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Louder v. United States

United States District Court, D. Utah

December 21, 2016



          Robert J. Shelby, Judge

         Portia Louder pled guilty in 2014 to federal charges of wire fraud and conspiracy in connection with various fraudulent real estate transactions. She was subsequently sentenced to seven years in federal custody. Louder has now filed a motion to vacate the judgment under 28 U.S.C. § 2255, arguing that her guilty plea was involuntary because she was not mentally competent and because the plea was coerced. For the reasons below, the motion is denied.[1]


         In 2011, Louder was indicted for violations of 18 U.S.C. § 1014 (False Statements), 18 U.S.C. § 1343 (Wire Fraud), 18 U.S.C. § 1957 (Money Laundering), and 18 U.S.C. § 371 (Conspiracy). The indictment alleged that Louder and others engaged in various real estate purchases and fraudulently obtained mortgages in connection with those purchases. Louder initially pled not guilty to the charges. She was released pending trial but violated the terms of her pretrial release in April 2014 and was placed in the Weber County Jail for one week. Louder alleges that she was treated poorly there; she contends that she was not given her medications, she was not allowed to shower, and she went days without water.

         A few months later, in June 2014, the court granted Louder's request for a competency evaluation. Louder was taken into custody and transferred to the federal SeaTac facility in Washington for evaluation. At SeaTac, Louder exhibited disruptive behavior, including banging on the door of her cell and singing loudly. A psychologist at SeaTac ultimately diagnosed Louder with Severe Opioid Use Disorder, but did not recommend medical treatment. Based in part on the SeaTac evaluation, this court found Louder competent to stand trial. It determined, however, that she was a danger to the safety of others and the community, and placed her in the Davis County Jail pending trial.

         At the Davis County Jail, Louder exhibited more disruptive behavior. Medical records reflect that she became delusional and paranoid and acted erratically, at one point damaging a sprinkler head in her cell. Louder contends that she was held in isolation during this time and was allowed outside her cell for only an hour each day.

         On August 8, 2014, Louder appeared before the court and changed her plea on the wire fraud and conspiracy counts to guilty as part of an agreement with the government. The court, well aware of her erratic behavior over the preceding few months, exhaustively questioned Louder about her competence to plead guilty and about the voluntariness of her plea. The court ultimately accepted Louder's guilty plea after determining that she was competent and was not coerced into pleading guilty. The court also determined, after questioning Louder, her husband, and the government, that Louder would be released pending sentencing. Five months after being released, Louder's counsel informed the court that Louder was in a “fully competent mental state” and reaffirmed her intent to plead guilty.[2] Louder was subsequently sentenced to 84 months in federal custody.


         Louder has now filed a motion to vacate her judgment under 28 U.S.C. § 2255. She argues that her guilty plea was not voluntary because at the time she pled she was mentally unstable, and therefore not competent. She also argues that she was coerced to plead guilty based on the understanding that she would be immediately released from jail if she did.

         Section 2255 provides federal prisoners with relief based on defects in the prisoner's underlying judgment.[3] The standard of review under Section 2255 is quite stringent; the court must presume that the challenged conviction is valid.[4] The defendant carries the substantial burden of demonstrating otherwise by pointing to: (1) lack of jurisdiction by the court entering judgment; (2) an error of constitutional magnitude; (3) a sentence imposed beyond statutory limits; or (4) an error of law or fact that constitutes a “complete miscarriage of justice.”[5]

         Before reaching the merits of Louder's arguments, the court must first determine whether Louder has met Section 2255's procedural requirements. As an initial matter, as part of her plea, Louder waived her right to challenge her sentence, including through a Section 2255 motion. That waiver, however, is enforceable only if the plea was voluntarily made.[6] Because Louder contends her plea was involuntary, her waiver will not preclude this Section 2255 motion.[7]

         Another procedural hurdle Louder must clear is timeliness. Section 2255 requires that a motion for relief be brought within one year of the date on which the judgment of conviction became final.[8] Louder's conviction became final on March 8, 2015 (the judgment was entered on February 22 and the time to appeal expired 14 days later). She filed her Section 2255 motion on March 7, 2016, within the one-year window, so her motion is timely.

         Thus, Louder's motion is not barred by waiver, nor is it untimely. But Louder must also show that she has previously raised her 2255 issues on direct appeal or has excused her failure to do so.[9] Review under Section 2255 is not an alternative to appeal; it is a way to correct errors that were presented on appeal but not remedied.[10] The requirement that claims be presented first on direct appeal is known as “procedural bar, ” and a defendant may get around this requirement only by demonstrating cause to excuse the procedural bar and prejudice resulting from the error, or, alternatively, by showing that failure to consider the claim would be a fundamental miscarriage of justice.[11]

         Louder did not file a direct appeal, nor did she argue cause for the procedural default, prejudice from the error, or any fundamental miscarriage of justice if her claims are not addressed. For this reason, the government argues that her claims should be procedurally barred, and the ...

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