United States District Court, D. Connecticut
MEMORANDUM OF DECISION
A. DOOLEY, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
Dooley, United States District Judge Pending before the Court
is the motion to withdraw guilty plea filed by Edgardo Rivera
on October 4, 2019. (ECF No. 60.) For the reasons set forth
herein, the motion is DENIED.
and Procedural Background
September 4, 2018, Edgardo Rivera (“Mr. Rivera”)
was charged by way of criminal complaint with possession with
intent to distribute and distribution of heroin and fentanyl,
in violation of 21 U.S.C. §§ 841(a)(1) and
841(b)(1)(C). The Complaint alleged that an individual
identified as Victim #1 died from acute fentanyl toxicity in
the early hours of January 17, 2017. (Compl. at ¶ 13,
ECF No. 1-1.) A subsequent investigation revealed that Victim
#1 purchased heroin from Mr. Rivera approximately twelve
hours before his overdose and that the brand of heroin
recovered near Victim #1 was consistent with that sold by Mr.
Rivera. (Id. at ¶¶ 13-33.)
After discovering this information, in May and June of 2018,
law enforcement conducted two controlled purchases of heroin
from Mr. Rivera. (Id. at ¶¶ 34-36.) The
laboratory for the Drug Enforcement Agency confirmed that the
narcotics purchased during the first controlled purchase was
a composite of fentanyl, heroin, and caffeine. (Id.
at ¶ 35.)
October 5, 2018, Mr. Rivera was arrested and Federal Public
Defender Charles F. Willson (“Attorney Willson”)
was appointed to represent him. On October 10, 2018, Mr.
Rivera was released from custody on bond. Thereafter, Mr.
Rivera filed several motions to continue the probable cause
hearing so that he could evaluate his case, attend substance
abuse treatment, and negotiate a resolution of the case that
might not require indictment or a probable cause hearing.
23, 2019, seven months after his arrest, Mr. Rivera appeared
before the Court to waive indictment, to enter into a written
plea agreement with the Government, and to plead guilty to a
two-count information charging him with possession with
intent to distribute and distribution of fentanyl, in
violation of 21 U.S.C. §§ 841(a)(1) and
841(b)(1)(B)(vi), and possession of a firearm in furtherance
of a drug trafficking crime, in violation of 18 U.S.C. §
924(c)(1)(A) and 924(c)(2) (the
to accepting the waiver and plea, the Court canvassed Mr.
Rivera extensively under oath in order to ascertain whether
this decision was a knowing, intelligent, and voluntary one.
The Court began its canvass by reviewing with Mr. Rivera his
educational background and physical and mental condition. Mr.
Rivera acknowledged that he had “a little bit” of
difficulty reading and writing English. Upon further inquiry,
however, he confirmed that he had read the waiver of
indictment, information, and plea agreement and that Attorney
Willson had read these documents to him as well. The Court
emphasized, “If, at any point I ask you a question that
you're not sure what I'm asking you, you just let me
know that and I will rephrase because it is important to me
that you understand everything's that's going on here
in this courtroom, okay.” (Plea Hr'g Tr. at 5, May
23, 2019, ECF No. 59.) Mr. Rivera indicated that he
understood, and the Court did provide certain clarifications
upon request during the course of its canvass.
respect to his mental state, Mr. Rivera represented that he
was sober and of clear mind. He explained that he was on a
prescription medication, “but [he] didn't take it
last night.” (Id. at 6.) When the Court asked
in response whether “[his] mind is clear, ” Mr.
Rivera stated, “Yes.” (Id.) After
further discussing with Mr. Rivera his recent mental health
and substance abuse treatment, the Court inquired as to
whether Attorney Willson had “any problems
communicating with [his] client” and whether he
“ha[d] any reason to question his competence to waive
indictment and enter a plea today.” (Id. at
8.) Attorney Willson responded: “We've had no
meaningful problems communicating, and I believe that he is
competent, Your Honor.” (Id.) Further, the
Court recalls that at no time prior or thereafter did Mr.
Rivera appear to have any issues understanding or following
Court next canvassed Mr. Rivera concerning his decision to
waive indictment and plead guilty. The Court discussed with
Mr. Rivera, inter alia, his right to indictment, the
indictment process, the trial rights he was waiving by
pleading guilty, the maximum and mandatory minimum penalties
associated with the charges to which he was pleading guilty,
and the appeal waivers contained in the plea agreement. Mr.
Rivera confirmed that he understood each of these matters.
Although the Court did not specifically canvass Mr. Rivera
concerning the elements of the offenses in the Information,
he confirmed that Attorney Willson discussed the elements of
the charges with him. The elements of these offenses were
also contained in the plea agreement and were placed on the
record by the Government during the plea hearing.
the hearing, the Court also explored with Mr. Rivera his
satisfaction with his appointed counsel. Mr. Rivera confirmed
that he had had enough time and opportunity to consult with
Attorney Willson concerning his decision to plead guilty. Mr.
