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United States v. Peeler

United States District Court, D. Minnesota

May 16, 2017

United States of America, Plaintiff,
Travis Sentell Peeler, Defendant. Civ. No. 16-1065 (RHK)

          LeeAnn K. Bell, Kevin S. Ueland, United States Attorney's Office, Minneapolis, Minnesota, for the Government.

          Douglas B. Altman, Altman & Izek, Minneapolis, Minnesota, for Defendant.



         Following a jury trial in 2013, Defendant Travis Sentell Peeler was convicted of conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute cocaine and cocaine base (“crack”). The Court later sentenced him to a mandatory-minimum term of 10 years' imprisonment. His conviction and sentence were affirmed by the Eighth Circuit on appeal. United States v. Peeler, 779 F.3d 773 (8th Cir. 2015).

         Peeler has now moved under 28 U.S.C. § 2255 to vacate his sentence, asserting ineffective assistance of counsel. Specifically, he notes that before trial, the Government had offered to permit him to plead guilty to a lesser-included offense calling for a five-year mandatory minimum, rather than the ten-year mandatory minimum required by the charge in the Indictment. According to Peeler, however, his trial counsel wrongly informed him that in order to receive this deal, he would be “required to cooperate” with the Government. (Mot. at 5.) “[B]elieving the plea would require him to [cooperate], ” he rejected the offer and proceeded to trial. (Id.) Yet according to Peeler, after trial had concluded he learned for the first time the plea offer did not mandate cooperation; he contends that had he been so advised, “he would have accepted the plea offer and pleaded guilty for half the sente[n]ce imposed after trial.” (Id.)

         Although Peeler was proceeding pro se when he filed his Motion, the Court later appointed counsel to represent him in these proceedings. In addition, it held an evidentiary hearing on February 22, 2017, and permitted supplemental briefing addressing the issues raised in the Motion. Having now carefully considered all of the submissions, the testimony at the hearing, and the remainder of the record, the Court will deny Peeler's Motion.

         In order for Peeler to obtain federal habeas relief, he must show that his “sentence was imposed in violation of the Constitution or laws of the United States, or that the court was without jurisdiction to impose such sentence, or that the sentence was in excess of the maximum authorized by law, or is otherwise subject to collateral attack.” 28 U.S.C. § 2255(a). Such relief “is reserved for transgressions of constitutional rights and for a narrow range of injuries that could not have been raised on direct appeal and, if uncorrected, would result in a complete miscarriage of justice.” United States v. Apfel, 97 F.3d 1074, 1076 (8th Cir. 1996). The Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution guarantees a criminal defendant the right to effective assistance of counsel, e.g., Chesney v. United States, 367 F.3d 1055, 1058 (8th Cir. 2004), and generally speaking, allegations that trial counsel were ineffective fall within the “narrow range” of matters that may be raised in a § 2255 proceeding. See, e.g., United States v. McAdory, 501 F.3d 868, 872 (8th Cir. 2007). Such claims are governed by Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984), under which a defendant bears the burden to show (1) his attorney's performance was deficient and (2) the deficiency prejudiced him. Id. at 687, 694.

         It is well-established that the right to effective assistance of counsel extends to plea negotiations. E.g., Missouri v. Frye, 566 U.S. 133, 144 (2012); Hill v. Lockhart, 474 U.S. 52, 57 (1985). Where, as here, a defendant has rejected a plea offer based on purportedly ineffective assistance, he can demonstrate Strickland prejudice only by establishing that “he would have accepted the plea but for counsel's advice, and had he done so he would have received a lesser sentence.” United States v. Norvell, 729 F.3d 788, 795 (8th Cir. 2013) (quoting Wanatee v. Ault, 259 F.3d 700, 704 (8th Cir. 2001)). The record here belies that conclusion.

         As the Government notes, Peeler has maintained his innocence since first being charged in 2012, and he continues to do so today. He initially asserted innocence when entering a not-guilty plea shortly after he was indicted. He maintained his innocence at trial, arguing he was not guilty of a conspiracy to distribute drugs because the evidence established, at most, only a buyer-seller relationship. (See Doc. No. 183.) The jury rejected that contention and convicted him.[1] Then, shortly after his conviction but before sentencing, Peeler submitted a letter to the Court strenuously arguing he was not guilty of conspiracy:

The reason I'm writing is to say the only reason I went to trial is because I was charge[d] with conspiracy. My contention is that I was not [com]plicit in any conspiracy, th[u]s the jury should have been specifically charged for a directed verdict on conspiracy; and [told] in the defense opening and closing statements as to a buyer-seller relationship [], which is wholly different from the conspiracy count. The Government never established that I was selling any drugs as part of some planned enterprise. Where is the evidence of my “planned” role in the purported conspiracy? I'm not guilty as charged!

(2/22/17 Hr'g Gov't Ex. 2.) Peeler renewed this assertion on appeal, which the Eighth Circuit rebuffed when affirming his conviction. Finally, at the evidentiary hearing on the instant Motion, Peeler yet again asserted he was not guilty of conspiracy. The most he would acknowledge was that the jury found him guilty; he repeatedly denied that he actually was part of a conspiracy:

Q: You were in a conspiracy with other people to deal drugs?
A: Yeah, I was found guilty of it.
Q: I know you were found guilty of that. . . . I'm asking you, sitting there under oath to tell the Court [the truth, ] you were in a conspiracy with other individuals to ...

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