Sanders v. USA
MEMORANDUM DECISION ORDER denying 1 Motion to Vacate, Set Aside or Correct Sentence (2255). Signed by Judge Dee Benson on 4/28/2017. (blh)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE DISTRICT OF UTAH
MEMORANDUM DECISION AND
UNITED STATES OF AMERICA,
Case No. 1:16-cv-00012-DB
Crim. No. 1:14-cr-00016-DB
District Judge Dee Benson
This case is before the Court on Scott Sanders’ Motion to Vacate, Set Aside, or Correct
Sentence Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2255. Having considered the motion and pleadings, having
reviewed the file, and being otherwise fully informed, the court enters the following
Memorandum Decision and Order.
On March 26, 2014, Mr. Sanders was charged in a three-count indictment with two
counts of felon in possession of firearms and ammunition in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1),
and one count of possession of methamphetamine in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 844(a). (Case No.
1:14-CR-00016-DB, Dkt. No. 1.) Prior to this indictment, Mr. Sanders had been convicted of
three crimes that would qualify as “violent felonies” under the then-applicable interpretation of
the Armed Career Criminal Act (“ACCA”). Two of the three crimes were failure to stop at the
command of an officer convictions, which qualified as violent felonies pursuant to the residual
clause of the ACCA. See United States v. Wise, 597 F.3d 1141 (10th Cir. 2010) (holding that the
Utah statute related to Failure to Stop at the Command of an officer was a crime of violence
pursuant to USSG 4B1.2(a)). The parties understood that, under the then-applicable law, Mr.
Sanders was facing a mandatory minimum sentence of 15 years under the original indictment.
The parties engaged in plea negotiations and on November 18, 2014, in an attempt to
avoid the mandatory minimum sentence under the original indictment, Mr. Sanders pled guilty to
a one-count Felony Information charging Possession of a Stolen Firearm, in violation of 18
U.S.C. § 922(j). (Dkt. Nos. 25, 26.) The plea agreement was pursuant Fed. R. Evid. 11(c)(1)(C),
and set a term of 120 months imprisonment, which was five months above the high end of the
guideline range calculated for the plea. Id. The plea agreement included a waiver of the right to
petition for relief pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2255, except if the case involved ineffective assistance
of counsel. (Dkt. No. 25.) At the change of plea hearing, Mr. Sanders was placed under oath, and
the court accepted Mr. Sanders’ plea as being knowingly and voluntarily entered. (Dkt. No. 26.)
On January 9, 2015, following oral argument on November 5, 2014, the United States
Supreme Court requested additional briefing in Johnson v. United States, 135 S. Ct. 2551 (2015),
regarding the constitutionality of the residual clause of the ACCA and set the case for reargument. Prior to that request, the Court had twice held that the residual clause is not vague. See
James v. United States, 550 U.S. 192, 210, 127 S. Ct. 1586, 1598, 167 L. Ed. 2d 532 (2007)
overruled by Johnson v. United States, 135 S. Ct. 2551 (2015) (“we are not persuaded by Justice
Scalia’s suggestion—which was not pressed by James or his amici—that the residual provision is
unconstitutionally vague.”); Sykes v. United States, 564 U.S. 1, 15, 131 S. Ct. 2267, 2277, 180 L.
Ed. 2d 60 (2011) (plurality opinion) overruled by Johnson v. United States, 135 S. Ct. 2551
(2015) (stating that the residual clause “states an intelligible principle and provides guidance that
allows a person to ‘conform his or her conduct to the law’”).
Mr. Sanders’ sentencing hearing proceeded as scheduled on January 27, 2015. The court
accepted the proposed plea agreement pursuant to Rule 11(c)(1)(C) and imposed a sentence of
120 months. (1:14-CR-00016-DB, Dkt. No. 30.)
