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Evidentiary hearing ordered in 2255 proceedings alleging ineffective plea advice

Rounding out 2005, the Third Circuit has ruled that a district court abused its discretion by dismissing, without an evidentiary hearing, a Section 2255 motion alleging that trial counsel failed to inform the defendant of the possibility of entering an "open" guilty plea once plea negotiations with the government collapsed due to the defendant's refusal to cooperate against potential co-defendants. The court of appeals reiterated its "reasonably low threshold" for entitlement to an evidentiary hearing: a hearing must be held whenever the files and records of the case are inconclusive as to whether the movant is entitled to relief, accepting the movant's factual allegations as true unless clearly frivolous.

Here, the movant alleged that trial counsel knew both that the evidence of guilt was overwhelming and that movant did not want to cooperate with the government, yet never advised him of the possibility of pleading open. Applying the Strickland standard, the court of appeals found sufficient allegations of deficiency of performance and prejudice to require an evidentiary hearing. As to performance, the movant made the specific allegations discussed above and the government's response, which relied on a declaration of trial counsel, did not rebut those allegations (presumably, a hearing would still be required to assess credibility even if the declaration had non-conclusively rebutted movant's allegations). As to prejudice, an open plea to the indictment "would have likely" resulted in a three-level reduction in movant's offense level for acceptance of responsibility (the absence of which exposed movant to an additional 19-30 months' imprisonment under the Guidelines), assuming as true movant's allegation that he would have truthfully admitted the underlying conduct.

The case is United States v. Booth, No. 03-3893 (3d Cir. Dec. 29, 2005).

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