Rhyne v. United States of America
ORDER AND OPINION: For the foregoing reasons, Defendant's motion pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2255 to set aside his sentence as excessive, and to vacate his conviction on the basis of ineffective assistance of counsel is DENIED in all respect s. Defendant failed to demonstrate entitlement to the relief sought. The Clerk of the Court is directed to te1minate the civil action 18-civ-361. The Clerk of the Court is also respectfully requested to mail a copy of this opinion to Defendant Rhyne. This constitutes the Court's Opinion and Order. (As further set forth in this Order.) (Signed by Judge Nelson Stephen Roman on 4/16/2018) (cf)
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UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
SOUTHERN DISTRICT OF NEW YORK
DOC II: _ _ __,_
UNITED STATES OF AMERICA,
No. 15-CR-05-01 (NSR)
No. 18-CIV-361 (NSR)
ORDER AND OPINION
NELSONS. ROMAN, United States District Judge
Defendant, Lakuan Rhyne ("Defendant" or "Rhyne"), was originally charged in a multicount indictment with paiticipating in a narcotics conspiracy in and about Westchester County from
2014 through January 2015. (ECF No. 2.) On June 18, 2015, the Goverrunent filed a superseding
indictment which added an additional count, Count Four, which chai·ged the Defendant with
distributing heroin, laced with fentanyl, which resulted in the overdose death of another (Thomas
Coogan). (ECF No. 88.) As a result of Count Four, Defendant faced a mandatory minimum
sentence of twenty years imprisonment.
Pursuant to a plea agreement, dated March 18, 2016 (the "Agreement"), Defendant agreed
and pied guilty to a superseding infonnation which charged him with one count of heroin
conspiracy involving at least one kilogram. (ECF No. 181.) The charge carried a statutory
minimum sentence of ten years imprisonment. As a condition of his plea, for purposes of
calculating the applicable Sentencing Guidelines range, Defendant agreed that his offense level was
thirty-five (3 5) and his criminal history category was three (III). The agreed upon Sentencing
Guideline range, based on the offense level and criminal history category, was two hundred and ten
(210) months to two hundred and sixty-two (262) months imprisonment. On April 21, 2016, this
Court sentenced the Defendant to a term of one hundred and eighty-six (186) months imprisonment
to be followed by a term of supervised release. (See Judgment, ECF No. 214.) Before the Court is
Defendant's motion pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2255 to set aside his sentence on the basis of
ineffective assistance of counsel. For the following reasons, Defendant's motion is DENIED in its
A motion under 28 U.S.C. § 2255 is an extraordinary remedy. See Moyhernandez v. United
States, No. 02 Civ. 8062 MBM, 2004 WL 3035479 (S.D.N.Y. Dec. 29, 2004). 28 U.S.C. § 2255(a)
A prisoner in custody under sentence of a court established by Act of Congress
claiming the right to be released upon the ground 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, may move
the comt which imposed the sentence to vacate, set aside or con-ect the sentence.
§ 2255(b) provides, in relevant part:
If the court finds that the judgment was rendered without jurisdiction, or that the
sentence imposed was not authorized by law or otherwise open to collateral attack,
or that there has been such a denial or infringement of the constitutional rights of the
prisoner as to render the judgment vulnerable to collateral attack, the court shall
vacate and set the judgment aside and shall discharge the prisoner or resentence him
or grant a new trial or correct the sentence as may appear appropriate.
A plain reading of the statute contemplates providing a mechanism to detained individuals
who seek judicial relief from a wrongfully imposed sentence. It is well settled that§ 2255 provides
a collateral remedy and not a remedy for an appeal such that it can used to challenge the sufficiency
of the evidence. See, Dansby v. United States, 291 F. Supp. 790 (S.D.N.Y. 1968); see also Bousley
v. United States, 523 U.S. 614,621 (1998).
PLEAS AND PLEA AGREEMENTS
The Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 11 (b) provides that before the court may accept a
guilty plea, a defendant must be informed of his or her constitutional rights and must demonstrate
that the plea is entered voluntarily. Courts have held that for a guilty plea to be deemed valid, it
must be entered into voluntarily, knowingly, and intelligently and "with sufficient awareness of the
relevant circumstances and likely consequences." Bradshaw v. Stumpf. 545 U.S. 175, 183 (2005)
(quoting Brady v. United States, 397 U.S. 742, 748 (1970)); see also McCarthy v. United States,
394 U.S. 459, 466 (1969). This standard exists because the failure to obtain a valid plea is deemed
a violation of a defendant's due process rights. McCarthy, 394 U.S. at 466. In addition, the court
must determine whether the conduct which the Defendant admits to was committed by the accused
and constitutes the offense charged in the Indictment, the charging instrument, or the offense for
which the defendant has accepted responsibility for pursuant to a plea agreement. See id. at 467
(citing Fed. R. Crim. P. 11, advismy committee notes).
