In Riolo v. United States, No. 20-12206 (June 29, 2022) (Jordan, Jill Pryor, Marcus), the Court affirmed the denial of Mr. Riolo’s 28 U.S.C. § 2255 motion to vacate his 293-month prison sentence and convictions.    

Mr. Riolo argued that his trial counsel provided ineffective assistance of counsel because she told him that if he pleaded guilty to five counts of mail fraud, he would serve no more than 10 years in prison because of a deal she had worked out with the government.  His trial counsel also advised him that his sentencing range under the Guidelines was 97-121 months’ imprisonment because he had an offense level of 30 and a criminal history category of I.  He argued that he pleaded guilty based upon those representations when he otherwise would have proceeded to trial.  

After an evidentiary hearing, the district court found that the trial counsel never represented to Mr. Riolo that she had a deal with the government about his guideline range and that she had properly advised him that the district court would ultimately determine his guideline range for itself.  On appeal, Mr. Riolo argued that the district court’s factual findings were clearly erroneous, and that, even putting aside the disputed facts, the fact that his trial counsel underestimated his guideline range by more than 100 months alone constituted ineffective assistance of counsel.  

The Court found no clear error in the district court’s findings, and under those facts, no ineffective assistance of counsel.  The Court also reasoned that though trial counsel’s estimated guideline range was “far off the mark–by more than 100 months,” “experienced attorneys make mistakes.”  That is, ineffective assistance of counsel claims are fact-bound, and here, the factual record demonstrated that trial counsel’s miscalculation was not the product of deficient performance.  The Court chose not to address the Fifth Circuit’s opinion in United States v. Herrera, wherein the Fifth Circuit remanded for an evidentiary hearing, noting that a movant may have a potential ineffective assistance of counsel claim where an attorney gives incorrect advice regarding exposure under the Guidelines.   

Judge Jordan concurred in the Court’s opinion, but wrote separately to point out that a majority of the Court’s sister circuits had held that significant errors in advice about sentencing exposure can constitute deficient performance.  He noted that while the Court had avoided the issue here, it would have to confront the issue at some point.