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United States v. James

United States Court of Appeals, Third Circuit

June 27, 2019

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
v.
KENNETH JAMES, Appellant

          Argued April 9, 2019

          On Appeal from the District Court of the Virgin Islands (D.C. No. 3-17-cr-0040-001) District Judge: Hon. Curtis V. Gomez

          Joseph A. DiRuzzo, III Daniel Lader [ARGUED] DiRuzzo & Company Counsel for Appellant

          Melissa Ortiz, Sigrid M. Tejo-Sprotte [ARGUED] Office of United States Attorney United States Courthouse St. Thomas, VI 00802 Counsel for Appellee

          Before: SMITH, Chief Judge, JORDAN and RENDELL, Circuit Judges.

          OPINION

          JORDAN, CIRCUIT JUDGE.

         Kenneth James appeals the denial of his motion to withdraw his guilty plea. He argues that the District Court of the Virgin Islands erred as a matter of law and abused its discretion in declining to grant the motion. We disagree and will affirm.

         I. BACKGROUND

         James arranged to sell cocaine to someone who turned out to be a confidential informant of the Drug Enforcement Agency ("DEA"). After several phone calls and conversations between James and the informant, James brought a bag containing 12 kilograms of cocaine to a hotel room where the informant was staying. James proceeded to negotiate a per-kilo price with the informant, settling on $13, 500, and sold him the contents of the bag. DEA agents immediately arrived on the scene, seized the bag containing the cocaine, and arrested James. As far as criminal records show, that was his first encounter with the justice system.

         The government filed a two-count information charging James in Count I with conspiracy to distribute narcotics, in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 846, and in Count II with possession with intent to distribute narcotics, in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 841(a)(1). He initially pled not guilty. Four months later, however, he made a motion to change his plea. Pursuant to a plea agreement, he sought to plead guilty to Count I, which specifically charged a "conspir[acy] to possess with intent to distribute more than five kilograms of cocaine[.]" (App. at 34.)

         The District Court convened a change-of-plea hearing and asked James about his education level. He responded that he had completed the third grade and that he could read and write in English. The Court confirmed that James had an opportunity to have the documents associated with the change of plea explained to him and that he was satisfied with the representation provided by his attorney, David Cattie. The Court then confirmed that no one had made any promises or threats to prompt James to change his plea and that he was doing so of his own free will. The Court also explained the charges and the possible penalties for the offenses, as well as James's right to a trial and the rights he would have if he went to trial. At each step, James said he understood.

         The Court next noted that, as part of the plea agreement, James was "agree[ing] to waive [his] right to appeal any sentence imposed by the Court up to the statutory maximum on any ground whatever … [and his] right to petition [for post-conviction relief] under Title 28 U.S. Code Section 2255, with the exception of a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel[.]" (App. at 59.) James again said he understood.

         To establish the factual foundation for the guilty plea, the Court asked the government to recite what it would prove if the case were to proceed to trial. The Assistant United States Attorney stated that

the defendant, Kenneth James, arranged with individuals unknown, to provide approximately 12 kilograms of cocaine to a DEA confidential source. After several phone calls and conversations between Kenneth James and the confidential source, Kenneth James arrived at the hotel where the confidential source was staying, entered the room carrying a bag that contained approximately 12 kilograms of cocaine, which Kenneth James then proceeded to sell to the confidential source. Kenneth James negotiated to sell each kilo of cocaine to the confidential source for $13, 500. After Kenneth James entered the hotel room, and the confidential source verified the cocaine was indeed in the bag, DEA agents arrived on scene and recovered the bag containing the 12 bricks of cocaine.

(App. at 60-61.) James agreed that the government's statement of facts was "true and accurate," and he entered a plea of guilty, which the Court accepted. (App. at 63.)

         Several months later, but before he was sentenced, James filed a pro se motion captioned "motion to dismiss counsel based upon ineffectiveness of counsel[.]" (App. at 49.) In it, he asserted his innocence and provided three reasons to explain why he had pled guilty to a crime he was now saying he did not commit. First, he said that he was placed "under Duress to force [him] to take a plea of something[] that was never investigated in [his] favor." (App. at 49.) He claimed that Cattie "forced [him] to tell [federal agents] that [he was] responsib[le] for a bag [of cocaine] that [wasn't his.]" (App. at 50.) According to James, he pled guilty out of fear because "Cattie told [him] that … the [j]udge and [j]ury would not believe [him] … because the [j]udge supports corruption[.]"[1] (App. at 49-50.) Second, James stated that Cattie "never took the time to explain [to him] in detail about the plea agreement" and that he did not understand the plea agreement because his "educational level is very poor[, ] to the point that [he] can't read or comprehend to a level where [he could] trust [Cattie.]" (App. at 49.) Finally, James claimed that no investigation had been made to absolve him because Cattie had "already proven [him] guilty before any investigation deeply into this case." (App. at 49.)

         Given James's allegations, Cattie filed a motion to withdraw as his attorney, which was granted. Joseph DiRuzzo was then appointed to represent James and promptly moved to withdraw the guilty plea. In that motion, for the first time, James argued that "he was … entrapped by [a] confidential informant." (App. at 67.)

         The District Court denied the withdrawal motion, concluding that "James failed to meaningfully assert his innocence or provide an adequate reason to withdraw his guilty plea[.]" (App. at 14.) The Court also stated that "[a]ssertions of mere legal innocence [are] insufficient to justify the withdrawal of a guilty plea; proof of factual innocence is required." (App. at 8 (second alteration in original) (quoting United States v. Monac, 120 Fed.Appx. 924, 927 (3d Cir. 2005)) (internal quotation marks omitted).) Thus, the District Court ruled that James could not withdraw his guilty plea because "an entrapment defense is a claim of legal innocence, not factual innocence[, ]" (App. at 9, ) and James had failed to assert his factual innocence. The Court went on, however, to note that, "even if James's assertion of legal innocence were sufficient, '[b]ald assertions of innocence are insufficient to permit a defendant to withdraw his guilty plea[, ]'" and "James ha[d] not provided the Court with any details on how he was entrapped[.]" (App. at 10 (first alteration in original).)

         James was sentenced to 78 months' imprisonment, to be followed by five years of supervised release, with four hundred hours of community service, and a ...


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