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United States v. Eastman

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

May 8, 2017

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
v.
JOHN EASTMAN

          CORRECTED RULING ON MOTION TO WITHDRAW GUITY PLEA AND MOTION TO WITHDRAW AS COUNSEL

          Michael P. Shea, U.S.D.J.

         I. Introduction

         On March 31, 2017, Mr. Eastman's counsel, Attorney Moira Buckley, filed a motion to withdraw as counsel. The motion indicated that Mr. Eastman had “advised counsel that he wishes to withdraw his guilty plea and to inform the Court of his decision, ” and that “the basis of Mr. Eastman's motion to withdraw [his guilty plea] would implicate undersigned counsel's representation of him and could make her a witness in a hearing on any such motion.” (ECF No. 105 at 1.) I held a hearing on the motion to withdraw as counsel on April 12, 2017. At the hearing, I instructed Mr. Eastman he could file a pro se motion to withdraw his guilty plea and noted that I would reserve judgment on the motion to withdraw as counsel. Mr. Eastman has filed a motion to withdraw his plea of guilty. For the reasons set forth below, I DENY the motion to withdraw the plea of guilty (ECF No. 110) and GRANT the motion to withdraw as counsel. (ECF No. 105.)

         II. Background

         A brief procedural history is set forth below.

         A. The Indictment

         On January 7, 2016, the grand jury returned a two-count indictment, charging Mr. Eastman with coercion and enticement of minors in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 2422(b), and possession of child pornography in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 2252A(a)(5)(B). (ECF No. 28.) On February 2, 2016, Mr. Eastman was arraigned and pled not guilty to both counts. (ECF No. 32.)

         B. The Suppression Hearing

         On January 22, 2016, Mr. Eastman moved to suppress physical evidence and certain incriminating statements he made to law enforcement officers. (ECF No. 30) The physical evidence and statements arose from a 2012 investigation into Mr. Eastman's alleged crimes. Detectives went to Mr. Eastman's home and discussed their investigation with Mr. Eastman. (ECF No. 72 at 7.) Mr. Eastman gave the detectives his desktop computer and agreed to accompany them to the police station. (Id. at 8.) At the police station, Mr. Eastman signed a detailed written confession and acknowledgement-of-rights and consent-to-search forms. (Id. at 9-10.) In his motion to suppress, Mr. Eastman argued: (i) the police's search and seizure were illegal because they were conducted without consent or a warrant, and (ii) he never received a Miranda warning and the police forged his signature on his confession statement and consent-to-search and acknowledgement-of-rights forms. I held a hearing on the motion on May 31, 2016. At the hearing, the government presented three witnesses - officers Peter Morgan, David Termi, and William Fox - and the defense presented a single witness, Linda Eastman (Mr. Eastman's mother). Mr. Eastman did not testify, but he submitted an affidavit, which I considered. (Id. at 2.)

         On August 15, 2016, I denied Mr. Eastman's motion to suppress because I found that “Mr. Eastman consented to the search and seizure and received adequate Miranda warnings when they were required.” (Id.) In particular, I found that Mr. Eastman voluntarily signed a written statement setting forth “in graphic detail Mr. Eastman's use of his computer to lure underage girls into performing sexually explicit activity.” (Id. at 9.) I also found that Mr. Eastman signed statements acknowledging that he was “repeatedly advised of his constitutional rights and consented to the search of his computer.” (Id. at 9-10.) I rejected as not credible Mr. Eastman's assertions that he did not consent to the entry of his apartment or the seizure of his computer, and that his signatures on the confession statement, consent-to-search, and acknowledgment-of-rights forms were forged. I found his affidavit not to be credible because, among other things, it “directly contradicted substantial evidence.” (Id. at 11.) On these grounds, and others set forth in the ruling, I denied Mr. Eastman's motion to suppress.

         C. First Motion to Withdraw As Counsel On August 17, 2016, two days after my ruling on the motion to suppress, Attorney Kelly Barrett of the Federal Defender's Office, who was then representing Mr. Eastman, filed a motion to withdraw as his counsel. (ECF No. 73) On August 22, 2016, I held a hearing on Attorney Barrett's motion and granted it. I also gave Mr. Eastman the following warning:

THE COURT: Finally, and this is important, you should also understand that if I were to grant this motion and appoint a lawyer from the CJA panel to represent you and then a month or two down the line I get another one of these motions….it's likely at that point that I will begin to conclude that you are the one contributing to the breakdown in the relationship between you and your lawyers. And that is a factor that the Court of Appeal[s] has instructed me to consider, who's responsible for the breakdown. Now, on the first one, sometimes people don't get along very well. I understand that…But when it starts to happen repeatedly with the same person then the Court starts to wonder if it's that person's fault…at some point -- here's where this is going -- what the Court typically says, and what I will do in that situation, I'll say…you have your choice, you can either keep this lawyer or you can represent yourself. Do you understand that?

MR. EASTMAN: I understand.

(ECF No. 111 at 12-13.) The same day Attorney Buckley was appointed from the CJA panel to represent Mr. Eastman.

