Deas v. United States, 3:12-cv-00275(SRU)

Decision Date11 August 2014
Docket NumberNo. 3:12-cv-00275(SRU),3:12-cv-00275(SRU)
CourtU.S. District Court — District of Connecticut

Vida Deas, appearing pro se, seeks to vacate, set aside, or correct his sentence pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2255. Deas is serving a twenty-year sentence as the result of an April 24, 2009 jury verdict convicting him of three narcotics offenses. In his initial petition, which has twice been amended, Deas appears to raise at least six grounds for relief. None of those arguments has merit. Accordingly, for the reasons set forth in this ruling, the motion to vacate, set aside, or correct Deas' sentence (doc. # 1) is DENIED.

I. Background

Deas was part of a large-scale cocaine and crack distribution ring in the greater Hartford, Connecticut area. The evidence at trial showed that Deas was a supplier of powder cocaine for co-defendants, facilitated meetings between other defendants and a supplier, and received money and narcotics in exchange for converting powder cocaine into cocaine base. The evidence also showed that Deas brokered at least three powder cocaine deals between a co-defendant and a supplier and regularly delivered crack to customers.

On October 16, 2008, a federal grand jury returned a five-count indictment that charged Deas and others with conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute cocaine and cocaine base. On April 24, 2009, after a three-day trial, a jury found Deas guilty of one count of conspiracy topossess with intent to distribute 50 grams or more of cocaine base, in violation of 21 U.S.C. §§ 846, 841(a)(1) and 841(b)(1)(A), and two counts of possession with intent to distribute and distribution of cocaine base, in violation of 21 U.S.C. §§ 841(a)(1) and 841(b)(1)(C).

In July 2008, the government filed a second-offender information alleging that Deas had a prior felony drug conviction in 1993. United States v. Deas, 03:07-cr-00073 (CFD), doc. # 445. On December 23, 2009, then United States District Judge Christopher F. Droney sentenced Deas to concurrent terms of 240 months' imprisonment on each count of conviction to be followed by ten years' supervised release. Id. (doc. # 809). Judgment entered on December 23, 2009, and Deas timely appealed. On September 30, 2011, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the conviction and sentence. See United States v. Deas, 452 F. App'x 12, 2011 WL 4508498, at *14-15 (2d Cir. 2011). Specifically, the Second Circuit rejected Deas' pro se supplemental arguments that the disparate statutory penalties for cocaine and cocaine base are arbitrary and capricious. Id. at *15. Further, the Second Circuit held that Deas could not challenge the validity of a prior conviction used to enhance his sentence under 21 U.S.C. § 851(e) because the conviction occurred more than five years before the date of the filing of the information. Id. Deas then filed a writ of certiorari to the Supreme Court, which was denied on January 9, 2012. See Deas v. United States, 132 S. Ct. 1070 (2012). On February 24, 2012, Deas filed a motion to vacate, set aside, or correct his sentence pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2255 (doc. # 1). He subsequently filed two amended petitions in which he advances several claims (docs. # 9, 14).

Deas' section 2255 motion advances many reasons he should be entitled to relief, but appears to argue six specific grounds. First, he argues that his appellate counsel rendered ineffective assistance by failing to raise a defense of ineffective assistance of trial counsel.Second, Deas claims that the Government committed misconduct by eliciting false testimony from a defendant, thereby perpetrating a fraud on the court. Third, he argues that his conviction should be set aside because his right to due process was violated by the harsher penalties established for cocaine base offenses as compared to cocaine offenses. Fourth, he argues the federal drug statutes represent an unconstitutional exercise of federal power. Fifth, he argues that the district court abused its discretion by disposing of his "Writ of Coram Nobis." Finally, he argues that the district court erred in ruling that he was subject to a 20-year mandatory minimum term of imprisonment as a result of a previous felony drug conviction because that conviction was not valid.

II. Standard of Review

"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 . . . may move the court which imposed the sentence to vacate, set aside or correct the sentence." 28 U.S.C. § 2255.