Mr. Sanders also had a litany of state charges pending at the time of his federal
sentencing. Those charges were all subsequently resolved in consideration of the federal
sentence imposed. On March 3, 2015, Mr. Sanders pled guilty to two counts of 3rd Degree Retail
Theft in Davis County. Mr. Sanders received a sentence of “an indeterminate term of not to
exceed five years” for each of those crimes. See Dkt. No. 16, Exs. 6, 7, and 13. Both prison terms
were suspended and were ordered to run concurrent with each other, and both cases noted that
“Defendant can serve out his sentence in the federal system.” Id., Exs. 6, 7, 13, and 14. On
February 24, 2015, Mr. Sanders pled to two other state charges—Theft by Receiving Stolen
Property, a 2nd Degree Felony, and Failure to Stop or Respond at Command of Police, a 3rd
Degree Felony. At the date of sentencing on those felony charges, three additional cases were
dismissed, in consideration of Mr. Sanders’ guilty pleas (131901960, 131902358, and
141900144.) Id., Exs. 8 and 11. Mr. Sanders’ federal defender appeared at the state sentencing
and explained Mr. Sanders’ 120-month federal sentence. At the sentencing, “[t]he State agreed to
recommend a suspended prison sentence because of the defendant’s sentence in federal court.”
Id. For the 2nd Degree Felony, Mr. Sanders was sentenced to “an indeterminate term of not less
than one year nor more than fifteen years,” and for the 3rd Degree Felony, Mr. Sanders was
sentenced to “an indeterminate term of not to exceed five years.” Id., Exs. 8, 9, 11,and 12. Both
prison sentences were suspended because of the federal prison sentence imposed. Id.
On June 26, 2015, the Supreme Court overruled prior precedent and found that the
ACCA’s residual clause was unconstitutionally vague. Johnson, 135 S. Ct. 2551 (2015). On
January 27, 2016, exactly one year from the date of his sentencing, Mr. Sanders filed a motion
for relief under 28 U.S.C. § 2255, arguing that he had received ineffective assistance of counsel
because his attorney did not inform him or the court that the Supreme Court was considering the
constitutionality of the residual clause of the ACCA in Johnson v. United States. (1:16-CV-12,
Dkt. No. 1.)
Section 2255 allows prisoners in federal custody to move for their sentences to be
vacated, set aside, or corrected if their “sentence was imposed in violation of the Constitution or
laws of the United States, or ... the court was without jurisdiction to impose such sentence, or ...
the sentence was in excess of the maximum authorized by law, or is otherwise subject to
collateral attack.” 28 U.S.C. § 2255(a). Here, Mr. Sanders moves to vacate, set aside, or correct
his sentence on one ground—that his counsel was ineffective for failing to understand, or failing
to inform him or the court of, the import of the possibility of the ruling in Johnson v. United
States, 135 S.Ct. 2551 (2015). To make out a claim for ineffective assistance of counsel, a
petitioner must satisfy two prongs:
(1) petitioner “must show that counsel’s representation fell
below an objective standard of reasonableness;” and (2) petitioner must demonstrate that “any
deficiencies in counsel’s performance [were] prejudicial to [petitioner’s] defense.” Strickland v.
Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 688, 692 (1984).
A court assessing an ineffective assistance of counsel claim “must be highly deferential”
to counsel and make “every effort…to eliminate the distorting effects of hindsight, to reconstruct
the circumstances of counsel’s challenged conduct, and to evaluate the conduct from counsel’s
perspective at the time.” Id. at 689. The court must also “indulge a strong presumption that
counsel’s conduct falls within the wide range of reasonable professional assistance.” Id. Failure
to recognize or argue a novel or unsettled point of law does not amount to a deficient
performance by counsel at sentencing. United States v. Thomas, 2016 WL 4060192, at *7 (D.
Kan. July 29, 2016). “To hold otherwise would require a level of creative thinking on the part of
defense lawyers that, while perhaps something to which counsel should strive, goes beyond the
standard contemplated by Strickland.” Id.
