Jose Luis Meza-Lopez, also known as Pariente Petitioner - Appellant
United States of America Respondent - Appellee
Submitted: May 14, 2019
from United States District Court for the District of
Nebraska - Lincoln
COLLOTON, BEAM, and SHEPHERD, Circuit Judges.
SHEPHERD, CIRCUIT JUDGE
Luis Meza-Lopez appeals the district
court's denial of his 28 U.S.C. § 2255 motion
alleging ineffective assistance of counsel. Having
jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1291, we affirm.
was charged with conspiracy to distribute 500 grams or more
of methamphetamine in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 846 and
conspiracy to launder money in violation of 18 U.S.C. §
1956(h). As part of the conspiracy, "Meza-Lopez, an
illegal alien, loaded methamphetamine into cars, often at his
home in Phoenix, Arizona[.]" United States v.
Meza-Lopez, 808 F.3d 743, 744 (8th Cir. 2015). Drugs and
drug proceeds would be hidden in the cars and ferried between
Arizona and Nebraska. Id.
petition to plead guilty noted that he faced a sentence of 10
years to life imprisonment on the drug conspiracy and up to
20 years imprisonment on the money laundering conspiracy,
sentencing ranges the government and the magistrate judge
reiterated at his plea hearing. Before allowing Meza-Lopez to
enter his plea of guilty, the magistrate judge questioned him
about the factual basis underlying his crime as required by
Fed. R. Crim. P. 11(b)(3).
factual basis for the drug conspiracy charge was provided by
Meza-Lopez without issue, and the magistrate judge then
addressed the money laundering conspiracy. When she asked if
hidden compartments in the vehicles were used to conceal the
fact that the money came from illegal drug activity,
Meza-Lopez's counsel asked for time to confer with
Meza-Lopez. His counsel then explained that Meza-Lopez did
not "feel that he [could] fairly answer" the
question. Plea Hr'g Tr. 18, Dist. Ct. Dkt. 84.
Eventually, the magistrate judge said she was "getting a
little stuck" because the money laundering conspiracy
charge required Meza-Lopez to know that the transaction was
designed to conceal the nature of the proceeds. Plea Hr'g
Tr. 20-21; see also Cuellar v. United States, 553
U.S. 550, 562 (2008) (noting that, for a money-laundering
charge, the government must prove that a defendant knows a
transaction is designed to conceal the nature, location,
source, ownership, or control of funds). Meza-Lopez's
counsel explained that Meza-Lopez disputed knowing the
quantity of drugs or amount of money or where in the vehicle
the money was concealed but admitted he knew drug proceeds
were hidden in the vehicles and "not being introduced
properly into commerce" or "reported and put in a
bank account." Plea Hr'g Tr. 23. The magistrate
judge continued to question if there was a sufficient factual
basis, noting "there is nothing illegal about driving
money down the interstate." Plea Hr'g Tr. 25.
Eventually, the magistrate judge said she did not feel
Meza-Lopez had admitted sufficient facts to provide a basis
for the money laundering conspiracy charge to allow her to
accept the guilty plea. She then invited the government to
propose any additional questions. The Assistant United States
Attorney then asked for an off-the-record conversation with
the hearing resumed on the record, the magistrate judge
stated, "[C]ounsel has assisted me in understanding the
facts of the case a little bit better so that I can ask the
questions better." Plea Hr'g Tr. 29. She then asked
Meza-Lopez if the vehicles coming from Lincoln, Nebraska to
Phoenix had money hidden in them. He answered affirmatively.
When asked if he knew the money was hidden to avoid
government detection, he again said, "Yes." When
asked if he sought to avoid government detection because he
knew the money was from drug sales, Meza-Lopez said his
cousin was the one who wanted to avoid detection. The
magistrate judge then asked if he knew that the money in the
vehicles was from selling drugs, and Meza-Lopez said,
"Yes, but it did not belong to me." Plea Hr'g
Tr. 30. Meza-Lopez then pled guilty to the offense, and the
magistrate judge found the plea to be knowing, intelligent
and voluntary with a sufficient factual basis. She
recommended to the district court that it accept
Meza-Lopez's plea of guilty.