Deas challenges the performance of both his trial and appellate counsel. To succeed, Deas must demonstrate: (1) that his counsel's performance "fell below an objective standard of reasonableness"; and (2) "that the deficient performance prejudiced the defense." Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 687-88 (1984). To satisfy the performance prong, the defendant must show that counsel's performance was "outside the wide range of professionally competent assistance." Id. at 690. To satisfy the prejudice prong, the defendant "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. "A reasonable probability is a probability sufficient to undermine confidence in the outcome." Id. Thus, the mere possibility that a particular deficiency might have prejudiced the defendant is not enough.

"It is well settled that pro se litigants generally are entitled to a liberal construction of their pleadings . . . ." Green v. United States, 260 F.3d 78, 83 (2d Cir. 2001). Those pleadings "must be read liberally and should be interpreted 'to raise the strongest arguments that they suggest.'" Graham v. Henderson, 89 F.3d 75, 79 (2d Cir. 1996) (quoting Burgos v. Hopkins, 14 F.3d 787, 790 (2d Cir. 1994)). However, a habeas petitioner must allege "specific facts which he is in a position to establish by competent evidence." LoCascio v. United States, 395 F.3d. 51, 57 (2d Cir. 2005) (quoting Dalli v. United States, 491 F.2d 758, 761 (2d Cir. 1974)).

III. Discussion
A. Jurisdictional Issues

In general, petitioners who have failed to present a claim on direct appeal may not raise that claim on collateral review absent a showing of cause and prejudice. Yick Man Mui v. United States, 614 F.3d 50, 54 (2d Cir. 2010). The government argues that Deas' second, fourth, fifth, and sixth grounds for relief are procedurally barred because the defendant failed to raise those claims in his appeal. A petitioner may raise a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel in a section 2255 habeas motion, however, even if that claim was not raised previously at trial or on appeal. Massaro v. United States, 538 U.S. 500, 504 (2003). Thus, although the government is correct that claims not raised on direct appeal are ordinarily procedurally defaulted, the claims that the government knowingly elicited false testimony and that trial counsel failed to challenge the sentencing enhancement can reasonably be read as claims of ineffective assistance of counsel that are not barred despite not being raised on direct appeal. See Yick Man Mui, 614 F.3d at 57 (permitting ineffective assistance claims on collateral review that were not decided on direct appeal). Deas' claim that his appellate counsel rendered ineffective assistance is also properly before the court. Therefore, Deas has raised three claims of ineffective assistance of counsel that will be decided under the Strickland test.

Deas' claim relating to the crack-powder disparity was raised on appeal but flatly rejected by the Second Circuit Court of Appeals. See United States v. Deas, 452 F. App'x 12, 2011 WL 4508498, at *15 (2d Cir. 2011). Thus, this court has no authority to reconsider that question. See United States v. Sanin, 252 F.3d 79, 83 (2d Cir. 2001) ("It is well established that a § 2255 petition cannot be used to relitigate questions which were raised and considered on direct appeal" (quotations omitted)). Deas' claim that the drug laws represent an unconstitutional exercise of federal power is procedurally barred because the claim was not raised on appeal. The same is true of Deas' allegation that the district court erred as a matter of law by denying his "Writ of Coram Nobis." Even if all these claims were properly brought before this court, however, for the reasons discussed below, the claims would fail on the merits.

B. Ineffective Assistance of Counsel
1. Ineffective Assistance of Appellate Counsel

Deas has not made the required showing under Strickland with respect to his claim that appellate counsel failed to argue that trial counsel was ineffective.

Deas does not identify what appellate counsel did, or failed to do, on appeal. Instead, he uses an ineffective assistance of counsel claim against his appellate counsel as a vehicle for attacking his trial counsel's performance. Nor does Deas identify why appellate counsel's alleged failure prejudiced the outcome of his appeal. "The petitioner must set forth specific facts which he is in a position to establish by competent evidence." LoCascio, 395 F.3d at 57. Even reading the pleadings liberally, Deas has failed to allege any specific facts addressing either Strickland prong. Further, the Second Circuit generally disfavors claims of ineffective assistance of counsel on direct appeal, reserving them for section 2255 motions. See United States v. Venturella, 391 F.3d 120, 135 (2d Cir. 2004); Massaro v. United States, 538 U.S. 500, 504(2003) ("[I]n most cases a motion brought under § 2255 is preferable to direct appeal for deciding claims of ineffective-assistance."). Thus, it cannot be said that appellate counsel rendered ineffective assistance merely by failing to raise an ineffective assistance of trial counsel claim on direct...

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