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State v. Celaj

Court of Appeals of Connecticut

March 15, 2016

STATE OF CONNECTICUT
v.
DARDIAN CELAJ

Argued January 7

Appeal from Superior Court, judicial district of Ansonia-Milford, Markle, J. [trial]; Iannotti, J.; [plea; motion to vacate plea; judgment].

Stephan E. Seeger, with whom, on the brief, was Igor Kuperman, for the appellant (defendant).

Rita M. Shair, senior assistant state’s attorney, with whom was Kevin D. Lawlor, state’s attorney, for the appellee (state).

Gruendel, Prescott and Bear, Js.

OPINION

GRUENDEL, J.

The defendant, Dardian Celaj, appeals from the judgment of the trial court denying his motion to vacate his guilty plea. He claims that the court abused its discretion in so doing. We affirm the judgment of the trial court.

The defendant is an Albanian national who sexually assaulted an employee of a nightclub he owned in Derby on March 2, 2012.[1] The following day, he was arrested and charged with three counts of sexual assault in the first degree in violation of General Statutes § 53a-70 (a) (1)[2] and one count of unlawful restraint in the first degree in violation of General Statutes § 53a-95 (a). The defendant pleaded not guilty to the charges. Over the next two years, the defendant rejected multiple plea offers from the state.

A court trial commenced on April 22, 2014. Following the testimony of two police officers and the complainant, the defendant conferred with his trial counsel, Attorney Donald J. Cretella, Jr., during a recess. In light of the complainant’s testimony, Cretella advised the defendant to accept a plea agreement offered by the state. Shortly thereafter, the defendant did exactly that, pleading guilty to one count of sexual assault in the first degree pursuant to the Alford doctrine.[3]

At the plea hearing, the court canvassed the defendant concerning his plea. During that canvass, the defendant indicated that he had ‘‘understood all the conversations’’ with Cretella that led up to his decision to plead guilty, and that he was satisfied with Cretella’s advice. The defendant further acknowledged that he had not been forced to enter his plea by anyone and that the rationale for his plea was to avert a more severe sentence. With respect to possible immigration consequences stemming from his plea, the court stated: ‘‘Do you understand if you are not a citizen of the United States, the plea of guilty could result in deportation or removal from the United States, exclusion from admission to the United States, and denial of naturalization pursuant to the laws of the United States? Do you understand that, sir?’’ The defendant responded affirmatively. The court then asked Cretella if he had discussed ‘‘all that’’ with the defendant; Cretella replied, ‘‘We have, Your Honor.’’ Following the canvass, the court accepted the defendant’s plea as ‘‘knowingly and voluntarily made with the assistance of competent counsel . . . .’’

On July 25, 2014, the defendant, now represented by Attorney Stephan E. Seeger, filed a motion to vacate his guilty plea. In that motion, the defendant argued that Cretella had failed to properly advise him of the immigration consequences of the plea. Specifically, he alleged that Cretella rendered ineffective assistance of counsel by advising him that any ‘‘immigration consequences would not be automatic’’ and that he ‘‘had no immediate danger of being deported’’ as a result of his plea. The defendant thus maintained that he ‘‘was affirmatively mis advised, and did not enter his plea knowingly, intelligently, and voluntarily.’’

The defendant appeared before the court on September 22, 2014, for sentencing. At the outset of that proceeding, the court first conducted an evidentiary hearing on the defendant’s motion to vacate his guilty plea. The only witness who testified at that hearing was the defendant, who stated that, at the time he entered his plea, his ‘‘understanding was that there [were] no consequences as far as immigration is concerned . . . .’’ The defendant acknowledged that he had multiple conversations with Cretella over a span of two years regarding various plea offers by the state. The defendant further testified that ‘‘[e]very time we met, since the first time, ’’ he discussed the possibility of deportation with Cretella. The defendant also admitted that he was a six time convicted felon who had prior experience with plea canvasses.[4] With respect to notice that a plea of guilty could result in possible deportation, the defendant testified that ‘‘every time I have come in [to court, I was told that there is a] possibility for deportation. I have heard that over and over, yes.’’[5]

During cross-examination, the defendant was asked why he did not raise any objection at the April 22, 2014 plea hearing when Cretella stated to the court that he had discussed the immigration consequences of the plea with him. The defendant answered that he was not in the right state of mind at that time. Although he testified that he was ‘‘very nervous [and] very confused’’ during the plea canvass, the defendant acknowledged that he never informed the court of his alleged confusion. The defendant also claimed that he had no recollection of the court asking Cretella if he had discussed the immigration consequences of the plea with the defendant.

In ruling on the defendant’s motion, the court described the defendant’s testimony as ‘‘selective’’ and stated, ‘‘I specifically find it not to be credible.’’ The court further stated that ‘‘the canvass by the court was complete, the questions were all asked by the court, but, more importantly, the questions by the court that were asked of counsel, if he did his due diligence with regard to advising his client were asked and answered and were . . . uncontroverted by [the defendant], he asked for no time out. He did not indicate that he did not understand anything. He did not point out that . . . Cretella did not advise him of anything that was necessary to be advised of. He answered all the questions in the affirmative . . . with regard to the issue of his time and ability in understanding the conversations that he had with . . . Cretella that led up to his full conclusion to plead guilty to the case.’’ The court also found that ‘‘the obligation of . . . Cretella was . . . clearly met to me by way of the answers to the question[s] on the canvass. . . . [F]or the issue of vacating a plea, based upon the canvass and . . . the non credible testimony that this court heard today . . . this would not be the appropriate ...


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