Plea agreements are generally favored because they tend to conserve valuable prosecutorial
resources and defendants tend to receive more favorable terms at sentencing. Missouri v. Frye, 566
U.S. 134, 144 (2012). It is a basic core principle that plea agreements are to be interpreted under the
same standards of contract law, see United States v. Rodgers, 101 F .3d 24 7, 253 (2d Cir. 1996),
bearing in mind, however, that they "are unique contracts in which special due process concerns for
fairness and the adequacy of procedural safeguards obtain." United States v. Ready, 82 F.3d 551,
558 (2d Cir.1996) (quotations and citation omitted), superseded on other grounds as stated in
United States v. Cook, 722 F.3d 477,481 (2d Cir. 2013); accord United States v. Cimino, 381 F.3d
124, 127 (2d Cir. 2004); United States v. Aleman, 286 F.3d 86, 90 (2d Cir. 2002). Words and
phrases in the agreement are to be given their plain meaning, see United States v. Dionisio, 415 F.
Supp. 2d 191,201 (E.D.N.Y. 2006), ajf'd, 503 F.3d 78 (2d Cir. 2007), and terms are to be strictly
construed. United States v. Pollack, 91 F.3d 331, 335 (2d Cir. 1996). Any ambiguity in the
agreement must be construed against the drafter, typically the Government, see United States v.
Gatti, 457 F. Supp. 2d 411, 415 (S.D.N.Y. 2006), because "the Government is usually the party that
drafts the agreement, and [because] the Government ordinarily has ce1tain awesome advantages in
bargaining power." United States v. Padilla, 186 F.3d 136, 140 (2d Cir. 1999) (quoting Ready, 82
F.3d at 559). In deciding whether a plea agreement has been breached, a court must look to what the
paities to the plea agreement reasonably understood its terms to be. United States v. Carbone, 739
F.2d 45, 46 (2d Cir. 1984) (quoting Paradiso v. United States, 689 F.2d 28, 31 (2d Cir. 1982) (per
curiam), cert. denied, 459 U.S. 1116 (1983)).
INEFFECTIVE ASSISTANCE OF COUNSEL
It is well settled, that counsel owes her client a duty of loyalty, a duty to avoid conflicts of
interest, and when representing a criminal defendant, counsel's role is to assist defenda11t in his
defense within the permissible rules of law. See generally Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668
(1984). Such assista11ce includes the duty to advocate defendant's cause, to consult with the accused
on all matters of importance and to appraise the defendant of important developments in the course
of the prosecution. Id. at 688. The Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution "guarantees a
defenda11t the right to have counsel present at all 'critical' stages of the criminal proceedings,"
Montejo v. Louisiana, 556 U.S. 778, 786 (2009) (quoting United States v. Wade, 388 U.S. 218,
227-228 (1967)), which includes the entry of a guilty plea, Argersinger v. Hamlin, 407 U.S. 25, 38
(1972), a11d sentencing. Mempa v. Rhay, 389 U.S. 128 (1967). In regai·ds to a negotiated plea,
counsel has the utmost obligation to advise his client of "the advantages a11d disadvantages of a plea
agreement." Padilla v. Kentucky, 559 U.S. 356,370 (2010) (quoting Libretti v. United States, 516
U.S. 29, 50-51 (1995)). At sentencing, counsel's sage advice a11d forceful advocacy can serve to
minimize a defendant's period of incarceration. See Glover v. United States, 531 U.S. 198,203
When evaluating counsel's performance, judicial scrutiny must be highly deferential and
must not serve as an opportunity to act as a Monday morning quarterback. See Strickland, 466 U.S.
at 689. In order to reverse a conviction based on ineffective assistance of counsel, there must be a
showing that counsel's assistance was deficient and that such deficiency prejudiced the defense so
as to deprive the defendant of a fair proceeding. Id., 466 U.S. at 687-693. Where the defendant
enters a guilty plea upon counsel's advice, the voluntariness of the plea is dependent on whether the
advice was within range of competence demanded of attorneys in criminal cases and whether·
counsel's constitutionally ineffective performance affected the outcome of the plea process. Hill v.
Lockhart, 474 U.S. 52, 56, 69 (1985). "In other words, in order to satisfy the 'prejudice'
requirement, the defendant must show 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." Id. at 59.
"[A] court must indulge a strong presumption that counsel's conduct falls within the wide
range of reasonable professional assistance; that is, the defendant must overcome the presumption
that, under the circumstances, the challenged action 'might be considered sound  strategy."'
