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Decided: April 1, 2014

The Fourth Circuit affirmed the judgment of the district court and denied Rangel’s motion to vacate his conviction and sentence under 28 U.S.C. § 2255, alleging that his trial and appellate counsel had rendered constitutionally ineffective assistance.

In October of 1992, Rangel and alleged co-conspirators were arrested for possessing 5.25 pounds of marijuana.  Upon questioning Rangel’s alleged co-conspirators, police learned details regarding the men’s drug dealing enterprise.  Specifically, the police learned that the men had been driving to Mexico and San Antonio, TX and bringing back around 50 pounds of marijuana each trip.  The men had been doing this for several years.

On November 28, 1995, a federal grand jury indicted Rangel, charging him in four counts: Count 1 for conspiracy to distribute over 1,000 kg of marijuana from 1990 through 1995; Count 4 for possession with intent to distribute marijuana on September 30, 1992; Count 7 for distribution of marijuana on October 1, 1992; and Count 10, which was later dismissed.  Following his indictment, Rangel fled to Texas, where he evaded arrest until March 23, 2010.  Thereafter, a jury tried Rangel and found him guilty on the charges in the indictment on August 25, 2010.

Based on his conviction and, more specifically, that the court attributed 1000 kg of marijuana to Rangel, the mandatory minimum sentence was 120 months.  Moreover, the presentence report provided that his advisory guideline range was 121 to 151 months.  If, however, the court had attributed 50 kg or less to Rangel, the default statutory term would have been 0 to 5 years instead of 0 to 20 years.

Rangel argued that his trial counsel was ineffective for not requesting an instruction that the jury find a drug weight based on the amount attributable to or reasonably foreseeable by Rangel; that his appellate counsel was ineffective for not raising the failure to request that instruction as an issue on direct appeal; and that his trial counsel was ineffective for failing to object to the drug weight and advisory guidelines range of sentencing.

The court applied the Strickland v. Washington test for ineffective assistance of counsel, which provides that a defendant must show (1) that “counsel’s performance was deficient,” and (2) that “the deficient performance prejudiced the defense.”  The court determined that Rangel’s trial counsel did not render ineffective assistance of counsel because Rangel would have received the same guideline range and the same sentence if his trial counsel had requested a different instruction.  Further, the court determined that Rangel’s appellate counsel was not ineffective because, if any error was committed, it was harmless; thus, Rangel could not demonstrate prejudice.  Lastly, the court determined that Rangel suffered no prejudice as a result of his trial counsel’s failure to challenge the district court’s drug weight finding and the resulting guideline range.

Full Opinion

Charles Buist