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United States of America v. JASON LESLIE JULIANO
Case Number: 20-35395
Judge: Lawrence VanDyke
Court: UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS
FOR THE NINTH CIRCUIT
Plaintiff's Attorney: William D. Hyslop, United States Attorney; Earl A. Hicks,
Assistant United States Attorney; United States Attorney’s
San Francisco - Criminal defense lawyer represented defendant
with being a felon in possession of a firearm and ammunition (Count 1), and for possession with intent to distribute fifty grams or more of actual (pure) methamphetamine (Count 2) charges. He now files a motion to vacate, set aside, or correct his sentence.
In January 2018, Juliano was indicted for being a felon
in possession of a firearm and ammunition (Count 1), and
for possession with intent to distribute fifty grams or more
of actual (pure) methamphetamine (Count 2). Five months
1 First Step Act of 2018, Pub. L. No. 115-391, 132 Stat. 5194, 5194–
4 UNITED STATES V. JULIANO
later, on June 7, 2018, Juliano entered a plea agreement with
the government and agreed to plead guilty to both counts. A
few months later, on October 9, 2018, the district court
accepted the plea agreement and sentenced Juliano to
120 months for Count 1 and to 240 months for Count 2, to
Notably, in the plea agreement, the government agreed
to recommend the minimum 240-month imprisonment and
file only one sentence enhancement. At the time, for the
offense charged in Count 2, 240 months was the minimum
penalty permitted for a defendant who, like Juliano, had one
prior felony drug offense conviction. See 21 U.S.C.
§§ 841(a)(1), (b)(1)(A)(viii) (2010) (amended 2018). For
Juliano, that minimum penalty compared favorably with the
262- to 327-month guideline imprisonment range based on
his total offense level and criminal history category.
Two and a half months after Juliano’s sentencing, the
First Step Act (Act) was signed into law on December 21,
2018. The Act reduced the mandatory minimum penalty for
certain drug crimes, including those for which Juliano was
convicted, from twenty years to fifteen years. 21 U.S.C.
§ 841(b)(1)(A). As is often the case with legislation, the Act
did not enjoy easy passage. See, e.g., Shon Hopwood, The
Effort to Reform the Federal Criminal Justice System,
128 Yale L.J. F. 791, 794–95 (2019).
In September 2019, Juliano filed a pro se motion under
28 U.S.C. § 2255 to vacate, set aside, or correct his sentence
on the ground of ineffective assistance of counsel. Juliano
argued, inter alia, that his attorneys provided ineffective
assistance by failing to investigate or inform him about the
First Step Act, which was pending in Congress when he was
sentenced, or move for a continuance of his sentencing. In
evaluating his petition, the district court reasoned that courts
UNITED STATES V. JULIANO 5
“have uniformly concluded that a defense attorney is not
deficient in failing to anticipate a change in the law.” It also
noted that “it is doubtful the Court would have been
receptive to a request to delay sentencing by—at
minimum—more than two months based solely on
[Juliano]’s desire to be sentenced under a more favorable
statutory scheme, the enactment of which was at that point
only a possibility.” The district court therefore denied
III. Jurisdiction and Standard of Review
We have jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. §§ 2253 and
2255(d), and “[w]e review de novo a district court’s decision
to deny a motion under 28 U.S.C. § 2255.” United States v.
Chacon-Palomares, 208 F.3d 1157, 1158 (9th Cir. 2000).
“A claim of ineffective assistance of counsel raises a mixed
question of law and fact, which we review de novo.” Id.
The Sixth Amendment guarantees “a defendant pleading
guilty to a felony charge . . . . the right to the effective
assistance of counsel.” McMann v. Richardson, 397 U.S.
759, 771 n.14 (1970) (citations omitted). To establish
ineffective assistance of counsel, a defendant must show
both that: (1) “counsel’s performance was deficient,” and
(2) “the deficient performance prejudiced the defense.”
Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 687 (1984). “Under
Strickland, a criminal defendant’s counsel may be deemed
ineffective only if counsel’s performance falls outside the
wide range of reasonable professional assistance.” TorresChavez v. Holder, 567 F.3d 1096, 1100–01 (9th Cir. 2009)
(citation and internal quotation marks omitted). “Our
scrutiny of counsel’s performance must be highly
deferential, and the defendant must overcome the
6 UNITED STATES V. JULIANO
presumption that, under the circumstances, the challenged
action might be considered sound trial strategy.” Id. at 1101
(citation and internal quotation marks omitted).
“In particular, we must evaluate the conduct from
counsel’s perspective at the time, taking care not to view a
lawyer’s decisions in the distorting effects of hindsight . . . .”
Id. (citation and internal quotation marks omitted).
“Because advocacy is an art and not a science, and because
the adversary system requires deference to counsel’s
informed decisions, strategic choices must be respected in
these circumstances if they are based on professional
judgment.” Id. (citation omitted). The Strickland “test
applies to challenges to guilty pleas based on ineffective
assistance of counsel.” Hill v. Lockhart, 474 U.S. 52, 58
Given that the reasonableness of counsel’s conduct must
be evaluated based on the time it occurred, courts have
articulated a rule that ineffective assistance of counsel claims
generally cannot be predicated on counsel’s failure to
anticipate changes in the law.2 For example, in Lowry v.
