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United States v. Boamah

United States District Court, S.D. New York

June 26, 2017

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA,
v.
BENJAMIN BOAMAH, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          ANDREW L. CARTER, JR., United States District Judge

         The Government charged Benjamin Boamah with two counts of conspiring to violate the narcotics laws by conspiring to import and sell heroin in the United States. In September 2015, Boamah pled guilty to both counts of the Indictment. Boamah now desires to withdraw his guilty plea and proceed to trial. For the following reasons, the Court denies Boamah's motion to withdraw his guilty plea.

         BACKGROUND[1]

         I. Boamah's Arrest

         On September 26, 2014, after being arrested in his native Ghana, Boamah was extradited to the United States pursuant to a criminal complaint charging two conspiracy counts: (1) conspiring to import heroin into the United States in violation of 21 U.S.C. §§ 952(a) and 963; and (2) conspiring to sell that heroin in the United States in violation of 21 U.S.C. §§ 841(a)(1) and 846. ECF No. 1 (Complaint); ECF No. 91 (Declaration of Benjamin Boamah ("Boamah Decl.")), at ¶ 4. On September 29, 2014, Boamah made his initial appearance before a Magistrate Judge in the Southern District of New York, together with Anthony Strazza, counsel assigned to Boamah under the Criminal Justice Act. ECF No. 9. Strazza served as Boamah's counsel for the next year, including through motions in limine and other pre-trial practice, until shortly after Boamah's guilty plea.

         II. Plea Negotiations

         In December 2014, Strazza received the Government's first plea offer. Tr. 19:1-20:17; Gov't Ex. 2 (Email dated Dec. 8, 2014, attaching proposed plea agreement). It stipulated to a Sentencing Guideline's range of between 57 and 71 months' imprisonment with no mandatory minimum sentence. Gov't Ex. 2. Strazza testified that he met with Boamah at the Metropolitan Correctional Facility ("MCC") to review the plea agreement in person, where they went through the document "paragraph by paragraph, " including the three-point reduction for early acceptance of responsibility. Tr. 21:5-23:14. Boamah rejected the offer and told Strazza that he "could not accept any plea deal" because of his professional aspirations in Ghana. Id. 23:15-24:4.

         The Government renewed this plea offer again in August 2015, after filing its motions in limine. Tr. 28:9-25; Gov't Ex. 3 (Email dated Aug. 21, 2015). Strazza testified that he met with Boamah again to review the agreement and that Boamah again rejected the offer, instructing Strazza to file his opposition to the Government's motions in limine. Tr. 29:1-14. Boamah recalled that Strazza conveyed a plea offer to him in August 2015; however, he is mistaken about the chronology and the terms of the offer. Id. 84:10-18. The Court credits Strazza's testimony that August 2015 was the second, not the first, time that he discussed a plea agreement with Boamah. Further, despite Boamah's contention that this plea offer provided a sentence of 63 to 78 months with no mandatory minimum, both Strazza and the Government confirmed that no such offer ever was extended to Boamah. Compare Id. and Boamah Decl. ¶ 18, with Tr. 20:18-21:4.

         The Government extended its final plea offer to Boamah in September 2015, one week before trial, which was scheduled to begin on September 29, 2015. Tr. 36:9-38:21; Gov't Ex. 1 (Email dated Sept. 22, 2015, attaching proposed plea agreement). The proposal first was conveyed orally after a Court conference on September 21, 2015, and then in writing the following day. Id. This offer included a proposed stipulated sentence of 63 to 78 months' imprisonment with a mandatory minimum of 60 months. Id. The agreement expired on September 23. Id. As a result of the timing and difficulties at the MCC, Strazza only very quickly discussed the basic terms of the plea offer with Boamah in person on September 22. Tr. 39:12-40:9.

         Later that day Strazza and Boamah communicated again, either by telephone or email. Id. 40:10-20. By the end of the day Boamah had not reached a decision regarding his plea, but Strazza decided to have Boamah brought to court on September 23 in case he decided to plead guilty. Id. On September 23, Boamah and Strazza discussed the plea agreement in court prior to the scheduled plea proceeding. Id. 41:4-42:3, 59:15-60:17. At this point, Strazza had a written copy of the plea agreement to review with Boamah. Id. 63:15-21.