district court accepted the magistrate judge's
recommendation, accepted the guilty plea, and sentenced
Meza-Lopez to 210 months in prison on each count, with the
sentences to run concurrently. After an unsuccessful
challenge to the substantive reasonableness of his sentence
on direct appeal, Meza-Lopez, 808 F.3d at 747,
Meza-Lopez timely filed a § 2255 motion alleging
multiple arguments, including that his counsel provided
ineffective assistance by advising him to plead guilty to the
money laundering conspiracy charge when the facts did not
support the plea and by failing to object to the lack of a
factual basis. The district court denied the motion, finding
the "extended colloquy" at Meza-Lopez's plea
hearing resulted not from a lack of a factual basis but from
"the Magistrate Judge not asking the defendant the right
questions-and perhaps a more general failure of communication
between the defendant and the Magistrate Judge."
United States v. Meza-Lopez, No. 4:14-CR-3011, 2018
WL 1747703, at *3 (D. Neb. Apr. 11, 2018) (unpublished).
Nonetheless, the district court issued a certificate of
appealability on the ineffective assistance claim. Meza-Lopez
appeals, alleging the district court should have recognized
that both his trial and appellate counsel provided
review de novo post conviction ineffective assistance claims
brought under § 2255 and the underlying findings of fact
for clear error." Calkins v. United States, 795
F.3d 896, 897 (8th Cir. 2015) (internal quotation marks
prove ineffective assistance of counsel, a defendant must
demonstrate both that his attorney's performance
"fell below an objective standard of
reasonableness" and that he was prejudiced as a result.
Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 687-88
(1984). We "must indulge a strong presumption that
counsel's conduct falls within the wide range of
reasonable professional assistance[.]" Id. at
689. To demonstrate prejudice in the guilty plea context,
"the petitioner must show 'that there is a
reasonable probability that, but for counsel's errors, he
would not have pleaded guilty and would have insisted on
going to trial.'" United States v. Frausto,
754 F.3d 640, 643 (8th Cir. 2014) (quoting Hill v.
Lockhart, 474 U.S. 52, 59 (1985)). "A reasonable
probability is a probability sufficient to undermine
confidence in the outcome" or "a
'substantial,' not just 'conceivable,'
likelihood of a different result." Id. (quoting
Cullen v. Pinholster, 131 S.Ct. 1388, 1403 (2011)).
"Courts should not upset a plea solely because of
post hoc assertions from a defendant about how he
would have pleaded but for his attorney's
deficiencies." Lee v. United States, 137 S.Ct.
1958, 1967 (2017). Instead, "[j]udges should . . . look
to contemporaneous evidence to substantiate a defendant's
expressed preferences." Id.
first examine Meza-Lopez's claim that his trial counsel
was ineffective in advising him to plead guilty to the money
laundering conspiracy charge and failing to challenge the
lack of a factual basis to support the guilty plea.
Meza-Lopez argues there were insufficient facts to indicate
that he knew the money in the vehicles was hidden for the
purpose of concealing its nature as the proceeds of illegal
activity, as required to sustain a guilty plea to a money
laundering conspiracy count. See Cuellar, 553 U.S.
at 567. Meza-Lopez also argues his trial counsel coerced him
into pleading guilty by falsely telling him that, if found
guilty at trial, Meza-Lopez would face consecutive sentences
on his two counts.
guilty plea is supported by an adequate factual basis when
the record contains sufficient evidence at the time of the
plea upon which a court may reasonably determine that the
defendant likely committed the offense." United
States v. Cheney, 571 F.3d 764, 769 (8th Cir. 2009)
(internal quotation marks omitted). However, we need not
determine whether the record provides a sufficient basis for
Meza-Lopez's guilty plea. Rather, because the claim on
appeal is ineffective assistance of counsel, we must decide
whether, when Meza-Lopez's trial counsel advised him to
plead guilty and did not object to the factual basis at the
plea hearing, the attorney's representation "fell
below an objective standard of reasonableness."
Strickland, 466 U.S. at 688. We hold that it did
not. A reasonable attorney could have determined that the
record, including the government's uncontested evidence
and Meza-Lopez's own colloquy with the magistrate judge,
established an adequate factual basis for Meza-Lopez's
guilty plea to the money laundering charge. See United
States v. Brown, 331 F.3d 591, 595 (8th Cir. 2003)
("We have held that facts gathered from the