United States District Court, D. North Dakota
ORDER DENYING DEFENDANT'S MOTION FOR HABEAS
L. Hovland, Chief Judge
the Court is Defendant Beau Jack Benfiet's pro
se “Motion to Vacate under 28 U.S.C. 2255”
filed on June 30, 2016. See Docket No. 379. Counsel
for Benfiet filed a supplement on August 26, 2016.
See Docket No. 391. The Government filed a response
in opposition to the motion on November 7, 2016. See
Docket No. 414. Benfiet filed a reply on December 5, 2016.
See Docket No. 419. For the reasons outlined below,
the motion is denied.
16, 2014, Benfiet pled guilty, pursuant to a plea agreement,
to Count One of the Second Superseding Indictment which
charged him with Conspiracy to Possess with Intent to
Distribute and Distribute Controlled Substance, in violation
of 21 U.S.C. § 841(a)(1) and 846 and 18 U.S.C. § 2.
See Docket Nos. 186 and 199. In the plea agreement,
it was acknowledged that the United States would be filing an
Information pursuant to 21 U.S.C. § 851 certifying that
Benfiet had two qualifying prior felony drug offense
convictions which would require a mandatory minimum sentence
of life imprisonment. See Docket No. 186, ¶ 7,
n.1. The parties also agreed that Benfiet qualified as a
career offender under U.S.S.G. § 4B1.1. See
Docket No. 186, ¶ 14. As anticipated by the plea
agreement, the United States filed a Section 5K1.1 motion
which allowed the Court to depart from the mandatory minimum
life sentence. See Docket No. 327.
Presentence Investigation Report (“PSR”) was
filed on August 12, 2014. See Docket No. 222. An
amended PSR was filed on June 29, 2015. See Docket
No. 310. The amended PSR calculated Benfiet's base
offense level, under U.S.S.G. § 2D1.1(c)(5), to be 30
with a 2-level upward adjustment for possession of a firearm
resulting in an adjusted offense level of 32. See
Docket No. 310, ¶¶ 20, 21, and 25. However, the PSR
also found Benfiet was a career offender under U.S.S.G.
§ 4B1.1(b) because Benfiet had two prior felony
convictions of either a crime of violence or a controlled
substance offense. See Docket No. 310, ¶ 26.
This gave Benfiet an offense level of 37. With a three level
reduction for acceptance of responsibility, Benfiet's
total offense level was found to be 34. Benfiet's
criminal history gave him 19 points which put him in criminal
history category VI. See Docket No. 310, ¶ 49.
The career offender finding also mandated a criminal history
category VI. See Docket No. 310, ¶ 50. A total
offense level of 34 with a criminal history category of VI
would normally produce an advisory Sentencing Guideline range
of 262-327 months. See Docket No. 310, ¶ 92.
However, U.S.S.G. § 5G1.1(b), and the statutorily
required mandatory minimum sentence of life imprisonment,
meant the advisory Sentencing Guideline range was life.
See Docket No. 310, ¶ 92.
sentencing hearing on July 2, 2015, the Court adopted the PSR
without change, finding a total offense level of 34 with a
criminal history category VI and a resulting advisory
Sentencing Guideline range of life imprisonment. See
Docket No. 389, p. 23. After the Court granted the
Government's substantial assistance motion, the
Government recommended a sentence of 240-months, or one-third
off of 360-months, which is how the U.S. Attorney's
Office for the District of North Dakota interprets a life
sentence for substantial assistance purposes. See
Docket No. 389, p. 12. Defense counsel argued for a sentence
of 84-months. See Docket No. 389, pp. 16-17. The
Court sentenced Benfiet to 135-months imprisonment, with
credit for time served, based on his substantial assistance
and cooperation with the Government. See Docket No.
323. A second amended PSR addressing defense counsel's
concerns regarding the description of a prior conviction was
filed on July 7, 2015. See Docket No. 331.
did not file a direct appeal. On June 30, 2016, Benfiet filed
a motion under Section 2255 seeking to correct his sentence.
See Docket No. 379. Benfiet contends his defense
counsel was ineffective by not objecting to the PSR which
incorrectly calculated his criminal history points resulting
in his classification as a career offender. The Government
maintains that any error in finding Benfiet qualified as a
career offender was harmless as the statute to which he pled
guilty carried a mandatory minimum sentence of life
STANDARD OF REVIEW
U.S.C. § 2255 provides a federal prisoner an avenue for
relief if his ‘sentence was imposed in violation of the
Constitution or laws of the United States, or . . . was in
excess of the maximum authorized by law.'” King
v. United States, 595 F.3d 844, 852 (8th Cir. 2010)
(quoting 28 U.S.C. § 2255(a)). This requires a showing
of either constitutional or jurisdictional error, or a
“fundamental defect” resulting in a
“complete miscarriage of justice.” Davis v.
United States, 417 U.S. 333, 346 (1974); Hill v.
United States, 368 U.S. 424, 428 (1962). A 28 U.S.C.
§ 2255 motion is not a substitute for a direct appeal,
and is not the proper way to complain about simple trial
errors. Anderson v. United States, 25 F.3d 704, 706
(8th Cir. 1994). A 28 U.S.C. § 2255 movant “must
clear a significantly higher hurdle than would exist on
direct appeal.” United States v. Frady, 456
U.S. 152, 166 (1982). Section 2255 is “intended to
afford federal prisoners a remedy identical in scope to
federal habeas corpus.” Davis, 417 U.S. at
INEFFECTIVE ASSISTANCE OF COUNSEL
contends he received ineffective assistance of counsel at
sentencing. Specifically, he contends defense counsel failed
to object to his being classified as a career offender under
Sentencing Guideline Section 4B1.1 which resulted in an
advisory Sentencing Guideline range five levels higher than
it should have been. The Government contends Benfiet suffered
no prejudice as the offense to which he pled guilty carried a
mandatory minimum sentence of life in prison.
Sixth Amendment guarantees a criminal defendant the right to
effective assistance of counsel. To be eligible for habeas
relief based on ineffective assistance of counsel, a
defendant must satisfy the two-part test announced in
Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 687 (1984).
First, a defendant must establish that defense counsel's
representation was constitutionally deficient, which requires
a showing that counsel's performance fell below an
objective standard of reasonableness. Id. at 687-88.
This requires showing that counsel made errors so serious
that defense counsel was not functioning as the
‘counsel' guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment.
Id. at 687-88. In considering whether this showing
has been accomplished, “[j]udicial scrutiny of
counsel's performance must be highly deferential.”
Id. at 689. If the underlying claim (i.e., the
alleged deficient performance) would have been rejected,
defense counsel's performance is not deficient.
Carter v. Hopkins, 92 F.3d 666, 671 (8th Cir. 1996).
Courts seek to “eliminate the distorting effects of
hindsight” by examining defense counsel's
performance from counsel's perspective at the time of the
alleged error. Id.
it must be demonstrated that defense counsel's
performance prejudiced the defense. Strickland, 466
U.S. at 687. In other words, under this second prong, it must
be proven that “there is a reasonable probability that,
but for counsel's unprofessional errors, the result of
the proceedings would have been different.”
Id. at 694. A reasonable probability is one
“sufficient to undermine confidence in the
outcome.” Wiggins v. Smith, 539 U.S. 510, 534
(2003). In a guilty plea context, a defendant must establish
a reasonable probability that he would not have pled guilty
and would have exercised his right to a trial but for
counsel's ineffectiveness. Hill v. Lockart, 474
U.S. 52, ...