Rivera confirmed that he discussed with Mr. Willson the
charges contained in the Information, the penalties
associated with those charges, “the elements of each
offense” (i.e., “what the Government
would have to prove if we were to have a trial”),
“the nature and scope of the Government's
evidence” (i.e., “who the witnesses
might be, what those witnesses might say, or what the
physical evidence would be offered at trial”), and the
terms of the plea agreement. (Id. at 16; see
also Id. at 15, 29.) At no point in time did Mr. Rivera
indicate that Attorney Willson had pressured or coerced him
into waiving indictment and pleading guilty. To the contrary,
Mr. Rivera confirmed that nobody had threatened, forced, or
coerced him to waive indictment, to enter into the plea
agreement, or to plead guilty. Mr. Rivera further affirmed
that he was satisfied with Attorney Willson's
completing the canvass and accepting Mr. Rivera's guilty
plea, the Court set Mr. Rivera's sentencing for August
21, 2019. Attorney Willson then made an oral motion to vacate
bond and the conditions of release, explaining that
“Mr. Rivera has expressed to me over a period of time
his interest in helping everyone in this room move forward.
And he thinks one of the ways that he can do that is by going
into custody today.” (Id. at 47.) The Court granted
that request, and Mr. Rivera self-surrendered to the United
States Marshals Service that same day.
8, 2019, Mr. Rivera filed a motion to continue sentencing,
which was granted. On August 12, 2019, Mr. Rivera filed a
second motion to continue sentencing. In response, the Court
held a status conference on August 27, 2019, at which
Attorney Willson orally moved to withdraw as counsel, citing
a break down in the attorney-client relationship. Attorney
Willson explained that “[his] ability to help [Mr.
Rivera] going forward is compromised, in that some of the
issues he may want to consider would require the advice of an
independent counsel, or someone other than someone from the
Federal Defender's Office.” (Tr. at 3, Aug. 27,
2019, ECF No. 61.) The Court granted the motion to withdraw
and appointed substitute counsel. Sentencing was reset for
October 28, 2019. Substitute counsel later sought, and
received, a continuance until January 3, 2020 so that he
could familiarize himself with the case and prepare for
October 4, 2019, Mr. Rivera filed the instant motion to
withdraw his guilty plea, which he supplemented on October
28, 2019 after receiving the plea hearing transcript. The
Government filed an opposition to the motion on November 21,
2019. The Court convened a hearing on the motion initially on
December 16, 2019. At Mr. Rivera's request, the Court
continued the hearing to December 23, 2019, and the hearing
reconvened on that date. Mr. Rivera did not offer evidence at
either hearing and instead elected to proceed by way of oral
argument on the existing record.
to Rule 11 of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure, a
defendant may withdraw his guilty plea prior to sentencing if
“the defendant can show a fair and just reason for
requesting the withdrawal.” Fed. R. Crim. P.
11(d)(2)(B). “[A] defendant who seeks to withdraw his
plea bears the burden of satisfying the trial judge that
there are valid grounds for withdrawal. . . .”
United States v. Rosen, 409 F.3d 535, 546 (2d Cir.
2005) (quoting United States v. Gonzalez, 970 F.2d
1095, 1100 (2d Cir. 1992)) (internal quotation marks
omitted). The Second Circuit Court of Appeals has made clear
that “[a] defendant has no absolute right to withdraw
his plea of guilty.” Rosen, 409 F.3d at 545
(quoting United States v. Williams, 23 F.3d 629, 634
(2d Cir. 1994)). “[T]he decision whether to grant the
motion to withdraw is committed to the district court's
discretion and will be reversed only for abuse of discretion.
The court has that discretion 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 (citations
the absence of special circumstances, the validity of a plea
of guilty is determined by reference to whether it was
intelligent and voluntary. As a general matter, a plea is
deemed ‘intelligent' if the accused had the advice
of counsel and understood the consequences of his plea, even
if only in a fairly rudimentary way; it is deemed
‘voluntary' if it is not the product of actual or
threatened physical harm, mental coercion overbearing the
defendant's will, or the defendant's sheer inability
to weigh his options rationally.” Miller v.
Angliker, 848 F.2d 1312, 1320 (2d Cir. 1988) (citations
omitted). “Whatever the basis for the motion, the
standard for withdrawing a guilty plea is stringent.”
United States v. Gonzalez, 647 F.3d 41, 57 (2d Cir.
2011) (quoting Rosen, 409 F.3d at 546) (alterations
omitted; internal quotation marks omitted). “The fact
that a defendant has a change of ...