U.S.C.
§ 3553(a) and failing to properly investigate Hicks’s mentalhealth condition in order to further this argument.
To be clear, Attorney Lange argued that a four-month
reduction was appropriate because Hicks’s PTSD contributed to
his commission of the robbery, and the court granted a fourmonth variance largely on that basis.
However, Hicks argues
that his mental-health condition was not sufficiently supported
by documents and other evidence at sentencing.
In support of
this claim, Hicks points to Attorney Lange’s failure to request
that Hicks undergo a mental-health evaluation.
that an evaluation could have substantiated his PTSD and
supported a more substantial variance, greater than the fourmonth variance Attorney Lange requested at sentencing.
problem with this argument is that Hicks’s PTSD was undisputed,
and the court expressly found that Hicks’s PTSD warranted a
Attorney Lange’s failure to request that Hicks undergo a
mental-health evaluation or further substantiate Hicks’s PTSD
diagnosis does not rise to the level of ineffective assistance.
The PSR supported—and the government did not dispute—Hicks’s
Thus, Attorney Lange’s failure to present
supporting medical evidence cannot be described as “patently
Knight v. Spencer, 447 F.3d 6, 15 (1st Cir.
Further, Attorney Lange’s strategic decision to request
a downward variance of four months, rather than some greater
amount, was a reasonable exercise of his professional judgment.
See Strickland, 466 U.S. at 689-90; Knight, 447 F.3d at 15
(“Under the first prong of Strickland, there is a strong
presumption that counsel’s strategy and tactics fall within the
range of reasonable professional assistance, and courts should
avoid second-guessing counsel’s performance with the use of
hindsight.” (internal quotation marks omitted)).
Attorney’s Lange’s performance was not deficient.
Moreover, Hicks has not shown a reasonable probability that
additional evidence of his undisputed PTSD diagnosis would have
altered the outcome of sentencing, or that the court would have
granted a more substantial variance request.
For these reasons,
he has not shown prejudice.
Accordingly, Hicks is not entitled
to relief on his second ineffective-assistance claim.
III. Third Claim: Failure to Substantiate Threat-of-Death
Enhancement Argument Under U.S.S.G. § 2B3.1(b)(2)(F)
Finally, Hicks argues that Attorney Lange was ineffective
for failing to obtain the bank teller’s testimony and confirm
that she did not actually fear for her life or believe Hicks
possessed a gun during the robbery.
Hicks contends that such
testimony would have supported his sentencing argument that the
threat-of-death enhancement under U.S.S.G. § 2B3.1(b)(2)(F)
should not apply in this case.
“Before the [threat-of-death] enhancement may be imposed,
the record must support a finding that a defendant’s actions and
statements, taken as a whole, ‘would instill in a reasonable
person, who is a victim of the offense, a fear of death.’”
United States v. Gray, 177 F.3d 86, 92 (1st Cir. 1999) (quoting
U.S.S.G. § 2B3.1 comment. n.6).
In Gray, the bank robber handed
the teller a note that said, “Give me all your money or I'll
Id. at 88.
The First Circuit upheld the
district court’s assessment of the two-level enhancement, noting
that the robber’s “unmistakable threat to use a lethal weapon
itself puts this case well within the mainstream of death-threat
Id. at 92 (citing cases).
Although the robber
never actually possessed a gun and may have been reluctant to
use violence, the court concluded that the robber’s conduct
created an objectively dangerous situation.
At Hicks’s sentencing hearing, Attorney Lange argued that
Hicks’s case was distinguishable from Gray.
He argued that
Hicks’s conduct more closely mirrored the facts in United States
v. Wooten, where the Sixth Circuit reversed the district court’s
imposition of the threat-of-death enhancement to Wooten’s bank
689 F.3d 570, 579 (6th Cir. 2012).
Wooten told a bank teller, “I have a gun,” the teller testified
that he never felt threatened by Wooten.
Id. at 578-79.
Sixth Circuit found that Wooten’s nonaggressive demeanor
throughout the robbery and the fact that he did not give the
teller a demand note suggested that he would not have appeared
objectively threatening to a reasonable teller.
Id. at 579.
The court concluded that Wooten’s behavior “would not convey to
a reasonable teller . . . that Wooten was prepared to use deadly
Here, the court considered the entire circumstances of the
robbery and determined that the threat-of-death enhancement
applied to Hicks’s sentence.
The court stated the following:
I’ve looked at the Gray and Wooten cases, and I find
the threat of death enhancement is properly applied in
Unlike Wooten, who was calm and soft spoken the entire
time, and where it was so clear to the teller the
defendant had no intent to harm, here Mr. Hicks was
increasingly agitated and upset. The note said I have
a gun. The teller did not necessarily see him the
entire time to see no gun visible. Just because she
can’t see a gun doesn’t mean he doesn’t have one from
a reasonable person’s perspective, and she handed him
the cash upon receiving the note.
I think the incident report also confirms that the
officers -- at least when they talked to her about it
she noticed, according to the incident report, that he
was growing agitated and she became nervous as a
result of that and they describe her as visibly upset
and shaking after this.
. . . .
But with respect to the victim teller who witnessed
the increasing agitation and escalation of his
frustration and also was given the note, give me the
cash, I have a gun, I think it could have instilled in
that reasonable person a fear of death.
Cr. doc. no. 22 at 9-10.
The threat-of-death enhancement under § 2B3.1(b)(2)(F) is
based on an objective standard, i.e., whether the robber’s
actions “would instill in a reasonable person, who is a victim
of the offense, a fear of death.”
Gray, 177 F.3d at 92
(emphasis added) (citation omitted).
Here, the court imposed
the sentencing enhancement because of the effect Hicks’s conduct
would have on a reasonable person.
The court concluded that
Hicks’s growing agitation and handwritten note, which said “I
have a gun,” would instill in a reasonable teller a fear of
Because application of the threat-of-death enhancement
is based on an objective standard, Attorney Lange was not
deficient for failing to interview the bank teller and determine
her subjective state of mind during the robbery.
Additionally, while the bank teller’s subjective state of
mind may be relevant in determining what a reasonable person
would believe, the record here indicates that the teller did
fear for her life.
The teller stated that she was “nervous”
while Hicks was in the bank, and the police incident report
describes her as “visibly upset and shaking” after the robbery.
See cr. doc. no. 17-1.
The teller’s reaction to the robbery is
wholly consistent with a fear of death.
Although Attorney Lange
did not interview the teller, there is no indication that her
statements would have contradicted the record evidence in this
To be sure, even if the teller testified that she did not
feel threatened by Hicks’s note, such testimony would be
undermined by her immediate reaction to the robbery, as
described in the report.
Thus, Hicks has not shown a reasonable
probability that the bank teller’s testimony would have changed
the court’s decision to impose the threat-of-death enhancement
under § 2B3.1(b)(2)(F).
Accordingly, Hicks is not entitled to
relief on his final ineffective-assistance claim.
For the foregoing reasons, Hicks’s motion for relief under
28 U.S.C. § 2255 (doc. no. 1) is denied.
Because Hicks has not
made a substantial showing of the denial of a constitutional
right, the court declines to issue a certificate of
See 28 U.S.C. § 2253(c)(2); Rule 11(a), Rules
Governing Section 2255 Proceedings.
The clerk of court shall
enter judgment accordingly and close the case.
United States District Judge
January 30, 2017
Seth R. Aframe, Esq.
James P. O’Rourke, Jr., Esq.
Jaye Rancourt, Esq.
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