May 22, 2019

Tenth Circuit: When Defendant Enters Guilty Plea to Drug Charge with Attendant Quantity, Defendant Subject to Enhanced Penalties Associated Therewith

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in United States v. Roe on Tuesday, January 29, 2019.

Mr. Roe plead guilty to conspiring to possess with intent to distribute 280 grams or more of cocaine base and five kilograms or more of cocaine. Pursuant to the terms of Mr. Roe’s plea agreement, the government requested a sentence below the twenty-year mandatory minimum. The district court sentenced Mr. Roe to a fifteen-year imprisonment.

Mr. Roe filed a § 2255 motion to vacate, set aside, or correct his sentence. He asserted trial counsel was ineffective for failing to challenge the drug quantity at the sentencing hearing, and for failing to file a notice of appeal as requested. The district court denied the drug-quantity claim, concluding Mr. Roe’s guilty plea established the relevant quantity. After trial counsel testified Mr. Roe never requested a notice of appeal be filed, Mr. Roe sought to amend his failure-to-file claim to focus on trial counsel’s failure to consult with him as to whether an appeal should be filed. The district court concluded that the failure-to-consult claim was an untimely new claim that did not relate back to the failure-to-file claim set forth in the original § 2255 motion, or in the alternative, the failure-to-consult claim failed on the merits.

The Court of Appeals affirmed the district court’s rulings. The Court held that when a criminal defendant enters a knowing and voluntary guilty plea to an indictment charging a drug conspiracy with an attendant quantity element, the defendant is subject to the enhanced penalties associated with the quantity. The Court also held Mr. Roe’s failure-to-consult claim did not relate back to his failure-to-file claim, and was therefore untimely.

In his original § 2255 motion, Mr. Roe asserted trial counsel should have objected at the sentencing to the applicability of the quantity-based, statutory mandatory minimum sentence. Specifically, Mr. Roe took issue with the quantity of drugs calculated in the  Presentence Investigation Report. The district court rejected Mr. Roe’s argument, finding that Mr. Roe knowingly and voluntarily admitted in the plea agreement that he conspired to distribute and possess with intent to distribute five kilograms or more of cocaine.

The district court concluded that the precise amount of drugs calculated in the Presentence Investigation Report was immaterial, because Mr. Roe’s plea to a conspiracy involving five kilograms or more of cocaine established the statutory minimum for his sentence. The district court noted that Mr. Roe never lodged a substantive, stand-alone challenge to the factual basis of his guilty plea. In other words, Mr. Roe did not seek to invalidate his plea on the basis that it is not supported by an adequate factual basis; instead, he attempted to escape the burden of his guilty plea while maintaining the benefits flowing from the plea agreement. The district court ruled that because Mr. Roe entered the guilty plea, the trial counsel’s failure to object to the sentence was neither deficient nor prejudicial.

On appeal, Mr. Roe argued that the district court erred in determining that the admission in his guilty plea established the applicability of the mandatory minimum. The Court of Appeals disagreed, finding that a knowing and voluntary guilty plea to a charge with an attendant quality element subjects the defendant to any enhanced penalties associated with that quantity. Therefore, the district court was correct in its ruling that Mr. Roe’s guilty plea established the applicability of the mandatory minimum, and thus Mr. Roe’s claim that his trial counsel was ineffective for failing to object to the applicability of the twenty-year mandatory minimum sentence must fail. 

Mr. Roe also asserted in his original § 2255 motion that he specifically instructed his trial counsel to file a notice of appeal. Following an evidentiary hearing, trial counsel testified that an appeal had never been discussed, and Mr. Roe had never instructed him to file a notice of appeal. Mr. Roe then sought to amend his § 2255 motion to include a failure-to-consult claim, and argued that his conduct during representation should have led trial counsel to believe Mr. Roe was interested in filing an appeal. In support of this position, Mr. Roe asserted that the question of whether the PSR attributed too much cocaine to Mr. Roe and whether there was a sufficient factual basis for a guilty plea to the conspiracy count. The district court concluded that the failure-to-consult claim was a new theory, and therefore time-barred. In the alternative, the district court further rejected the failure-to-consult claim on the merits.

The Court of Appeals agreed with the district court, concluding that the failure-to-consult claim set out in the amended § 2255 motion was based on an entirely new theory that would have had to be pleaded discreetly and supported by separate, specific factual averments. Therefore, the failure-to-consult claim did not assert a claim that arose out of the conduct in the original pleading and thus did not relate back to the original pleading. The Court of Appeals therefore held that because the failure-to-consult claim did not relate back to the original pleading, and was filed well past the one-year statute of limitation period, the failure-to-consult claim was time-barred.

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