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United States v. Tafoya

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

May 30, 2018

CARLOS TAFOYA, JR., Defendant.



         THIS MATTER comes before the Court on Petitioner/Defendant Carlos Tafoya, Jr.'s (“Petitioner” or “Mr. Tafoya”) Motion to vacate, set aside, or correct sentence pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2255. (Doc. 250).[1] Petitioner argues that he received ineffective assistance of counsel, and the Court should grant him an evidentiary hearing, and vacate his sentence and judgment. The Court has satisfied itself that Petitioner's Motion is limited to only matters of law, and its disposition requires no further factual development or evidentiary hearing. See 28 U.S.C. § 2255(b) (providing that a court must hold an evidentiary hearing on a § 2255 motion “[u]nless the motion and the files and records of the case conclusively show that the prisoner is entitled to no relief.”). Having thoroughly reviewed the submissions of the parties, the record before the Court, including the Presentence Investigation Report (Doc. 199), and the relevant law, the undersigned recommends[2] that Mr. Tafoya's motion be denied, because he has not stated a plausible claim that he received ineffective assistance of counsel.

         Background and Procedural Facts

         On November 19, 2015, Mr. Tafoya was indicted for conspiring to distribute methamphetamine, contrary to 21 U.S.C. §§ 841(a)(1) and 21 U.S.C. § 841(b)(1)(A) for events occurring between April 9, 2015 and October 16, 2015. (Doc. 3). On April 18, 2016, Mr. Tafoya filed a Motion to Appoint New Counsel to replace his first defense counsel. (Doc. 105). District Judge Brack granted Plaintiff's motion, and Plaintiff was appointed Mario A. Esparza as substitute counsel. (Doc. 114; Doc. 115). On August 15, 2016, Mr. Esparza made a Giglio request for evidence from the United States of bias and credibility of witness, government promises of favorable treatment, prior criminal records, and prior testimony and statements. (Doc. 133). On September 7, 2016, a definite trial setting was set for December 12, 2016. (Doc. 149). On September 21, 2016, a superseding indictment was entered, charging Mr. Tafoya with conspiracy to distribute 50 grams or more of methamphetamine as well as distributing, and possessing with intent of distributing, 50 grams or more of methamphetamine in violation of 21 U.S.C. §§ 841(a)(1) and (b)(1)(A), and possessing a firearm in furtherance of a drug trafficking crime in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 924(c), for events taking place on November 13, 2015, after the original indictment and while Mr. Tafoya was on supervised release.

         On September 2, 2016, Mr. Tafoya filed a motion to dismiss his charges pro se, but while still represented by counsel. (Doc. 150). On September 19, 2016, the United States filed a Motion to Strike Mr. Tafoya's pro se filing. (Doc. 155). On September 27, 2016, Mr. Esparza filed a response to the United States' Motion to Strike, informing the Court that “Defendant [Carlos Tafoya] filed his Motion pro se after defense counsel advised him not to do so, ” and that there was “no case law or statute which supports the pro se Motion filed by the Defendant.” (Doc. 162 at 1-2). District Judge Robert C. Brack granted the United States' Motion to Strike Defendant's Pro Se Filing on October 14, 2016. (Doc. 171).

         The United States then filed a Motion in Limine to Exclude Proposed Expert Testimony Witness on October 7, 2016, which sought to exclude Mr. Tafoya's handwriting expert, Curt Baggett, whom Mr. Esparza sought to introduce to impeach the United States' witness, DEA Special Agent Amy Billhymer. (Doc. 168). Mr. Esparza filed a response to the Motion in Limine, in which he argued that Mr. Baggett's expert testimony “would assist the jury in understanding the evidence…that a signature on the document [in question] was forged, [and] …in determining how much weight to give that document.” (Doc. 190 at 3). The Court held a status hearing on November 3, 2016, during which the Government's witness, DEA Special Agent Amy Billhymer, testified that she was at 703 Giles Lane[3], Socorro, New Mexico, on November 13, 2015, conducting two search warrants on Petitioner and his parents. (Doc. 256-1 at 6-7). She also testified that a State search warrant was executed on that day, and that she had executed DEA Form 12, which provides a receipt for cash or items that are seized. (Id. at 7). After cross-examination, the United States requested the Court to set the matter for a Daubert hearing to exclude Mr. Tafoya's handwriting expert. (Id. at 12-13). Mr. Eparza responded that he wanted an “opportunity to put on an expert witness document to examine Mr. [C]arl Baggett who is of the opinion that the signature on the return receipt, the inventory return receipt, is not that of…Special Agent Billhymer in this matter.” (Id. at 13-14). On November 4, 2016, the Court gave notice of a hearing on the Motion in Limine, to be held on November 29, 2016. (Doc. 182).

         However, prior to the hearing on the Motion in Limine, Mr. Tafoya executed a plea agreement with the United States (Doc. 194), and the Court held a Change of Plea Hearing on November 14, 2016. (Doc. 195). In the plea agreement, Mr. Tafoya agreed to waive his right to a trial by jury including confronting and cross-examining witnesses, his appeal rights, and his right to collaterally attack his sentence except as to his defense counsel's effective assistance. (Doc. 194 at 1-2, 5). At the plea hearing, Petitioner swore before the Court that he was satisfied with his counsel's advice, and that he had no complaints about his counsel. (Doc. 256-2 at 13:19-24). Petitioner was ultimately sentenced to 156 months imprisonment for Counts 2 and 3, to run concurrently with one another. (Doc. 242 at 3).

         On September 8, 2017, Petitioner filed pro se his Motion to Vacate under 28 U.S.C. § 2255. (Doc. 250). On September 22, 2017, the undersigned ordered Defendant United States of America to answer Petitioner's motion for § 2255 relief within 23 days of entry of the order. (Doc. 252). After moving for an extension to file its response on September 25, 2017 (Doc. 253), Defendant filed its response on November 7, 2017. (Doc. 256). On December 4, 2017, Petitioner filed a motion for an extension of time to file a reply in support of his Section 2255 Motion, which the Court granted. (Doc. 261; Doc. 262). However, he never filed a reply brief, and his Section 2255 Motion is now ripe for hearing.

         Legal Standard

         Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2255, a federal prisoner who:

claim[s] the right to be released upon the ground that the 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, may move the court which imposed the sentence to vacate, set aside, or correct the sentence.

28 U.S.C. § 2255(a). Relief is available under Section 2255 only if “the claimed error constituted a fundamental defect which inherently results in a complete miscarriage of justice.” United States v. Addonizio, 442 U.S. 178, 185 (1979) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). The court must presume “that the proceedings leading to the conviction were correct, ” and the burden is on the movant to demonstrate otherwise. Klein v. United States, 880 F.2d 250, 253 (10th Cir. 1989) (citing United States v. Morgan, 346 U.S. 502, 512 (1954)).


         For a defendant to succeed on a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel, he must demonstrate both that: (1) “counsel's representation fell below an objective standard of reasonableness”; and (2) “the deficient performance prejudiced the defense.” Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 687-688 (1984). In applying the two-pronged Strickland test, the Court “may address the performance and prejudice components in any order, but need not address both if [the defendant] fails to make a sufficient showing of one.” Cooks v. Ward, 165 F.3d 1283, 1292-93 (10th Cir. 1998). Strickland recognized that the “availability of intrusive post-trial inquiry into attorney performance or of detailed guidelines for its evaluation would encourage the proliferation of ineffectiveness challenges.” Id. at 690. Therefore, “every effort [must] be made to eliminate the distorting effects of hindsight, to reconstruct the circumstances of counsel's ...

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