Sawyer v. United States, 2017 WL 4700089 (7th Cir, unpublished, 10/20/17): Evidentiary Hearing Required Even If Petitioner’s Claims Are Self-Serving.

This case serves as a very good reminder of a petitioner’s burden in a habeas petition, and the Court’s proper regard for a petitioner’s allegations. Petitioner’s claim in this case is that his lawyer provided ineffective assistance of counsel by urging him to reject a plea offer of 15 years (after trial, petitioner received 50 years).  In his 2255 motion, petitioner specifically alleged that the government offered him a 15-year plea offer, but that his lawyer urged him to reject it because the case against him was weak and because he would be better served by proceeding to trial.  Petitioner attached exhibits from both his mother and grandmother about the plea offer discussions. The government responded that the petition was insufficient because he failed to provide evidence that the government even made him a plea offer.

The district court denied the petition without holding an evidentiary hearing.  The court noted that petitioner did not attach a proposed plea agreement or an affidavit from trial counsel regarding a plea agreement. The court found that petitioner’s “unsubstantiated claims” did not “rise to the level of evidence needed to receive habeas relief or an evidentiary hearing.”  Petitioner appealed.

Under the Sixth Amendment, criminal defendants are entitled to the effective assistance of counsel during the plea-bargaining process.  Lafler v. Cooper, 566 U.S. 156 (2012).  The two-part test set forth in Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984), applies to claims that counsel provided ineffective assistance of counsel by advising a defendant to reject a plea offer.  Lafler, 566 U.S. at 162-63.  A defendant must show first, that his counsel’s performance fell below an objective standard of reasonableness; and second, that “the outcome of the plea process would have been different with competent advice.”  Id. at 163.  Here, petitioner needed to show the court that “there is a reasonable probability that the plea offer would have been presented to the court, the court would have accepted it, and that the conviction or sentence or both would have been less severe than the judgment imposed.”  Foster v. United States, 735 F. 3d 561, 566 (7th Cir. 2013) (citing Lafler, 566 U.S. at 163-64).

The Seventh Circuit found the district court abused its discretion by determining that the record conclusively showed that petitioner was not entitled to relief and that therefore an evidentiary hearing was not required.  After all, petitioner’s evidence, if believed, supports relief. The Court here took the opportunity to emphasize to district courts that they may not discount a petitioner’s declarations simply because they may be self-serving.  See Hill v. Tangherlini, 724 F.3d 965, 967 (7th Cir. 2013); Payne v. Pauley, 337 F.3d 767, 772 (7th Cir. 2003).

The Court held that petitioner’s allegations and supporting affidavits were sufficient to warrant a hearing. This is good news for habeas petitioners seeking evidentiary hearings in district court, and is an important reminder to the courts that petitioner’s allegations are to be construed as being true, even if “self-serving” for purposes of granting a hearing.