Conviction Tossed by Federal Court : Counsel Ineffective for Failing to Call Witness About Illegal Search by Cops

It’s not too often that the government files a motion to dismiss an indictment in a serious case. So, when I see that happen, I start digging into the case to find out why. It’s not like the government says in its motion why it wants to dismiss an indictment, and it’s usually some vague language that the “interest of justice” requires dismissal.

Here’s a case where the government dismissed an indictment in a major drug case, and it got me wondering why. But first, the backstory. Ten years ago, in October 2013, Stephanie Dasinger was arrested after Florida Highway Patrol (FHP) searched her hotel room and found some meth. A friend of theirs, James Lloyd, rented two rooms for her and a friend but was not staying in the room with them.

Critical to this case was that Mr. Lloyd was later told only one room was needed, and he assumed the second room was cancelled. However, it was in this second room that FHP found the meth. When FHP asked Mr. Lloyd to consent to a search of the second room, since he was the renter, he was not aware the room wasn’t canceled. He thought he was giving consent to search the women’s single room.

Ms. Dasinger admitted to FHP some of the meth found in the second room was hers. She was charged in federal court with numerous counts, including possession with intent to distribute methamphetamine and a firearm. The government immediately offered Ms. Dasinger a 10-year plea deal, but Ms. Dasinger’s lawyer wanted to challenge the search, so she rejected it.

Trial counsel filed a motion to suppress the evidence, and U.S. District Judge Mary Scriven of the Middle District of Florida held a hearing. Though counsel said he got a call from Mr. Lloyd that he didn’t consent to a search of the second room because he thought it was canceled, he never attempted to have Mr. Lloyd testify at the hearing. The motion was denied.

Now, the government offered a 20-year deal, but counsel wanted to appeal the denial of the suppression motion and told Ms. Dasinger not to plead guilty. A jury convicted her of all but one of the counts, and she was sentenced to mandatory life in prison. This is because she had two prior drug convictions, and the government hit her with the “trial penalty”: It filed a notice invoking the penalty under 21 U.S.C. § 851 that required the court to impose a mandatory life sentence.

On appeal, her lawyer challenged the denial of the suppression motion and lost. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit acknowledged that an occupant in a hotel room has an expectation of privacy. However, the court found that Mr. Lloyd’s supposed consent was valid and affirmed her conviction and sentence.

Ms. Dasinger then filed a motion to vacate her criminal judgment under 28 U.S.C. § 2255. She argued, among other things, ineffective assistance of counsel (IAC) because her defense lawyer failed to bring Mr. Lloyd to the hearing in support of her motion to suppress the evidence. This time, Judge Scriven agreed and granted her release from prison.

In Wiggins v. Smith, 539 U.S. 510 (2003), the Supreme Court held that counsel’s failure to investigate the case amounts to IAC. Ms. Dasinger argued in her 2255 motion that counsel had assumed Mr. Lloyd was cooperating with the government since he wasn’t charged in the case, so he decided not to contact him for the hearing.

But Mr. Lloyd was available and would have testified that he did not consent to the search of the second room. In support, Ms. Dasinger attached his affidavit to her 2255 motion. He explained in detail that he thought he was giving consent to search the single room he rented for the women and had no idea the second room was not canceled. In other words, he swore that he only consented to a search of the room he assumed he had rented for them, which was not the room containing drugs.

After Judge Scriven’s grant of the 2255 motion on September 22, 2023, Ms. Dasinger’s criminal conviction was vacated in its entirety, but the Federal Bureau of Prisons continued to keep her in prison. It wasn’t until the day after the government filed a motion to dismiss the indictment, on October 31, 2023, that she was released. She spent just over 10 years in prison due to her lawyer’s constitutionally ineffective assistance.

See United States v. Dasinger, No. 8:14-cr-62-MSS-AEP, 2023 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 193758 (M.D. Fla. Oct. 30, 2023) (dismissing indictment); United States v. Dasinger, No. 8:17-cv-1874-MSS-AEP, 2023 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 168974 (M.D. Fla. Sep. 22, 2023) (granting 2255 motion).

I always say that the Holy Grail in federal habeas corpus is a successful attack on the evidence in a case. If a movant can get the evidence tossed, the government usually has no case, and things fall apart real fast. However, Fourth Amendment claims are barred in federal habeas, and they must be attacked by way of an IAC claim, as was done here. I think Ms. Dasinger’s 2255 motion is a good example of the proper way to go about this.

Dale Chappell is an expert on federal postconviction relief and the author of hundreds of articles and several books on challenging illegal and wrongful convictions and sentences. He is a former staff writer for Criminal Legal News Magazine and the author of the blog

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