Lewis, we determined that a “lawyer cannot be required to
anticipate our decision” in a separate § 1983 suit raising
2 See, e.g., United States v. Fields, 565 F.3d 290, 294 (5th Cir. 2009)
(“[W]e have repeatedly held that there is no general duty on the part of
defense counsel to anticipate changes in the law.” (citation and internal
quotation marks omitted)); Sistrunk v. Vaughn, 96 F.3d 666, 670–71 (3d
Cir. 1996) (“[I]n making litigation decisions, there is no general duty on
the part of defense counsel to anticipate changes in the law.” (citation
and internal quotation marks omitted)); Carter v. Hopkins, 92 F.3d 666,
670 (8th Cir. 1996) (“We have stated previously that counsel need not
anticipate a change in existing law to render constitutionally effective
assistance of counsel.” (citation and internal quotation marks omitted));
Lilly v. Gilmore, 988 F.2d 783, 786–88 (7th Cir. 1993) (observing that
counsel is not required to forecast changes or advances in the law).
UNITED STATES V. JULIANO 7
similar issues. 21 F.3d 344, 346 (9th Cir. 1994). In Lowry,
the petitioner claimed ineffective assistance of counsel
because his lawyer did not move to suppress contraband
found from a search of the petitioner’s body. Id. at 345.
Although his lawyer knew of a § 1983 lawsuit challenging
the search, the lawyer declined to move to suppress evidence
from the search after learning that related motions to
suppress had failed. Id. On habeas review, the petitioner
argued that the evidence from the search would have been
suppressed pursuant to one of our court’s decisions rendered
in the § 1983 lawsuit. Id. at 346. But that decision was
issued after his lawyer declined to file a motion to suppress.
See id. Reasoning that counsel’s conduct “must be evaluated
for purposes of the performance standard of Strickland as of
the time of counsel’s conduct,” id. (citation and internal
quotation marks omitted), we concluded that counsel’s
performance was not deficient when, among other things, he
failed to anticipate a future decision. See id.
Although Lowry concerned developments in the law
arising from a judicial opinion, a similar rationale applies to
changes in the law from legislation. Whether a change in the
law occurs from the issuance of an opinion or the enactment
of a bill, the crux of the deficiency prong in an ineffective
assistance of counsel claim centers on the reasonableness of
counsel’s conduct at the time it occurred. See Strickland,
466 U.S. at 690; Lowry, 21 F.3d at 346. Here, similar to
Lowry, the law that Juliano argues his counsel allegedly
failed to anticipate was not actually law at the time of his
counsel’s challenged conduct. Nor was it certain that it
would become law. Only a fraction of proposed legislation
8 UNITED STATES V. JULIANO
eventually becomes law.3 And for this particular proposed
legislation—despite its wide, bipartisan support (and
reported assurances from the President that he would sign it
into law if presented to him)—at the time of counsel’s
challenged conduct, it remained unclear if and when it would
ever become law.4 Given the general uncertainty
surrounding pending legislation, Juliano’s counsel’s alleged
failure to advise Juliano about the First Step Act or to seek a
continuance based on this potential legislative change fails
to meet Strickland’s highly deferential test. 466 U.S. at 689.
Applying the strong presumption that counsel’s conduct was
reasonable and “sound trial strategy,” id. (citation omitted),
Juliano’s counsel’s failure to anticipate the First Step Act
was not objectively unreasonable. See id. at 688.
Holding otherwise would pose serious hindsight
problems. Juliano’s counsel’s alleged failure to predicate his
sentencing strategy on potential legislative changes only
begins to appear potentially deficient with the benefit of
hindsight that the Act eventually became law. Prior to its
enactment, the Act faced a possibility of failure in Congress.
At the time of sentencing, the possibility that the First Step
Act would be passed did not require Juliano’s counsel to
change his approach to Juliano’s sentencing. Just as
Strickland warned us against second-guessing counsel’s trial
strategy, it also admonished us to make “every effort . . . to
eliminate the distorting effects of hindsight.” Id. at 689.
Requiring defense counsel to change their approach based
3 See Statistics and Historical Comparison, GOVTRACK (last visited
Aug. 25, 2021, 10:20 a.m.), https://www.govtrack.us/congress/bills/
4 See Amy B. Cyphert, Reprogramming Recidivism: The First Step
Act and Algorithmic Prediction of Risk, 51 Seton Hall L. Rev. 331, 333
UNITED STATES V. JULIANO 9
on legislative proposals that might become law would run
counter to Strickland’s guidance.
This case in particular illustrates how permitting
criminal defendants to claim ineffective assistance of
counsel based on post-sentencing legislative changes invites
speculation. As part of Juliano’s pre-First Step Act plea
deal, the government agreed to file only one prior conviction
enhancement, even though the government could have filed
multiple enhancements based on Juliano’s criminal history.
See 21 U.S.C. § 851. There is no guarantee that the
government would have offered the same plea deal if Juliano
had attempted to delay his sentencing. And while Juliano’s
mandatory minimum sentence under the First Step Act for
his plea with only one prior conviction enhancement would
have been fifteen years (instead of the twenty he received),
21 U.S.C. § 841(b)(1)(A), his mandatory minimum if the
government had filed two prior conviction enhancements
would have been twenty-five years under the First Step Act.
See id. The uncertainty of a better deal for Juliano after the
enactment of the First Step Act underscores the inability to
show that his counsel acted unreasonably.5
5 We further note that the ability of Juliano’s counsel to have
obtained a delay in sentencing is questionable at best. Counsel for
defendants are not capable of delaying sentencing unilaterally; both
district courts and prosecutors face institutional pressures to close cases
and avoid dilatory tactics or delay.
Outcome: Juliano has not shown that his counsel’s conduct
throughout his sentencing was objectively unreasonable.
His ineffective assistance of counsel claim therefore fails.