         D. The Change of Plea

         Following several motions to continue jury selection on the basis that the defense required additional time for a forensic computer expert to conduct a review of the computer evidence in the case -- motions which the Court granted --, and after the forensic expert completed his review, and after Mr. Eastman consulted with Attorney Buckley concerning the results of that discovery and the case more fully, Mr. Eastman, through his counsel, notified the Court of his desire to plead guilty to count one of the indictment. On March 2, 2017, Mr. Eastman appeared before me at a change of plea hearing, where he was placed under oath. Before accepting his guilty plea, I conducted an extensive inquiry to ensure Mr. Eastman was pleading guilty voluntarily, knowingly, and after due consideration with the advice of his counsel, with whom he indicated he was satisfied. I also advised Mr. Eastman of the rights he was waiving by pleading guilty and verified that he understood that he was waiving those rights. After these colloquies, Mr. Eastman indicated that he still desired to plead guilty. Thereafter, he admitted his guilt and pled guilty to count one of the indictment, and I accepted his guilty plea. He also entered into a written plea agreement with the Government.[1]

ITT. Discussion

         A. The Motion to Withdraw Mr. Eastman's Guilty Plea

         “The standard for withdrawing a guilty plea is stringent.” U.S. v. Rosen, 409 F.3d 535, 546 (2d Cir. 2005)(internal quotation marks and citation omitted). A defendant may withdraw his guilty plea after the Court accepts it but before sentencing only if he “can show a fair and just reason for requesting the withdrawal.” Fed. R. Crim. P. 11(d)(2)(B). “The court has [discretion to allow a defendant to withdraw his guilty plea] where the moving defendant satisfies the court that there are valid reasons for withdrawal of the plea and the court concludes that those reasons outweigh any prejudice to the government and the strong societal interest in the finality of guilty pleas.” Rosen, 409 F.3d at 546. A defendant “bears the burden of satisfying the trial judge that there are valid grounds for the withdrawal.” U.S. v. Gonzalez, 970 F.2d 1095, 1100 (2d Cir. 1992)(internal quotation marks and citation omitted).

         As far as I can discern from Mr. Eastman's motion, he asserts two principal grounds to withdraw his plea - (i) he was “pressure[d] by [Attorney] Buckley and [the] prosecution to accept the plea agreement” and was not “provided the information necessary to arrive at an informed decision” (ECF No. 110 at 2-3), and (ii) he had “ineffective assistance of counsel.” (Id. at 2.) I examine each of these bases below. I also consider whether any other “fair and just” reason exists for granting Mr. Eastman's motion, including “(1) whether the defendant has asserted his or her legal innocence in the motion to withdraw the guilty plea; (2) the amount of time that has elapsed between the plea and the motion (the longer the elapsed time, the less likely withdrawal would be fair and just); and (3) whether the government would be prejudiced by a withdrawal of the plea.” Rosen, 409 F.3d at 546 (internal quotation marks and citation omitted).

         1. Allegations of Coercion

         First, Mr. Eastman alleges that he was coerced into pleading guilty by both the Government and his attorney, and that he was not given enough information to reach an informed decision. “Where a motion to withdraw a plea is premised on involuntariness, the defendant must raise a significant question about the voluntariness of the original plea.” U.S. v. Doe, 537 F.3d 204, 211 (2d Cir. 2008)(internal quotation marks and citations omitted). No such question is raised where “[a] defendant's bald statements [] simply contradict what he said at his plea allocution.” Id.; see also Adames v. U.S., 171 F.3d 728, 732 (2d Cir. 1999)(“A criminal defendant's self-inculpatory statements made under oath at his plea allocution carry a strong presumption of verity, and are generally treated as conclusive in the face of the defendant's later attempt to contradict them.” (citations and internal quotation marks omitted)). But bald statements are all Mr. Eastman relies on. Mr. Eastman claims - for the first time - that he was “pressured” into the plea agreement. (ECF No. 110 at 2.) He bolsters that claim with other conclusory statements - Attorney Buckley “push[ed] [him] into a plea agreement”, (Id. at 10), “Mr. Eastman felt defenseless”, (Id. at 12), “[t]he plea agreement seemed to be an inevitability rather than an option”, (Id. at 8), “[a]t no time was Mr. Eastman provided the information necessary to arrive at an informed decision”, (Id. at 3) - purporting to show he had “no choice” but to plead guilty. (Id. at 12.) As shown below, these statements contradict those he made while under oath at the change of plea hearing. The change of plea hearing began with the following introduction from the Court:

THE COURT: The first thing I want to tell you is to take your time. The decisions you have to make today are important and it's important that you completely understand what's going on in the courtroom and what you're doing before you make those decisions. If you have any problems or questions during this proceeding at any time, please let me know or, if you need time to speak privately with your lawyer, Attorney Buckley, please let me know that and I will give you all the time that you need. Do you understand?

[MR. EASTMAN]: Yes, sir.

(ECF No. 112 at 2-3.) I inquired whether defense counsel had adequate time to discuss the change of plea with Mr. Eastman.

THE COURT: We spoke on the phone the other day just to schedule this hearing. I don't know whether you were able to meet with your client ahead of time.
MS. BUCKLEY: I was able to meet him yesterday, and then I saw him again briefly this morning - - not this morning, this afternoon. But I was able to meet with him down in Bridgeport yesterday.
THE COURT: Very well. Thank you. ….
THE COURT: Attorney Buckley, from your perspective, have you had enough time and information to allow for meaningful discussion with the Defendant about the case?
MS. BUCKLEY: Yes, Your Honor.

(ECF No. 112 at 6-7.)

Thereafter, Mr. Eastman, who was placed under oath, made the following sworn statements in response to my questions about whether he had had enough time and information to consider the case:
THE COURT: Mr. Eastman, from your perspective, have you had enough opportunity and enough information to discuss the case with your lawyer?
[MR. EASTMAN]: Yes.
THE COURT: Mr. Eastman, did you receive a copy of the Indictment in this case?
[MR. EASTMAN]: Yes.
THE COURT: And you've read it?
[MR. EASTMAN]: Yes.
THE COURT: And you've had -- have you had a chance to consult with your lawyer about the charges?
[MR. EASTMAN]: Yes, sir.
THE COURT: I'm sorry?
[MR. EASTMAN]: Yes, Your Honor.
THE COURT: Do you understand the charges ...

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