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United States v. Hastings

United States District Court, D. Minnesota

April 21, 2014

United States of America, Plaintiff,
v.
Robert Ellis Hastings, Defendant.

MEMORANDUM OPINION and ORDER

RICHARD H. KYLE, District Judge.

This matter is presently before the Court on Defendant's motion seeking post-conviction relief pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2255. (Docket No. 90.) Defendant is asking the Court to vacate his sentence in this case for a variety of reasons. Defendant's § 2255 motion will be DENIED.

I. BACKGROUND

On September 13, 2010, Defendant was driving a white Honda on a highway near Rochester, Minnesota. A sheriff's department investigator named Michael LaVigne was following Defendant, because Defendant had been seen driving away from a house where a bank robbery suspect was believed to be present. According to LaVigne, Defendant abruptly signaled a lane change, and cut across the highway from the far left lane to an exit ramp. LaVigne was in an unmarked van at the time, so he called another law enforcement officer named Wallace to help him stop Defendant's car. After Wallace and LaVigne stopped the car, a passenger exited the car and ran away. Wallace chased the passenger, while LaVigne approached Defendant and handcuffed him. LaVigne then heard a gunshot, and he went to investigate. He discovered that Wallace had chased down the passenger, and after the passenger displayed a knife, Wallace had shot and killed him. The passenger turned out to be the suspected bank robber, David Panquin.

After the shooting, Defendant was taken into custody. His car was detained because of its connection to the bank robbery, i.e., because the suspected bank robber had fled from the car. The following morning, September 14, 2010, a search warrant for the car was obtained and executed. Two guns were found in separate bags in the trunk of the car - a rifle that was later determined to belong to Panquin, and a handgun. The next day, (September 15, 2010), a police investigator attempted to question Defendant, but he declined to talk. A few days later, however, Defendant initiated a conversation with police investigators, and at that time he admitted that he had possessed the handgun that was found in the white Honda, and his DNA would be on that gun.[1]

Defendant was later indicted in federal court on a single count of being a felon in possession of a firearm, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 922(g). He later filed several motions seeking to suppress much of the evidence that the Government intended to use against him. An evidentiary hearing was held before Magistrate Judge Franklin L. Noel on March 23, 2011. After that hearing, the Magistrate Judge recommended that Defendant's suppression motions should be denied, (Docket No. 39), and that recommendation was later adopted, (Docket No. 46).

On June 10, 2011, Defendant entered into a plea agreement, by which he agreed to plead guilty to being a felon in possession of a firearm. (Docket No. 48.) The plea agreement stipulated that Defendant's plea would be "conditional, " and he would reserve the right to appeal the legality of the traffic stop, his detention after the stop, and the search of the white Honda. Under the terms of the plea agreement, Defendant acknowledged that he is an Armed Career Criminal for purposes of the Armed Career Criminals Act, ("ACCA"), and he was therefore subject to a minimum sentence of fifteen years, and a maximum sentence of life in prison. The plea agreement also included a stipulation regarding various sentencing factors, but it was expressly acknowledged that those stipulated sentencing factors would not be binding on the Court.

On September 7, 2011, Defendant was sentenced to 180 months in prison - the mandatory minimum under the ACCA for an Armed Career Criminal convicted of being a felon in possession of a firearm. See 18 U.S.C. § 924(e). Defendant subsequently filed an appeal in which he challenged the rulings on several of his suppression motions. The Court of Appeals described those challenges as follows: "(1) there was no probable cause or reasonable suspicion to justify the traffic stop, (2) the period between [Defendant's] initial detention and the time he was charged with driving with a suspended license was unreasonably long, and (3) the firearms were not within the scope of the vehicle search warrant." United States v. Hastings , 685 F.3d 724, 727 (8th Cir. 2012), cert. denied, 133 S.Ct. 958 (2013). The Court of Appeals considered and rejected all of Defendant's claims on the merits, and his conviction and sentence were affirmed.[2]

Defendant's current § 2255 motion indicates that he is challenging only his sentence, and not his conviction. He describes the relief he is seeking as follows: "Vacate and reverse my sentence/conviction, remove the ACCA inhancement [sic] and resentence me under 922(g)(1) only." (Defendant's Motion Under 28 U.S.C. § 2255 to Vacate, Set Aside, or Correct Sentence, " [Docket No. 90], ["Section 2255 Motion"], p. 14.) Defendant's Reply Brief confirms, more explicitly, that he is challenging only his sentence. There he states: "I am not requesting that my sentence be overturned completly [sic] all I am requesting is to be resentenced for the gun only. I think that is only fair in light of the grounds that were raised." (Defendant's "Reply, " [Docket No. 95], p. 4, [emphasis added].)

II. DISCUSSION

A. Claims Pertaining to Conviction

Even though Defendant is challenging only his sentence, his § 2255 motion presents numerous claims that pertain only to his conviction, and have no bearing on his ACCA sentence enhancement. Indeed, ten of the thirteen grounds for relief listed in Defendant's motion, (Grounds One through Ten), pertain only to his conviction. Only three grounds, (Grounds Eleven through Thirteen), pertain to Defendant's sentence. As noted above, Defendant suggests that "it is only fair" to re-sentence him "in light of the grounds that were raised" in opposition to his conviction. He apparently believes that merely raising a sufficient quantum of challenges to his conviction will somehow bolster his challenges to his sentence. However, the federal criminal justice system simply does not work that way.

Because Defendant has clearly indicated that he is challenging only his sentence, the first ten grounds listed in his motion, challenging only his conviction, are superfluous. Nevertheless, each of those first ten grounds has been reviewed, and the Court finds all of them to be meritless.

(i) Ground One: Counsel's failure to investigate witness

In Ground One, Defendant contends that he was deprived of his constitutional right to effective assistance of counsel, because his attorney failed to challenge a witness who testified before the grand jury. Defendant alleges that the witness, David Casler, was not credible, because he has a criminal record. This claim is wholly meritless, because Defendant has not shown - or even suggested - that Casler actually gave any false testimony before the grand jury. Furthermore, Defendant has failed to explain how he thinks his attorney could have opposed or counteracted Casler's testimony before the grand jury. Finally, Defendant has not explained why he believes his case would have had a different outcome if his attorney had somehow been able to challenge Casler's veracity.

(ii) Ground Two: LaVigne's allegedly false testimony

In Ground Two, Defendant contends that Michael LaVigne "fabricated" his testimony about the way in which Defendant was driving shortly before he was stopped by LaVigne and Wallace. According to Defendant, "[a]nyone who has ever operated a motor vehicle or has any common sense at all" would know that LaVigne's testimony must have been false, because it is impossible to abruptly swerve across two lanes of a highway in order to get to an exit ramp. (Defendant's memorandum in support of his § 2255 motion, [Docket No. 91], [hereafter "Defendant's Memorandum"], p. 2) Defendant further contends that even though "anyone" would know that LaVigne's testimony must have been false, his attorney should have called an expert witness to disprove LaVigne's explanation of the traffic stop.

The Court initially notes that it simply makes no sense to suggest that Defendant's attorney should have presented an expert witness to disprove testimony that "anyone" supposedly would have known was false. If it was that obvious that LaVigne's testimony was "fabricated, " there would be no need to call an expert to disprove it. Furthermore, Defendant has not identified any expert witness who would have provided the type of evidence that he thinks his attorney should have introduced. Defendant certainly has not established that his ...


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