         Strazza advised Boamah to accept the offer because he believed that "he would ultimately get a better outcome than he would have if he were to proceed to trial." Id. 41:20-24. Boamah responded that he wanted to plead guilty, but wanted to do so without the plea agreement, an "open plea." Id. 41:25-42:5. Strazza "strongly advised" against pleading guilty without a plea agreement, explaining that Boamah likely would receive a higher sentence. Id. 42:10-19, 43:8-22. It seemed to Strazza that Boamah did not want to waive any rights pursuant to the plea agreement, including the right to appeal and resubmit the arguments made in a. pro se motion to dismiss the Indictment. Id. 42:20-43:5, 45:18-23, 59:6-14. Boamah did not tell Strazza that he needed additional time to think about whether to plead guilty. Id. 45:6-15.

         Strazza then explained the plea proceeding and the written allocution to Boamah. Boamah did not have any questions, but stated that he would not read the written allocution, despite Strazza's explanation for it. Id. 43:23-45:1, 63:22-64:3.

         III. Boamah's Guilty Plea

         On September 23, 2015, Boamah entered a plea of guilty to both counts in the Indictment and without a plea agreement from the Government. ECF No. 59 ("Plea Tr."). During the plea proceeding, after Boamah stated that he was not in the "right state of mind, " the Court engaged in a lengthy colloquy with Boamah regarding the voluntariness of his guilty plea. Plea Tr. 4:17-18. During this colloquy, it became clear that Boamah was competent to plead guilty, but was experiencing a normal amount of stress attendant to this important decision. Id. 4:20-7:21. In response to the Court's questions, Boamah confirmed that he understood what was happening in the plea proceeding, id. 6:22-25; had come to the decision to plead guilty himself, id. 7:1-3; and had discussed the decision to plead guilty with Strazza and understood his counsel's advice, id. 7:13-18. Boamah later confirmed that, notwithstanding his nerves, he understood the questions the Court put to him during his plea hearing and answered those questions truthfully. Tr. 137:13-139:9, 142:7-143:6.

         The parties then discussed sentencing. Boamah stated that he had seen the Government's latest plea offer, a fact which he later confirmed again, Plea Tr. 17:18-22; Tr. 143:2-6, and that he had discussed with Strazza how the Sentencing Guidelines would apply to his case, Plea Tr. 15:25-16:17. The Government explained its revised estimate of Boamah's sentence if he chose to plead without the plea agreement. Id. 18:1-25. Consistent with Rule 11, the Court also explained sentencing and the other potential penalties and collateral consequences of pleading guilty, all of which Boamah confirmed he understood. Id. 19:12-22:5. The Court further confirmed that Boamah understood the rights he was preserving and waiving by pleading guilty. Id. 23:1-25. Boamah again stated that he told Strazza he wanted an "open plea." Id. 23:4-5.

         Finally, the Court asked Boamah whether he had any questions for either the Court or his counsel before proceeding to the guilty plea allocution itself. Boamah stated that he had no questions and declined to consult with Strazza before allocuting to the crimes. Id. 22:6-11. He further stated that he was satisfied with Strazza's representation. Id. 22:12-14.

         Boamah then began his allocution. When asked by the Court what he had done that made him guilty of the charged crimes, Boamah stated that he "assisted a friend who came to Ghana" by "vouch[ing] for him" and "help[ing] him to get money for whatever he did with it." Id. 24:4-18. After a break requested by Strazza, Boamah began reading from the written allocution prepared by Strazza. Id. 24:19-26:14. The Court accepted Boamah's guilty plea and set a date for sentencing. Id. 27:2-6.

         IV. Post-Plea Proceedings

         Boamah did not express any dissatisfaction with Strazza's representation prior to the end of their relationship. However, Strazza acknowledged that they were becoming "further apart" in terms of strategy after the Government filed its motions in limine which, as Strazza explained, "introduced new evidence into the case." Tr. 12:7-17, 14:7-16, 66:15-67:4. Boamah requested new counsel during a meeting with Strazza on October 14, 2015, and, on October 21, 2015, Strazza submitted a letter ...


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