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Sawyer v. United States

United States Court of Appeals, Seventh Circuit

October 20, 2017

Datqunn Sawyer, Petitioner-Appellant,
United States of America, Respondent-Appellee.

          Argued September 6, 2017

         Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division. No. 14 C 7665 - Charles P. Kocoras, Judge.

          Before Bauer, Easterbrook, and Hamilton, Circuit Judges.

          Bauer, Circuit Judge.

         On November 21, 2011, a jury convicted Datqunn Sawyer of multiple counts of sex trafficking, conspiracy to commit sex trafficking, and attempted sex trafficking, in violation of 18 U.S.C. §§ 1591(a) and 1594(c). The district court sentenced Sawyer to 50 years in prison.

         On September 30, 2014, after his convictions were upheld on appeal, Sawyer filed a timely petition for a writ of habeas corpus under 28 U.S.C. § 2255, setting forth eight individual claims for relief. Only one of those-a claim of ineffective assistance of trial counsel-is relevant to this appeal.

         In Count II of his petition, Sawyer stated that "the Government offered the Petitioner a plea offer, which included a term of imprisonment of 15 years in exchange for a plea of guilty." According to Sawyer, his trial counsel told him of the offer, but advised him to reject it because "the Government's case against him was weak and [because] the Petitioner was better served by proceeding to trial." After conferring with his mother and grandmother, he relied on counsel's advice and proceeded to trial. Sawyer attached to his petition affidavits from both his mother and grandmother, in which they attest to discussing the plea offer with Sawyer.

         In its response, the government argued that Sawyer's petition failed to provide sufficient evidence that the government ever made him a plea offer. The government also argued that Sawyer had not sufficiently pleaded the required elements of a claim of ineffective assistance.

         On May 6, 2015, the district court denied Sawyer's petition without holding an evidentiary hearing. It noted that Sawyer did not attach a proposed plea agreement or an affidavit from trial counsel regarding any such agreement. The court found that Sawyer's "unsubstantiated claims" did not "rise to the level of evidence needed to receive habeas relief or an evidentiary hearing." Sawyer timely appealed.


         Sawyer's sole argument on appeal is that the district court erred by failing to hold an evidentiary hearing on his claim that he received ineffective assistance of counsel regarding the plea-bargaining process. We review a district court's decision to rule on a § 2255 petition without an evidentiary hearing for an abuse of discretion. Boulb v. United States, 818 F.3d 334, 339 (7th Cir. 2016) (citation omitted).

         A prisoner in federal custody may seek his release through a § 2255 petition by arguing that his "sentence was imposed in violation of the Constitution or the laws of the United States ... ." 28 U.S.C. § 2255(a). The district court in which the petition is filed is required to hold an evidentiary hearing "[u]nless the motion and the files and records of the case conclusively show that the prisoner is entitled to no relief ... ." Id. § 2255(b).

         Under the Sixth Amendment, criminal defendants are entitled to the effective assistance of competent counsel during the plea-bargaining process. Lafler v. Cooper, 566 U.S. 156, 162 (2012). The two-part test set forth in Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984), applies to claims that counsel provided ineffective assistance by advising a defendant to reject a plea offer. Lafler, 566 U.S. at 162-63. Under that test, a defendant must show first, that his counsel's performance fell below an objective standard of reasonableness; and second, that "the outcome of the plea process would have been different with competent advice." Id. at 163. In the specific context presented here, the second prong of the test requires Sawyer to show that "there is a reasonable probability that the plea offer would have been presented to the court, the court would have accepted it, and that the conviction or sentence or both would have been less severe than the judgment imposed." Foster v. United States, 735 F.3d 561, 566 (7th Cir. 2013) (citing Lafler, 566 U.S. at 163-64).

         With that framework in mind, we find that the district court abused its discretion in determining that the record before it conclusively showed that Sawyer was not entitled to relief, and therefore, that no evidentiary hearing was required. The government's main argument against that conclusion is that Sawyer's petition did not provide sufficient evidence that the government ever made a plea offer. As support, it cites to cases in which we have held that a petitioner must provide something more than his own conclusory allegation that the ...

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