But-for Causation Reverses § 2255 – Update for July 14, 2016

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In 2011, Logan Gaylord pleaded guilty to a conspiracy to distribute oxycodone. During the drug distribution, Evins – one of Logan’s customers – died of an overdose of oxycodone and cocaine. This was obviously unfortunate for the deceased: it was unfortunately for Logan as well, because 21 U.S.C. § 841(b)(1)(C) provides for a mandatory minimum sentence of 240 months when death results from the unlawfully-distributed drugs. His plea agreement specified that the “death results” enhancement applied because of the customer’s demise.

death160714In 2014, the Supreme Court ruled in Burrage v. United States that the “death results” enhancement in § 841(b)(1)(C) required that the government show that “but for” the drugs provided by the defendant, death would not have resulted. Six months after Burrage, Logan filed a § 2255 motion, arguing that his attorney was ineffective for failing to object to the sentencing enhancement incorporated in the plea agreement. The district court dismissed the § 2255 motion, holding that the Burrage claim was a non-constitutional claim that could have been raised on direct appeal, and thus had been waived. As well, the district court said that Logan had waived his right to bring a collateral attack in his plea agreement.

On Tuesday, the 7th Circuit reversed the decision and sent the case back for an evidentiary hearing. The Court held that Logan had not waived the § 2255 in the plea agreement, because he was in effect claiming that his lawyer was ineffective in advising him to take the plea deal. Although Logan “did not cite Strickland v. Washington or an analogous case, Gaylord did argue that his guilty plea was ‘uninformed, therefore involuntary’ because his counsel insufficiently investigated his case… Thus, Gaylord was mistakenly led to believe that the oxycodone he distributed was the but-for cause of Evins’s death. This is enough to raise a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel, especially given the lenient standard under which we review pro se filings. And since Gaylord argues that his plea agreement was the product of his counsel’s ineffective assistance, he can overcome the waiver provision in the plea agreement.”

The appeals panel concluded that Logan had “alleged facts sufficient to support his claim of deficient performance. There… was no evidence that the oxycodone he distributed was the but-for cause of death. Rather, the postmortem and forensic pathology reports stated that the cause of death was ‘oxycodone and cocaine intoxication.’ In other words, even without the oxycodone, the cocaine concentration may have been enough to result in Evins’s death. It is unclear from the record whether Gaylord’s counsel was aware of the but-for cause standard… examined the postmortem and forensic pathology reports, and provided Gaylord with the information necessary for a knowing and voluntary guilty plea. Thus, Gaylord may have a viable claim of deficient performance.”

The Court held that without the “death results” sentencing enhancement, Logan Gaylord’s sentencing range would have been 210 to 262 months imprisonment. With the enhancement, he faced 240 months to life. What’s more, Logan “alleged in his § 2255 motion that he made his decision to plead guilty based on incomplete information. He claimed that his counsel did not show him the postmortem and forensic pathology reports or explain the issue of causation, and thus his plea was involuntary and uninformed. Construing this pro se filing liberally, this is enough to establish a reasonable probability that but for counsel’s ineffective assistance, Gaylord would not have pled guilty.”

Gaylord v. United States, Case No. 15-1297 (7th Cir.  July 12, 2016)


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