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United States v. Ram

United States District Court, W.D. Arkansas, Fayetteville Division

August 13, 2018




         Currently before the Court are the Objections to Magistrate Judge's Report and Recommendation (Doc. 114-1) filed by Defendant/Petitioner Santosh Ram in this case. On June 22, 2016, Mr. Ram filed a Motion to Vacate, Set Aside, or Correct Sentence pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2255 and Brief in Support (Docs. 89, 90). The Government responded on August 26, 2016, (Doc. 94), to which Mr. Ram filed his Reply on October 31, 2016, (Doc. 106). United States Magistrate Judge for the Western District of Arkansas James R. Marschewski issued his Report and Recommendation ("R&R") denying Mr. Ram's Motion in full on April 24, 2018. (Doc. 108). Mr. Ram subsequently filed his Objections thereto, requesting dismissal of the R&R and an evidentiary hearing to present his claims. (Doc. 114-1, pp. 3, 48).

         When a defendant makes specific objections to portions of a magistrate judge's report and recommendation, the district court must review the contested findings or recommendations de novo. See 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1). The court may then "accept, reject, or modify, in whole or in part, the findings or recommendations made by the magistrate judge." Id. Here, Mr. Ram has objected to the R&R in its entirety and reasserts each of the grounds of relief alleged in his Motion to Vacate and Brief in Support. (Docs. 89, 90, 114-1). As such, the Court has undertaken a de novo review of Defendant's objections and rules on each in turn.

         I. DISCUSSION

         Mr. Ram asserts 21 separate grounds for relief in his Brief in Support of his Motion, all of which are reiterated in his Objections. (Docs. 90, 114-1). The R&R addresses these claims individually. Many of Mr. Ram's claims are barred by a finding that his guilty plea was valid; therefore, the Court will begin its analysis by determining the validity of Mr. Ram's plea, and then the Court will discuss the remaining claims.

         A. Validity of Plea

         Mr. Ram contends that his guilty plea was invalid for the following reasons: (1) his attorney failed to effectively advise him prior to the entry of his guilty plea, (2) he was coerced into signing the plea agreement, and (3) he lacked the mental capacity to enter his change of plea. (Doc. 114-1, pp. 5, 37, 38). The Court has considered the record concerning the facts and circumstances surrounding Mr. Ram's guilty plea, including the Unopposed Motion to Determine Competency of Defendant (Doc. 24), the Order denying said Motion (Doc. 25), the Motion for Reconsideration of that Order (Doc. 26), the Plea Agreement (Doc. 31), and the Change of Plea Hearing transcript (Doc. 70), ofe novo. Upon such consideration, the Court finds Mr. Ram voluntarily entered his guilty plea on August 28, 2013, for the reasons explained below.

         Any reliance Mr. Ram may have had on his attorney's alleged failure to inform him that pleading guilty would not guarantee him a certain sentence does not render his plea involuntary so long as the district court judge informed him of the maximum possible sentence he faced should he plead guilty. See United States v. Granados, 168 F.3d 343, 345 (8th Cir. 1999). Therefore, Mr. Ram's accusation that his attorney made "false promises and assurances" that he would receive a specific sentence, allegedly resulting in ineffective assistance of counsel, fails to prove that his guilty plea was made either involuntarily or unknowingly. The transcript from Mr. Ram's change of plea hearing indicates that the district court judge[1] provided him with information as to the minimum and maximum possible sentences he would be facing should he enter a plea of guilty, in addition to discussing the advisory nature of the Sentencing Guidelines to ensure he understood that he was not being promised any specific sentence. (Doc. 70, pp. 28, 29, 30). Thus, Mr. Ram cannot rely on allegations that his attorney failed to provide this information to him to demonstrate his plea was unintelligent. See United States v. Chambliss, 1995 U.S. App. LEXIS 23047 at 2 (8th Cir. 1995). The district court judge also inquired as to whether Mr. Ram had been threatened or forced to enter his guilty plea, and Mr. Ram testified that he was voluntarily pleading guilty. (Doc. 70, p. 12). The Court finds the district court judge's conversation with Mr. Ram cleared up any concerns regarding the voluntary and intelligent nature of his guilty plea.