Strickland, 466 at 689 (quoting Michel v. Louisiana, 350 U.S. 91, 101 (1955)). A defendant
claiming ineffective assistance "must identify the acts or omissions of counsel that are alleged not to
have been the result of reasonable professional judgment. The court must then determine whether,
in light of all the circumstances, the identified acts or omissions were outside the wide range of
professionally competent assistance." Strickland, 466 U.S. at 690.
Defendant asserts that counsel was ineffective because he understood that by entering into
the plea agreement he would not be admitting that he distributed heroin laced with fentanyl which
contributed to the death of another person (Thomas Coogan). Additionally, Defendant suggests that
as a result of ineffective counsel, he received an enhanced sentence (of approximately five years)
and ordered to pay restitution (medical and funeral expenses of Thomas Coogan). However,
review of the record, including the Agreement, does not support Defendant's contention.
On April 21, 2016, Defendant executed the Agreement which was also reviewed and
executed by his counsel. According to the Agreement, Defendant agreed to plead guilty to count
one of the superseding infmmation which charged him with participating in a conspiracy to
distribute and possess with intent to distribute one kilogram or more of mixtures and substances
containing a detectable amount of heroin. Defendant agreed to a stipulated offense level arrd
criminal history category. It was agreed that the Sentencing Guideline range would be two hundred
and ten (210) to two hundred and sixty-two (262) months of imprisonment. Defendant
acknowledged that the sentencing court was authorized to impose "any sentence, up to and
including the statutory maximum sentence." Of significance, Defendant agreed not to directly
appeal or collaterally challenge (including but not limited to an application under 28 U.S.C. §§ 2255
and 2241) "any sentence within or below the Stipulated Guidelines Range of210 to 262 months'
imprisonment." It also provided that the sentencing guideline analysis contained within the
agreement was "binding on the patties even if the Comt employs a guidelines analysis different
from that stipulated to."
A review of the Agreement reveals clear and unambiguous terms. Further, a review of the
hearing minutes from the plea allocution, reveals Defendant read the plea agreement, the waiver of
indictment and the superseding information and understood their te1ms. Defendant was appraised
of, inter alia, his constitutional rights, waived his rights, indicated he had sufficient opportunity to
consult with his attorney, was satisfied with his attorney and the services provided, acknowledged
that the applicable guideline sentencing range was two hundred and ten (210) to two hundred and
sixty-two (262) months, and understood that the Court could impose a sentence within the
applicable guideline sentencing range. The record supports a finding that Defendant's plea was
entered knowingly, intelligently and voluntarily. Any motion seeking to vacate the plea on the basis
Defendant was misinformed or that it was not entered knowing is baseless. Likewise, since the
Court imposed a sentence which does not contradict and is in keeping with the terms of the
Agreement, Defendant's motion on the basis that the sentence is excessive, must also fail. Such a
motion is further foreclosed based upon the explicit terms of the Agreement wherein the Defendant
knowingly and voluntarily agreed to waive any appeal or to seek a sentence modification within the
agreed upon range. See United States v. Yemitan, 70 F.3d 746 (2d Cir. 1995).
Defendant's claim of ineffective assistance of counsel is also meritless. Defendant has not
demonstrated that counsel's assistance was deficient, and that such deficiency prejudiced defendant
to such a degree that he was deprived of a fair proceeding. Strickland, 466 U.S. at 687-693. Other
than Defendant's conclusory statement that counsel's perfo1mance was constitutionally lacking and
ineffective, movant has failed to demonstrate that counsel's performance affected the outcome of
the plea process to such an extent "that there is a reasonable probability that, but for counsel's
errors, [Rhyne] would not have pleaded guilty and would have insisted on going to trial." Lockhart,
474 U.S. at 58-59. Thus, Defendant's application to vacate his conviction based on claims of
ineffective assistance of counsel must be denied. Lastly, Defendant's remaining contentions,
including claims of prosecutorial misconduct, are frivolous, speculative, not supported by the record
and must denied. 1
Following the filing of the notice of appeal, Defendant's appellate counsel filed a brief pursuant to Anders v.
California, 386 U.S. 738 (1967), stating that after careful review of the record there were no meritorious or nonfrivolous issues to be raised on appeal. (See ECF No. 260.)
For the foregoing reasons, Defendant's motion pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2255 to set aside his ·
sentence as excessive, and to vacate his conviction on the basis of ineffective assistance of counsel
is DENIED in all respects. Defendant failed to demonstrate entitlement to the relief sought. The
Clerk of the Court is directed to te1minate the civil action 18-civ-361. The Clerk of the Court is also
respectfully requested to mail a copy of this opinion to Defendant Rhyne. This constitutes the Comt '.:;
Opinion and Order.
Dated: April 16, 2018
White Plains, New York
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