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United States Court of Appeals, Sixth Circuit.

AARON SAMMONS, Petitioner-Appellant, v. UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Respondent-Appellee.

No. 17-5295

Decided: September 01, 2017


Aaron Sammons, a federal prisoner represented by counsel, appeals from the district court's judgment denying his motion to vacate sentence filed under 28 U.S.C. § 2255. Sammons now applies to this court for a certificate of appealability (COA).

In 2011, Sammons pleaded guilty to being a felon in possession of a firearm in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 924(e). The district court sentenced Sammons as an armed career criminal to fifteen years of imprisonment and five years of supervised release. On appeal, this court affirmed his conviction and sentence. United States v. Sammons, 486 F. App'x 599 (6th Cir. 2012).

In 2014, Sammons filed his § 2255 motion, alleging ineffective assistance of counsel during his plea proceedings. The district court concluded that Sammons's claims were without merit and denied his § 2255 motion. Sammons v. United States, No. 2:10-CR-131, 2017 WL 812838 (E.D. Tenn. Feb. 27, 2017). The court also denied Sammons a COA to appeal its decision.

Under 28 U.S.C. § 2253(c)(1)(B), this court will grant a COA for an issue raised in a § 2255 motion only if the movant has made a substantial showing of the denial of a federal constitutional right. A movant satisfies this standard by demonstrating that reasonable jurists “could disagree with the district court's resolution of his constitutional claims or that jurists could conclude the issues presented are adequate to deserve encouragement to proceed further.” Buck v. Davis, 137 S. Ct. 759, 773 (2017) (quoting Miller-El v. Cockrell, 537 U.S. 322, 327, 336 (2003)); see also Slack v. McDaniel, 529 U.S. 473, 484 (2000).

This court denies Sammons a COA because reasonable jurists could not disagree with the district court's conclusion that his ineffective assistance of counsel claims are meritless. In order to establish ineffective assistance of counsel, the petitioner first must show that his counsel's performance was deficient. Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 687 (1984); Tibbetts v. Bradshaw, 633 F.3d 436, 442 (6th Cir. 2011). Second, the petitioner must demonstrate that the deficient performance prejudiced his defense, which requires showing that counsel's errors were so serious as to deprive him of a fair trial. Strickland, 466 U.S. at 687; Tibbetts, 633 F.3d at 442. In the guilty plea context of the current case, prejudice means that, “but for counsel's errors, [Sammons] would not have pleaded guilty and would have insisted on going to trial.” Hill v. Lockhart, 474 U.S. 52, 59 (1985). “[T]o obtain relief on this type of claim, a petitioner must convince the court that a decision to reject the plea bargain would have been rational under the circumstances.” Padilla v. Kentucky, 559 U.S. 356, 372 (2010). Further, a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel based on allegedly misleading information from counsel regarding the terms of a plea agreement never constitutes an “extraordinary circumstance” warranting relief when the district court has conducted a proper, clear, and thorough plea colloquy. Ramos v. Rogers, 170 F.3d 560, 565 (6th Cir. 1999).

Sammons first argues that his counsel rendered ineffective assistance by not adequately challenging the district court's conclusion that the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA) applied to Sammons. Sammons's plea agreement indicated that he could face up to ten years of imprisonment. However, at the plea hearing, the Assistant United States Attorney (AUSA) observed that, based on Sammons's criminal history, the court may be required to sentence him under the ACCA, which provides for a mandatory minimum sentence of fifteen years of imprisonment. In light of the AUSA's observation, the court carefully reviewed with Sammons the possible application of the ACCA, including the potential minimum and maximum sentences. In response to the court's questions, Sammons stated that he understood that the ACCA might apply to him, that he potentially faced a mandatory minimum sentence of fifteen years and a maximum of life imprisonment, and that he still wanted to plead guilty. Later in the hearing, Sammons reiterated his desire to plead guilty even with the knowledge that the ACCA might apply to him. The court subsequently determined that the ACCA did apply to Sammons because he had three prior burglary convictions that qualified as crimes of violence, and the court sentenced him to the fifteen-year mandatory minimum sentence.

Sammons now argues that his counsel did not adequately challenge the district court's application of the ACCA to him. Sammons notes that one of his prior burglary convictions was under Tennessee Code Annotated § 39-14-202(a)(3). Sammons maintains that it was undetermined at the time of his sentencing whether a conviction under this section qualified as a crime of violence because it lacked an explicit element of intent; he contends that his counsel erred by not arguing this point more forcefully. Even if counsel should have pressed this argument, Sammons did not suffer any prejudice because this court subsequently determined that a § 39-14-402(a)(3) conviction qualifies as a crime of violence under the ACCA. See United States v. Priddy, 808 F.3d 676, 684-85 (6th Cir. 2015). Therefore, the district court correctly sentenced him under the ACCA. Sammons knew that this possibility could occur, yet he affirmed that he wanted to plead guilty. Sammons remains bound by his answers and decisions from the plea colloquy. See Ramos, 170 F.3d at 566.

It is noted that this court's recent decision in United States v. Stitt, 860 F.3d 854, 857-62 (6th Cir. 2017) (en banc), does not change this conclusion. In Stitt, the court overruled prior circuit caselaw and held that an aggravated burglary conviction under Tennessee law does not qualify as a crime of violence under the ACCA. The court reached this conclusion because Tennessee Code Annotated § 39-14-403(a), the aggravated burglary statute, extends beyond aggravated burglary of buildings and structures to include vehicles and other movable enclosures. Consequently, the statute sweeps more broadly than the definition of “generic burglary” provided for as a crime of violence under the ACCA. However, unlike § 39-14-403(a), a conviction for burglary under § 39-14-402(a)(3) is limited to the burglary of a building. Therefore, a § 39-14-402(a)(3) conviction still qualifies as “generic burglary” and a crime of violence under ACCA, and Priddy remains good law for that proposition.

Sammons next argues that his counsel promised he would receive a sentence in the range of 35-50 months of imprisonment. However, Sammons stated at the plea hearing that he understood that any estimate as to a possible sentence provided by his attorney was not binding on the court. The court also carefully reviewed all of the different factors that it would consider in imposing its sentence. Further, Sammons already had acknowledged that the court could sentence him under the ACCA, which would provide a greater sentence than his counsel's alleged estimate. Since Sammons remains bound by his answers at the plea hearing, see Ramos, 170 F.3d at 566, he clearly understood that the court might impose a sentence beyond the range of 35-50 months, and he still elected to plead guilty.

Accordingly, this court DENIES Sammons a COA.


Deborah S. Hunt, Clerk

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