Under the facts of this case, the court cannot find that Mr. Sanders’ representation fell
below an objective standard of reasonableness. At the time Mr. Sanders entered his plea, the
Supreme Court had heard oral argument in Johnson, but had not provided any definitive
guidance as to the constitutionality of the residual clause of the ACCA. At the time of Mr.
Sanders’ sentencing, the Supreme Court had ordered additional briefing in Johnson, but had still
not reversed its previous cases holding that the residual clause was constitutional. Thus, Mr.
Sanders’ counsel did not disregard any direct guidance from the Supreme Court. As the United
States Supreme Court has noted, “[i]t will often be the case that even the most informed counsel
will fail to anticipate a [court’s] willingness to reconsider a prior holding,” but a failure to adapt
strategy to anticipate court rulings is “far from being evidence of incompetence.” Smith v.
Murray, 477 U.S. 527, 536, 106 S. Ct. 2661, 2667 (1986).
However, even assuming that the writing was on the wall with respect to the
constitutionality of the residual clause of the ACCA, the court is still not convinced that Mr.
Sanders’ counsel was constitutionally compelled to discuss the pending case with his client or
raise the case with the court under the circumstances of this case. Mr. Sanders pled guilty to one
count of felon in possession of a firearm, and agreed to a sentence only five months above the
top end of the guideline range. Mr. Sanders was initially charged with two counts of felon in
possession of a firearm and ammunition, as well as a felony count for possession of
methamphetamine. Although the court is not aware of the precise calculation of the guideline
range under the original indictment, absent the mandatory minimum imposed under the residual
clause of the ACCA, it stands to reason that it would have been higher than the information to
which Mr. Sanders pled, given that the original indictment contained two additional felony
charges. And, given the Supreme Court’s recent ruling in Beckles v. United States, 137 S. Ct. 886
(2017), the guideline enhancements associated with Mr. Sanders’ charges and criminal history
are still applicable post-Johnson. As such, the court cannot find that Mr. Sanders counsel was
constitutionally incompetent for failing to continue the sentencing or explore the possible
implications of Johnson with his client or the court under these circumstances.
This determination is further supported by the numerous state charges for which Mr.
Sanders will serve no time, based on his 120-month federal prison sentence. Mr. Sanders’
counsel was apparently aware of these cases at the time of Mr. Sanders’ sentencing, and was
involved in achieving a global resolution of those state charges through the strategic use of Mr.
Sanders’ federal sentence. Given the circumstances surrounding Mr. Sanders’ plea and
sentencing, the court does not find that his representation fell below an objective standard of
Furthermore, under the second prong of Strickland, the court is not convinced that any
alleged deficient performance resulted in prejudice to Mr. Sanders. Mr. Sanders argues that his
counsel should have continued the sentencing date, in anticipation of the Johnson decision.
However, Mr. Sanders had no assurance that his state court proceedings would be stayed as well.
Absent a final federal court sentence prior to his state court sentencings, Mr. Sanders would not
likely have received the benefit of suspended sentences in all of his state court proceedings. Mr.
Sanders was just as likely to have been worse off as a result of a continuance of his federal
sentence as he was to be benefitted by it. Furthermore, even absent an understanding that a 15year mandatory minimum sentence would be imposed under the original indictment, Mr. Sanders
would likely have faced a significantly higher guideline range under the original indictment than
the guideline range of the information to which he pled. Mr. Sanders has not demonstrated that a
sentence five months above the guideline range was prejudicial, even in light of the subsequent
holding in Johnson. As such, Mr. Sanders’ counsel’s failure to delay sentencing in anticipation
of the Johnson holding or raise Johnson with the court or Mr. Sanders cannot be said to have
been prejudicial to Mr. Sanders’ defense.
For the foregoing reasons, Mr. Sanders’ Motion to Vacate is hereby DENIED.
DATED this 28th day of April, 2017.
BY THE COURT:
United States District Judge
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