Friday, October 6, 2017

A Cautionary Tale: Ineffective Assistance And State- Federal Concurrent Sentences

The Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals found ineffective assistance of counsel

This case should serve as a cautionary tale for any prosecutor, defense attorney, or trial court who attempts to negotiate or accept a guilty plea involving concurrent state and federal sentencing. Petitioner, Tyler James Schaeffer, pled guilty to two counts of vehicular homicide, two counts of aggravated assault, nine counts of vehicular assault, and one count of possession of a controlled substance analogue. He received an effective sentence of forty years to be served concurrently with a separate 100-year federal sentence. Now, Petitioner appeals the denial of his petition for post-conviction relief, arguing the post-conviction court erred in finding that he received effective assistance of counsel due to trial counsel’s failure to retain a mental health expert, failure to request a change of venue, failure to properly investigate potential witnesses, and failure to adequately explain concurrent state and federal sentencing. The State concedes that Petitioner received ineffective assistance of counsel based on the sentencing issue alone. Following our review of the record and submissions of the parties, the majority concludes that Petitioner received ineffective assistance of counsel. Accordingly, we reverse the judgment of the post-conviction court.

The crimes

On September 16, 2012, Petitioner drove his vehicle on Highway 441 in Sevier County, Tennessee. While texting about an impending drug deal, Petitioner crossed the centerline of the highway and collided head-on with a church van. The violent crash killed two passengers and injured eleven others. At the time of the collision, Petitioner possessed a controlled substance, and his blood test results showed that Petitioner had methylone, methamphetamine, and marijuana metabolite in his bloodstream while he was driving. A Sevier County Grand Jury indicted Petitioner with two counts of vehicular homicide by intoxication; two counts of reckless vehicular homicide; eleven counts of reckless aggravated assault with a deadly weapon; nine counts of reckless aggravated assault resulting in serious bodily injury; nine counts of vehicular assault; one count of driving under the influence; one count of production, manufacture, distribution, or possession of a controlled substance analogue; and one count of possession of synthetic derivatives or analogues of methcathinone.

In March of 2013, a federal grand jury indicted Petitioner with fourteen counts arising from a string of robberies committed between July 26, 2010, and September 14, 2012. United States v. Schaeffer, 626 F. App’x 604, 605 (6th Cir. 2015). Petitioner pled guilty to all counts except for four counts of using a firearm in a crime of violence and one count of using a firearm in furtherance of a drug trafficking crime. Id. at 606. One of the firearms charges was dropped, and Petitioner was found guilty by a jury of the remaining counts. Id. On March 3, 2014, Petitioner received a 100-year sentence for his federal convictions.

The court rejected a number of claims but found that counsel's handling of the issue of concurrent sentences was deficient

If trial counsel had carried out his duty to investigate the terms of the plea agreement, he would have realized that a state court provision requiring federal and state sentences to run concurrently is not worth the paper on which it is written...

Alas, there is no indication in the record that trial counsel even attempted to investigate and determine if the conditions of the plea could be legally satisfied before recommending the plea to Petitioner. Accordingly, trial counsel’s actions fell below an objective standard of reasonableness according to the prevailing professional norm, and we find that trial counsel’s performance was deficient.

Forewarned is forearmed

we issue the following warning: without some sort of written agreement from the federal government, District Attorney Generals should not make plea offers which guarantee concurrent state and federal sentencing; defense attorneys should not agree to plea offers which guarantee concurrent state and federal sentencing; and trial court judges should not accept plea agreements which guarantee concurrent state and federal sentencing.

(Mike Frisch)

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