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Wilson J. Baston v. United States of America

September 8, 2011

WILSON J. BASTON, PLAINTIFF,
v.
UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Hon. Harold Baer, Jr., District Judge:*fn1

AMENDED OPINION & ORDER

Pro se petitioner, Wilson J. Baston ("Petitioner"), brings this petition for a writ of habeas corpus to vacate, set aside, or correct his federal criminal sentence pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2255. Petitioner is currently serving 17 concurrent prison terms of 135 months, after having pled guilty to multiple counts of mail and wire fraud. Petitioner has also requested an evidentiary hearing. For the reasons set forth below, the petition and request for an evidentiary hearing are denied.

I. BACKGROUND

Petitioner operated a company that was ostensibly in the business of purchasing distressed properties and reselling them for a profit. However, he used his company to defraud investors who would invest money in exchange for promissory notes, which stipulated high return rates and short investment periods. Initially, investors received returns on their investments, which they reinvested in the company. As the size of investments grew, Petitioner ceased to return the money when the notes came due. An investigation by the U.S. Postal Service led to his indictment and arrest.

On March 5, 2008, Petitioner pled guilty pursuant to a plea agreement that contained a Stipulated Sentencing Guidelines Range of 87 to 108 months and indicated that the loss amount would be at least $7 million but less than $20 million, with the specific amount to be calculated prior to sentencing. These ranges were calculated based on data known to the U.S. Probation Department at the time. Additional victims continued to make themselves known to the Government and the loss amount grew. Be fore the sentencing hearing, the Probation Department issued a Final Pre-Sentence Report ("Final PSR") that accounted for the increased amount of losses and concluded that Petitioner defrauded 185 victims of $22,319,633.57. Accordingly, the Final PSR recommended a restitution amount of $22,319,633.57 and a Sentencing Guidelines Range of 108 to 135 months.

In Petitioner's sentencing memorandum, Petitioner's attorney, Matthew Kluger ("Kluger"), acknowledged that the Final PSR's calculation was a more accurate reflection of the actual loss attributable to Petitioner's conduct, but requested that Petitioner be sentenced to serve 87 months -- the minimum number of months specified in the plea agreement -- or less. The Government's sentencing memorandum noted the discrepancy between the recommendations in the Final PSR and the plea agreement, and requested a sentence of 108 months in order to comport with both. The Court also received a number of written victim impact statements prior to sentencing. The parties made the same arguments at the sentencing hearing as they did in their written submissions. I reminded the parties that the Court is not bound by the plea agreement and, after hearing testimony from several victims, I announced a sentence of 135 months and a final restitution order of $22,396,633.57.

Petitioner appealed, arguing that his sentence should be vacated on grounds that the Government breached the plea agreement, that his counsel provided constitutionally ineffective assistance, and that the restitution order was improper. See United States v. Baston, 355 F. App'x 530, 531-32 (2d Cir. 2009). The Second Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the judgment below. Id. at 533. The Court of Appeals found that Petitioner forfeited his claim that the Government breached the plea agreement by having failed to raise it at the appropriate time. Id. at 533. It also found no plain error which would make the restitution order improper. Id. at 532. The Court of Appeals dismissed Petitioner's claim for ineffective assistance of counsel without prejudice, on the grounds that the Supreme Court has stated a preference for resolving such claims in a habeas petition, id. (citing Massaro v. United States, 538 U.S. 500, 504 (2003)), and consequently that ground is asserted by Petitioner here.

On June 2, 2010, Petitioner brought this habeas corpus petition under 28 U.S.C. § 2255. Petitioner alleges two grounds for relief. First, he claims to have received ineffective assistance of counsel at trial because his trial counsel (a) breached the plea agreement by conceding at sentencing that the loss and restitution amounts were accurate and (b) failed to investigate and correct errors in the loss and restitution amounts. Second, Petitioner claims that the calculation of the restitution order and loss amount were inaccurate.

II. DISCUSSION

In a petition under § 2255, the Petitioner must show that the sentence: "(1) was imposed in violation of the Constitution or the laws of the United States; or (2) was entered by a court without jurisdiction to impose the sentence; or (3) exceeded the maximum detention authorized by law; or (4) is otherwise subject to collateral attack." 28 U.S.C. § 2255(a) (2010).

A.Restitution Order

The Second Circuit has held that "a convicted defendant who receives an allegedly erroneous fine. cannot seek post-conviction relief under § 2255, and neither should a petitioner who is both fined and imprisoned have an opportunity to assert an identical fine-related claim under § 2255." Kaminski v. United States, 339 F.3d 84, 88, 91 (2d Cir. 2003) (affirming the district court's dismissal of a petition challenging a restitution order for lack of jurisdiction pursuant to § 2255).Here, Petitioner's challenge to the restitution order is independent of his challenge to the sentence on the basis of ineffective assistance of counsel. However, "[r]econsideration [of issues decided on direct appeal] is permitted only where there has been an intervening change in the law and the new law would have exonerated a defendant." Reese v. United States, 329 F. App'x 324, 326 (2d Cir. 2009) ("We have held that a section 2255 petition cannot be used to 'relitigate questions which were raised and considered on direct appeal.'") (quoting United States v. Sanin, 252 F.3d 79, 83 (2d Cir. 2001)). Here, the Court of Appeals ruled there was no error with respect to the restitution order. Baston, 355 F. App'x at 532. Therefore, this issue is barred from litigation on Petitioner's § 2255 petition.

B.Loss Amount

Petitioner also argues that the loss amount used at sentencing was inaccurate. To the extent that small discrepancies may exist that the Court of Appeals would not recognize as plain error, controlling case law states that "a sentencing court is not required to compute the loss resulting from a fraud offense 'with precision.' The court need only make a reasonable estimate of the loss." United States v. Kumar, 617 F.3d 612, 632 (2d Cir. 2010) (internal citation omitted); see also United States v. Davis, 41 F. App'x. 493, 496 (2d Cir. 2002). Likewise, it is sufficient for the Court to adopt the loss amount findings in the Final PSR. See United States v. Eyman, 313 F.3d 741, 744 (2d Cir. 2002) (holding the district court's loss findings for the sentencing hearing were sufficient, where its comments established that it had adopted the findings in the PSR). Here, the Court expressly relied on the Final PSR's loss findings at sentencing, which were repeatedly recalculated by the Probation Department as additional victims came forward and using the most accurate information available. See Sentencing Hr'g Tr. 39-40. Although Petitioner challenges the ...


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