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Stanton v. United States

United States District Court, S.D. Georgia, Statesboro Division

January 9, 2017



         Convicted and sentenced after a jury trial for his participation in a drug distribution conspiracy, docs. 755 & 951, [1] Terrance Stanton moves under 28 U.S.C. § 2255 to have his sentence reduced from life imprisonment. Docs. 1124 & 1137. The Government filed a response and Stanton filed a reply. Docs. 1266, 1286. Review of the parties' briefing shows that his motion must be denied.

         A. Background

         Movant was charged with conspiring to possess with intent to distribute 280 grams or more of cocaine base, five kilograms or more of cocaine hydrochloride, and quantities of ecstasy and marijuana (Count 1), distribution of cocaine (Count 24), plus several counts of using a communication facility (telephone) to facilitate the conspiracy (Counts 90-95, 102, 105-110). Doc. 3.

         Stanton and one of his co-defendants proceeded to trial and were found guilty on every count. Docs. 754 & 755. As part of a special verdict form, the jury also found that Stanton and his co-defendant had conspired to distribute 280 grams or more of cocaine base and five kilograms or more of cocaine hydrochloride. Id. Prior to trial, the Government had filed a 21 U.S.C. § 851 notice of its intention to seek enhanced penalties based on Stanton's prior felony drug convictions, thus subjecting him to a mandatory life sentence. Doc. 709; see 21 U.S.C. §§ 841(b)(1)(A), 846. The Court, however, granted the Government's motion to withdraw the notice prior to sentencing, thus reducing Stanton's exposure to the unenhanced penalty -- 10 years to life. Docs. 983 & 984 at 5.

         Stanton's Presentence Investigative Eeport added seven points to his drug-offense Guidelines level of 34 -- two for the possession of a firearm, two for the commission of the offense as part of a criminal livelihood, and three for an aggravating role -- for a total offense level of 41. PSR at ¶¶ 22-39. Because his criminal history placed him within category II under the Guidelines, the advisory range of imprisonment was 360 months to life imprisonment. Id. at ¶ 39 (prior convictions scoring three criminal history points under the Guidelines); ¶ 59 (360 months to life imprisonment advised for total offense level of 41 and criminal history category II). Stanton objected to various aspects of the calculation, including his criminal history score, the drug quantity involved, and points added for his possession of a firearm and aggravating role, id., Addendum at 1, which the Court overruled after a hearing. Doc. 986 at 32. It sentenced him to life imprisonment. Id. at 37.

         Stanton appealed, arguing, inter alia, that (1) insufficient foundation existed for the admission of certain wiretapped telephone conversations; (2) a law enforcement agent improperly testified as an expert at trial; (3) his prior drug convictions were improperly admitted at trial; and (4) his criminal history, drug quantity, and role in the offense were incorrectly calculated under the Sentencing Guidelines. Doc. 1078; United States v. Stanton, 589 F.App'x 477 (11th Cir. 2014). The Eleventh Circuit affirmed his conviction. See Id. Upon Stanton's pro se motion for a reduced sentence under 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(2), the Court granted a two-level offense level reduction and reduced his sentence from life imprisonment to 360 months' imprisonment. Docs. 1104 & 1185. He then filed the instant § 2255 motion, seeking to overturn his sentence. Docs. 1124 & 1125.

         B. ANALYSIS

         Stanton presents three grounds for relief: (1) "prosecutorial misconduct" and "malicious prosecution, " (2) errors by the district court, and (3) ineffective assistance of counsel during trial and appeal. Doc. 1124.

         1. The Ippolito Factor

         Stanton contends that the lead prosecutor in his case, former Assistant United States Attorney Cameron Ippolito, engaged in extracurricular prosecutorial misconduct[2] and malicious prosecution, adversely affecting his sentence. Doc. 1124 at 49-52.

         Misconduct claims justify relief on collateral review if the prosecutor's actions rendered the proceedings "so fundamentally unfair as to deny him due process." Davis v. Zant, 36 F.3d 1538, 1545 (11th Cir. 1994). Movants thus must show that there is "a reasonable probability that the outcome was changed" by the prosecutor's actions. Id.

         Stanton falls far short of meeting that burden. Regardless of what Ippolito did in her private life with Agent Valoze, and how it may have impacted the outcome of other cases, Stanton's case had absolutely nothing to do with Agent Valoze. Valoze was not involved in the Government's investigation or prosecution of Stanton in any way, and did not testify in any matter related to Stanton. See Ippolito, 2015 WL 424522. Nothing about the Ippolito-Valoze affair could have been used at trial to cross-examine or impeach any witness.[3]

         Stanton offers absolutely no evidence above mere conjecture of any "spill-over behavior" that even tangentially connects the affair (or work relationship with the agents investigating his case) to his case -- much less that the proceedings against him were rendered "so fundamentally unfair as to deny . . . due process" or that, had he known of the affair, there was a "reasonable probability" of a different trial outcome. Davis, 36 F.3d at 1545.[4]

         Stanton also alleges that the Government's dismissal of charges against some defendants (who had been misidentified on recorded telephone calls), but not him, was reversible error. Doc. 1124 at 50. But there is no evidence whatsoever that Stanton was misidentified in the phone calls. It cannot be malicious prosecution to dismiss charges against an incorrectly identified defendant while pursuing charges against one correctly identified and inculpated by substantial circumstantial evidence. That is the essence of responsible, ethical prosecution.

         2. Ineffective Assistance of Counsel

         In his second claim, Stanton argues that his trial counsel was ineffective for: (1) failing to advise him he was not in fact a career offender; (2) failing to better argue pre-trial motions and trial objections; (3) failing to request certain jury instructions on conspiracies and buyer-seller relationships; (4) failing to move for acquittal based on insufficient evidence against him; (5) failing to object to testifying Agent Kevin Waters' testimony; and (6) failing to raise claims on direct appeal. See doc. 1124 at 10-48.

         "To prevail on a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel, a prisoner must prove that his counsel rendered deficient performance and that he was prejudiced by the deficient performance." Castillo v. United States, 816 F.3d 1300, 1303 (11th Cir. 2016) (citing Strickland v. Washington,466 U.S. 668, 687 (1984)). "[C]ounsel is strongly presumed to have rendered adequate assistance and made all significant decisions in the exercise of reasonable professional judgment." Strickland, 466 U.S. at 690. "For performance to be deficient, it must be established that, in light of all the circumstances, ...

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