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Eighth Circuit: Counsel Ineffective for Not Recognizing § 851 Enhancement Should Not Have Applied

Rocky Thomas Mayfield was charged with several crimes relating to methamphetamine conspiracy, possession, and distribution, as well as being a felon in possession of a firearm. The Government also filed an enhancement under 21 U.S.C. § 851 for his 2002 conviction in Arizona for possession of drug paraphernalia. This put his statutory minimum at 240 months.

The Government offered a plea agreement in which Mayfield would plead to the conspiracy and firearm counts in exchange for the Government “to recommend a sentence at the low end of the sentencing guideline range found by the court at the sentencing hearing or the statutory minimum mandatory imprisonment sentence, whichever is higher.” The Government estimated his range would be 292 to 365 months if he went to trial or 240 to 293 if he took the plea. Under those terms, counsel suggested Mayfield decline the offer and later stated at sentencing that because of the § 851 enhancement, “there was no reason for [Mayfield] to enter into a plea agreement because he was looking at 20 years no matter what.”

However, just prior to sentencing (after his conviction by a jury), Mayfield’s non-lawyer sister informed counsel the § 851 enhancement was inapplicable because the punishment statute for his Arizona charge did not carry at least one year in prison when he was convicted.

The Government withdrew the enhancement at sentencing, and the court calculated a range of 235 to 293 months. Mayfield received 240 months to be served concurrent to 120 months for the firearms charge. His sentence was affirmed on appeal, but he filed a § 2255 motion alleging his counsel was ineffective for failing to research his Arizona conviction sufficiently to properly advise him during plea negotiations. The district court denied his motion, and the Eighth Circuit agreed to hear his appeal.

Under Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984), Mayfield had to prove (1) that his counsel’s performance was unreasonable and (2) that it resulted in prejudice to him. Missouri v. Frye, 566 U.S. 134 (2012), extended this right to have reasonable representation during the plea bargaining process. Further, “if a plea bargain has been offered, a defendant has the right to effective assistance of counsel in considering whether to accept it.” Lafler v. Cooper, 566 U.S. 156 (2012). And finally, “An attorney’s ignorance of a point of law that is fundamental to his case combined with his failure to perform basic research on that point is a quintessential example of unreasonable performance under Strickland.” Hinton v. Alabama, 571 U.S. 263 (2014).

The Court found that Mayfield was convicted under A.R.S. § 13-3415 and punished under § 13-901.01(A), which stated at the time of Mayfield’s conviction, “The Court shall suspend the imposition or execution of sentence and place such person on probation.” The Court noted that the punishment was revised upward just after Mayfield was sentenced to allow for imprisonment, and this was the reason the Government mistakenly tried to apply the § 851 enhancement. However, a reasonable attorney should have conducted basic research including “tracing the history of the statute and matching the correct version to Mayfield’s prior offense,” the Court admonished.

Because the district court dismissed his petition after having found counsel’s performance reasonable, it made no findings relating to whether counsel’s conduct resulted in prejudice. Under Lafler, Mayfield bears the burden of proving he would have accepted the plea offer if it weren’t for his lawyer’s legally deficient advice.

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Related legal case

Mayfield v. United States



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