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Sotero Gomez v. United States of America

March 28, 2013

SOTERO GOMEZ, PETITIONER,
v.
UNITED STATES OF AMERICA,
RESPONDENT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Denise Cote, District Judge:

OPINION & ORDER

On August 6, 2012, Sotero Gomez ("Gomez") filed this timely petition for a writ of habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2255. Gomez had entered a plea of guilty to participating in a narcotics conspiracy in violation of 21 U.S.C. §§ 846 and 841(b)(1)(B). He was sentenced principally to 240 months' imprisonment. The conviction was affirmed on appeal.

In this petition, Gomez contends that his attorney was ineffective when providing him with advice in connection with the entry of his plea and again on appeal, and that the sentence was unreasonable. Among other things, Gomez asserts that if properly advised and appropriately sentenced, he should have received a sentence of less than ten years' imprisonment. For the reasons stated below, the petition is denied.

BACKGROUND

On May 15, 2008, Gomez was indicted in two counts with conspiring to distribute or possess with intent to distribute one kilogram or more of heroin, and with possession of a firearm in furtherance of that crime. The first count carried a mandatory minimum term of imprisonment of ten years; the second count carried a mandatory consecutive term of imprisonment of five years. The defendant was arrested in the Dominican Republic and extradited to the United States, arriving in the custody of the Bureau of Prisons on April 15, 2010.

At a conference of June 25, 2010, trial was set for November 29, 2010. On October 25, 2010, Gomez entered a plea of guilty pursuant to a plea agreement with the Government ("Agreement"). He pleaded guilty to a lesser included offense within Count One, specifically to conspiring to distribute or possess with intent to distribute 1,000 grams or more of heroin in violation of 21 U.S.C. §§ 846 and 841(b)(1)(B). That plea carried a mandatory minimum sentence of five years' imprisonment and a maximum sentence of 40 years' imprisonment.

In the Agreement, the parties calculated the sentencing guidelines range associated with the crime to which Gomez pleaded guilty as 292 to 365 months' imprisonment based on an Offense Level of 40 and a Criminal History Category of I. The Offense Level of 40 was derived from a base offense level of 38, for the defendant's involvement in a drug conspiracy involving over 30 kilograms of heroin; an adjustment of 2 levels for possession of firearms in connection with the Count One drug conspiracy; an adjustment of 3 levels for the defendant's role as a manager; and a 3 level reduction for a timely acceptance of responsibility. While the parties agreed that a sentence within the stipulated range would be "reasonable", and that they would not seek a departure from that range, they reserved the right to seek a non-guidelines sentence based upon the factors set forth in Section 3553(a). The defendant also agreed that he would not "file a direct appeal, nor litigate under Title 28, United States Code, Section 2255 . . . any sentence within or below the Stipulated Guidelines Range set forth above (292 to 365 months' imprisonment)."

During his plea allocution, the defendant was advised of his rights, informed of the elements of the crime charged in Count One, advised of the penalties that applied to Count One as charged in the Indictment and also of the penalties for the lesser included offense to which he was pleading guilty. The defendant identified the Agreement, explained that he had read it and discussed it with his attorney before signing it, and acknowledged the stipulated guidelines range and his waiver of appellate rights. He reported that he understood that the Government had agreed to accept a plea to the lesser included offense, which carried a lower mandatory minimum term of imprisonment, among other things. He also acknowledged that, by executing the Agreement, he had agreed to "give up [his] right to appeal, challenge or litigate [his] sentence so long as I [the Court] don't sentence you to more than 365 months in prison." Gomez then admitted that he had conspired with others to sell 100 grams or more of heroin in the Bronx from 2004 to 2005.

The Presentence Report ("PSR") also calculated the defendant's guidelines range as 292 to 365 months; it recommended a sentence of 292 months' imprisonment. The defendant presented two sentencing submissions to the Court, dated January 21 and 24. He denied carrying a gun "on a routine basis" but did not take issue with the adjustment to the sentencing guidelines calculation based on possession of a firearm.

At the sentencing proceeding on February 4, 2011, the Court noted that the parties' Agreement and the PSR both calculated the guidelines range as 292 to 365 months' imprisonment, which included adjustments for role in the offense and for firearms. The Court added, "while there are discussions in the [defendant's sentencing] submissions regarding firearms and role, I don't understand there to be any objection to the calculation of the sentencing guidelines range." Defense counsel agreed, adding "We dispute that defendant possessed a gun, but [not] that he knew that there were guns." The Court then inquired: "you don't dispute that they are properly attributed to the defendant pursuant to the guidelines as calculated in the guideline stipulation and the presentence report?" Defense counsel confirmed that the Court was correctly characterizing the defendant's position. The Court then observed that it had "reviewed the factual submissions in this regard and find that those calculations are appropriate and adopt them."

The Court next observed that it was incumbent upon the Court to consider all of the factors under Section 3553(a) to arrive at a "reasonable" sentence. The Court summarized the chief arguments made by Gomez for a non-guidelines sentence, including his close connection to family members and his community in the Dominican Republic and the fact that he committed no acts of violence in connection with the drug conspiracy, although he had not disputed the importance of firearms to the conspiracy's operations.

Defense counsel emphasized that Gomez had not committed any criminal act for the first thirty years of his life, but only came to work in his brother's drug business after he found himself on the verge of losing his home. Gomez started at the lowest rung of the enterprise and travelled to New York from the Dominican Republic periodically over the course of three years to assist his brother. Over time, Gomez developed his own customers in New Jersey to whom he sold drugs and supervised people in the drug business. After the Government made arrests of members of the organization in 2005, Gomez stayed in the Dominican Republic and did not re-enter the drug business. Defense counsel argued that Gomez's strong connections to his family and community and decision not to re-enter the drug business after 2005 and to change his life justified a non-guidelines sentence. The defendant spoke of his religious faith and repentance, among other things.

The Court principally imposed a sentence of 240 months' imprisonment, which was 52 months below the sentencing guidelines range. In imposing sentence, the Court observed that the defendant would not have ceased his participation in the drug business without the arrest of co-conspirators, but that there was no evidence that the defendant had reentered the drug trade in the years since those arrests.

Defense counsel on appeal filed an Anders brief on behalf of Gomez. The Court of Appeals granted the Government's motion for ...


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