         In addition, the Court finds that Mr. Ram demonstrated the requisite mental capacity for entering his plea at the time of his change of plea hearing. Although his attorney previously filed a motion seeking to determine Mr. Ram's competency, at the change of plea hearing, the district court judge explained his reasoning for denying that motion and finding Mr. Ram competent to plead guilty. (Doc. 70, pp. 15-23). The facts presented and the discussion occurring at that hearing show that Mr. Ram understood the charges against him and was able to consult with both his attorney and the district court judge with a reasonable degree of rational understanding. See Wright v. Bowersox, 720 F.3d 979, 985 (8th Cir. 2013) ("[T]he relevant inquiries for whether [a defendant] was competent to waive his constitutional rights were whether he had 'sufficient present ability to consult with his lawyer with a reasonable degree of rational understanding' and had 'a rational as well as factual understanding of the proceedings against him.'" (quoting Godinez v. Moran, 509 U.S. 389, 396 (1993))). Because the Court finds the record demonstrates Mr. Ram entered his guilty plea both voluntarily and intelligently, his objection regarding the validity of his guilty plea is OVERRULED.

         B. Actual Innocence

         Mr. Ram's next objection is that his actual innocence demands that his sentence be set aside. However, Mr. Ram previously argued this on appeal. See United States v. Ram, 594 Fed.Appx. 317 (8th Cir. 2015). The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals denied this argument because it is foreclosed by Mr. Ram's guilty plea. id. at 317.[2] A claimant cannot relitigate in a § 2255 proceeding that which has already been adversely decided on appeal. Woods v. United States, 567 F.2d 861, 863 (8th Cir. 1978). Because Mr. Ram's actual innocence claim was previously addressed on appeal, his objection regarding the same is OVERRULED.

         C. Insufficient Evidence

         The Magistrate Judge relied on the factual basis set forth in Mr. Ram's guilty plea to determine that his claim of insufficient evidence was without merit. The Court finds this determination to be accurate, as the factual basis proffered by the Government in the plea agreement provides ample basis for Mr. Ram's conviction of Knowing Receipt of Child Pornography in violation of 18 U.S.C. §§ 2252(a)(2) and (b)(1). Because his guilty plea was valid, this objection is OVERRULED.

         D. Ineffective Assistance of Counsel

         The majority of Mr. Ram's objections concern his assertion that he was provided ineffective assistance of counsel. Once a defendant pleads guilty to a charge against him, he cannot raise an independent claim alleging a deprivation of his constitutional rights prior to his entry of that plea. Tollett v. Henderson, 411 U.S. 258, 267 (1973). Having pleaded guilty, a defendant may only attack the voluntary and intelligent character of his plea by demonstrating his attorney's advice does not satisfy the standards set forth in McMann v. Richardson, 397 U.S. 759 (1970). Id. According to McMann, a plea is considered intelligent so long as it is based on "reasonably competent advice" and is not subject to attack if an attorney's advice falls within that range of competence. 397 U.S. at 770. Furthermore, to succeed on a claim for ineffective assistance of counsel, a defendant must prove not only that his attorney's performance was deficient but that he was prejudiced by that deficiency. Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 687 (1984).

         The ultimate focus when determining this issue is the "fundamental fairness of the proceeding whose result is being challenged." Id. at 696. In the context of a guilty plea, a defendant asserting ineffective assistance of counsel must prove that he would not have pleaded guilty absent his attorney's errors. United States v. Prior, 107 F.3d 654, 661 (8th Cir. 1997). Courts are not required to address the performance prong of the Strickland test if it is clear a defendant has failed to prove he was prejudiced by any of his attorney's alleged deficiencies. See Boysiewick v. Schriro, 179 F.3d 616, 620 (8th Cir. 1999).

         The R&R addresses seven categories of objections within the penumbra of Mr. Ram's ineffective assistance of counsel claim. First, Mr. Ram claims that his attorney failed to provide adequate legal advice prior to the entry of his guilty plea, rendering his plea unintelligent. The Court finds that Mr. Ram has failed to prove he was prejudiced by any of these allegations. No evidence exists to suggest that Mr. Ram would have fared better by going to trial. The factual basis provided in the plea agreement set forth facts clearly sufficient to convict Mr. Ram of the charge against him. As will be discussed below, nothing in the record exists to suggest Mr. Ram's incriminating statements to law enforcement or the property seized at his apartment could have been suppressed. Any confusion Mr. Ram may have had regarding the possible length of the sentence he faced was resolved by the discussion at his change of plea hearing, where the presiding judge informed him of the minimum and maximum terms of imprisonment he faced upon pleading guilty at that time. Absent a showing that he had any reason to forego the plea agreement offered him, Mr. ...

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