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United States v. Cruz

December 11, 2007


The opinion of the court was delivered by: David G. Larimer United States District Judge


On June 28, 2007, defendant, John Cruz, pleaded guilty to Counts 1 and 2 of the Second Superseding Indictment in this case, which charged him, respectively, with conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute, and to distribute, five kilograms or more of cocaine, fifty grams or more of cocaine base, 100 grams or more of heroin, and an unspecified quantity of marijuana, in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 846, and with conspiracy to possess firearms in furtherance of drug trafficking crimes, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 924(o). Under the terms of the plea agreement, pursuant to Fed. R. Cr. P. 11(c)(1)(C), the parties agreed that if the Court accepted the agreement, defendant would receive a sentence of 204 months, i.e., seventeen years, imprisonment. Dkt. #360 ¶ 11A. The government also agreed that at sentencing, it would move to dismiss any remaining counts against Cruz, who was charged in six counts altogether. Id. ¶ 17; Dkt. #83 at 1-5.

Defendant hired new counsel*fn1 and now moves to withdraw his guilty plea. The basis for Cruz's motion is his assertion that he is in fact innocent, and that his plea was not voluntarily made. He contends that the only reason he pleaded guilty was that he had been told by his then-attorney that if Cruz pleaded guilty, the government would also agree to a plea deal for Cruz's nephew and co-defendant, Rosendo Santiago, whom Cruz claims to "love ... like a son." Cruz Aff. (Dkt. #391) ¶ 6. Cruz alleges that his lawyer told him that if Cruz refused the government's plea offer, the government would "force [Santiago] to go to trial," and that if found guilty, Santiago would probably get a lengthy prison term. Id. ¶¶ 6-10.


I. Withdrawal of Guilty Pleas: General Principles

Rule 32(e) of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure provides that the court may grant a motion for leave to withdraw a guilty plea upon a showing of a "fair and just reason" for doing so. Nonetheless, "it is basic that '[a] defendant has no absolute right to withdraw his guilty plea.'" United States v. Torres, 129 F.3d 710, 715 (2d Cir. 1997) (quoting United States v. Williams, 23 F.3d 629, 634 (2d Cir.)), cert. denied, 513 U.S. 1045 (1994). "The defendant bears the burden of showing that there are valid grounds for relief." United States v. Maher, 108 F.3d 1513, 1529 (2d Cir. 1997).

In determining whether a "fair and just reason" exists to grant a motion to withdraw a guilty plea, the court may consider various factors, including: the amount of time that has elapsed between the plea and the motion; whether the defendant is asserting his innocence; the likely voluntariness of the plea; and any prejudice to the government. Torres, 129 F.3d at 715; United States v. Doyle, 981 F.2d 591, 594 (1st Cir. 1992). "One especially important consideration is the defendant's answers to the questions posed at his Rule 11 hearing," United States v. Trussel, 961 F.2d 685, 689 (7th Cir. 1992), which "carry a strong presumption of veracity ..." Torres, 129 F.3d at 715 (citing Blackledge v. Allison, 431 U.S. 63, 74 (1977)). Because "answers contained in [the plea proceeding] are binding," a court "cannot allow [a defendant] to disavow the answers he gave as easily as he wishes." United States v. Winston, 34 F.3d 574, 578 (7th Cir. 1994). Therefore, a "defendant's bald statements that simply contradict what he said at his plea allocution are not sufficient grounds to withdraw the guilty plea." Id.; accord United States v. Dukagjini, 198 F.Supp.2d 299, 303 (W.D.N.Y. 2002).

In addition, while an evidentiary hearing may be appropriate where a defendant has demonstrated factual issues surrounding the voluntariness or general validity of his plea, no hearing is required "if the movant's allegations 'merely contradict[] [his] earlier statements made under oath at his plea allocution.'" Maher, 108 F.3d at 1529 (quoting United States v. Gonzalez, 970 F.2d 1095, 1101 (2d Cir. 1992) (brackets in original); accord Torres, 129 F.3d at 715; see also Gonzalez, 970 F.2d at 1100 ("[n]o hearing need be granted when the allegations on a motion to withdraw a guilty plea before sentencing merely contradict the record, are inherently incredible, or are simply conclusory") .

It is plain, then, that a "defendant who presents a reason for withdrawing his plea that contradicts the answers he gave at a Rule 11 hearing faces an uphill battle in persuading the judge that his purported reason for withdrawing his plea is 'fair and just.'" Trussel, 961 F.2d at 689. Rule 11 "provides a thorough hearing [at the time of the plea] to determine the voluntariness and intelligence of guilty pleas, and ... defendants afforded such a hearing should not be easily let off the hook when they feel like changing their minds." United States v. Coonce, 961 F.2d 1268, 1276 (7th Cir. 1992). See also United States v. Schmidt, 373 F.3d 100, 103 (2d Cir. 2004) (describing standard for withdrawing a guilty plea as "stringent").

The reason for this is simple: "'[s]ociety has a strong interest in the finality of guilty pleas,' and allowing withdrawal of pleas not only 'undermines confidence in the integrity of our judicial procedures,' but also 'increases the volume of judicial work, and delays and impairs the orderly administration of justice.'" Maher, 108 F.3d at 1529 (quoting United States v. Sweeney, 878 F.2d 68, 70 (2d Cir. 1989) (per curiam)). "The plea of guilty is a solemn act not to be disregarded because of belated misgivings about its wisdom." United States v. Morrison, 967 F.2d 264, 268 (8th Cir. 1992).

II. Application to this Case

Applying these principles here, I find that Cruz has failed to show a "fair and just reason" for allowing him to withdraw his guilty plea. Cruz's belated claim of innocence, and his allegation that the government had promised leniency for Santiago if Cruz pleaded guilty, directly contradict his sworn statements at the plea allocution. In addition, even if the government had made such a promise (which the government denies, see Government's Response to Defendant's Motion to Withdraw Guilty Plea (Dkt. #393) at 10), that would not invalidate Cruz's plea.

As stated, there is a strong presumption that a defendant's sworn statements at a plea proceeding are true. See United States v. Rosen, 409 F.3d 535, 549 (2d Cir. 2005) ("A guilty plea is an unconditional admission of guilt, and constitutes 'an admission of all the elements of a formal criminal charge.' As to those elements the plea is 'as conclusive as a jury verdict'") (quoting McCarthy v. United States, 394 U.S. 459, 466 (1969), and LaMagna v. United States, 646 F.2d 775, 778 (2d Cir.), cert. denied, 454 U.S. 898 (1981)).

Here, the Court went through the entire factual basis for the plea as set forth in the plea agreement, and asked Cruz if it was accurate. He responded that it was. Specifically, with respect to paragraphs 5(a), 5(b) and 5(c) of the plea agreement*fn2 , ...

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