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United States v. Rivera

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

January 14, 2020

EDGARDO RIVERA, also known as EGGY



         Kari A. 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.

         Factual and Procedural Background

         On 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.[1] (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.)

         On 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.

         On May 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 “Information”).[2]

         Prior 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.

         With 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 the proceeding.

         The 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.

         During 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 representation.

         After 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.”[3] (Id. at 47.) The Court granted that request, and Mr. Rivera self-surrendered to the United States Marshals Service that same day.

         On July 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 sentencing.

         On 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.

         Legal Standard

         Pursuant 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.”[4] 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 omitted).

         “In 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 ...

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