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United States v. Douglas

United States District Court, D. Minnesota

December 22, 2016


          Andrew S. Dunne, UNITED STATES ATTORNEY'S OFFICE, for plaintiff.

          Andrew S. Garvis, KOCH & GARVIS, LLC, for defendant.



         A jury convicted defendant John Douglas of being a felon in possession of a firearm. ECF No. 64. Douglas filed a motion for a new trial, which the Court denied after an evidentiary hearing. ECF No. 105. The Court then sentenced Douglas under the Armed Career Criminal Act (18 U.S.C. § 924(e)) to 240 months in prison and 5 years of supervised release. ECF No. 112. The United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit affirmed Douglas's conviction on direct appeal. United States v. Douglas, 744 F.3d 1065 (8th Cir. 2014).

         This matter is before the Court on Douglas's motion to vacate, set aside, or correct his sentence under 28 U.S.C. § 2255. The Court appointed counsel to assist Douglas and held an evidentiary hearing on Douglas's claims.[1] For the reasons that follow, the Court denies relief on all of Douglas's claims save for his claim under Johnson v. United States, 135 S.Ct. 2551 (2015). As to that claim, the Court will defer ruling until the Supreme Court decides whether and how Johnson applies to the career- offender guideline-a decision that should come before the end of the present Term. See Beckles v. United States, 136 S.Ct. 2510 (2016).

         I. BACKGROUND

         Douglas attended a graduation party on the afternoon of May 30, 2011.[2] Also attending the party were, among others, Raina Hoiland, [3] Rachel Ryberg, Anthony Petric, Mark Dorstad, and Dorstad's young son. Later that evening, Douglas, Hoiland, Ryberg, Petric, and the Dorstads drove to a wooded lot owned by Douglas's aunt and uncle, Paul and Mary Easter. The group sat around a bonfire, drinking beer. Douglas asked the others if they would like to see his “toy.” He went off into the woods, returned with a sawed-off shotgun wrapped in a plastic bag, took the gun out of the bag, and shot the gun multiple times. Douglas then helped Hoiland shoot the gun a few times and returned the gun to its hiding place in the woods.

         A neighbor heard the gunshots and called the police, who arrived on the Easter property about five minutes after the last shot was fired. On seeing the police approach, Hoiland and Ryberg hid behind a car because they were not of legal drinking age. After the officers arrived, Douglas was agitated and hostile, repeatedly demanding that the officers get off of the property and even calling his aunt to try to enlist her help in getting the police to leave. Several of those present denied that anyone had fired a gun, but Hoiland and Ryberg eventually told the officers that Douglas had done so. The officers searched the property, found the shotgun, and arrested Douglas on a probation violation. The Court denied Douglas's motion to suppress the gun.

         The focus of the trial was the testimony of three eyewitnesses-Hoiland, Ryberg, and Petric-all of whom told the jury that Douglas had retrieved and fired the shotgun.[4]Douglas's defense attorney, Frederick Goetz, worked hard to discredit their testimony. Goetz was able to elicit evidence that the shotgun actually belonged to Dorstad; that Dorstad was in the habit of keeping the gun in his car and calling it his “little buddy”; and that Dorstad liked to show off the gun. Goetz also elicited evidence that Dorstad had asked Petric to lie to the police. Specifically, Petric testified that, at Dorstad's request, he had falsely told police that it was Douglas who had sawed off the shotgun. Petric also admitted that he had persisted in this lie until, shortly before trial, Dorstad admitted that he (not Douglas) had sawed off the gun.

         In addition to eliciting this evidence, Goetz highlighted inconsistencies in the eyewitnesses' statements, and Goetz forcefully argued that, comparatively speaking, Douglas was the outsider in the group and thus an easy scapegoat. Goetz pointed out that both Dorstad and Petric had a lot to lose if they were convicted of a gun charge. Dorstad was entangled in child-custody proceedings, and Petric admitted that he could lose his job. Finally, Goetz cross-examined the government's expert on gunshot residue, emphasizing the lack of forensic evidence that Douglas had fired the gun. Goetz got the expert to admit that particles found on Douglas's hands were consistent with shooting off fireworks, which Douglas had done earlier in the evening.

         The jury convicted Douglas. A few months later, Douglas moved for a new trial on the basis of newly discovered evidence-specifically, an affidavit from Petric in which he recanted his trial testimony and claimed that only he, and not Douglas, had fired the gun. Two other trial witnesses-Dorstad's sister and niece-also offered affidavits stating that, after the trial, Dorstad admitted to them that he had hidden the gun on the Easter property and that it was Petric who had been shooting it on the night in question. (By contrast, Hoiland and Ryberg submitted affidavits affirming that their trial testimony had been true.)

         After conducting an evidentiary hearing, the Court denied Douglas's new-trial motion. The Court identified numerous reasons why Petric's recantation was not credible and likely the result of pressure from Douglas's family and friends. The Court later sentenced Douglas to 240 months in prison, a substantial downward variance from the 360-months-to-life sentence recommended by the United States Sentencing Guidelines. After an unsuccessful appeal that focused on the denial of Douglas's suppression motion, Douglas filed this motion under 28 U.S.C. § 2255 to vacate, set aside, or correct his sentence.

         II. ANALYSIS

         A. Standard of Review

         The Sixth Amendment guarantees criminal defendants the right to effective assistance of counsel. U.S. Const. amend. VI; Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 686 (1984). To prevail on a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel, a defendant must show that (1) his counsel's performance fell below an objective standard of reasonableness and (2) there is a reasonable probability that, but for his counsel's errors, the result of the proceeding would have been different. Id. at 687-88, 694.

         “The benchmark for judging any claim of ineffectiveness must be whether counsel's conduct so undermined the proper functioning of the adversarial process that the trial cannot be relied on as having produced a just result.” Id. at 686. In reviewing ineffective-assistance claims, a court must be careful to avoid second-guessing counsel's strategic decisions. “Judicial scrutiny of counsel's performance must be highly deferential. . . . [A] court must indulge a strong presumption that counsel's conduct falls within the wide range of reasonable professional assistance . . . .” Id. at 689. “We look at counsel's challenged conduct at the time of his representation of the defendant and we avoid making judgments based on hindsight.” Ragland v. United States, 756 F.3d 597, 600 (8th Cir. 2014) (citation and quotations omitted). “The defendant bears the burden to overcome the strong presumption that counsel's performance was reasonable.” Thomas v. United States, 737 F.3d 1202, 1207 (8th Cir. 2013).

         B. Douglas's Claims

         1. Rejected Guilty Plea

         Douglas first contends that, if Goetz had properly explained the concept of constructive possession to him, Douglas would have accepted the ...

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