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United States v. Mejía-Encarnación

United States Court of Appeals, First Circuit

April 4, 2018

UNITED STATES, Appellee,
v.
JOSÉ MEJÍA-ENCARNACIÓN, Defendant, Appellant.

         APPEAL FROM THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF PUERTO RICO [Hon. Juan M. Pérez-Giménez, U.S. District Judge]

          Rafael F. Castro-Lang on brief for appellant.

          Francisco A. Besosa-Martínez, Assistant United States Attorney, Mariana E. Bauzá-Almonte, Assistant United States Attorney, Chief, Appellate Division, Rosa Emilia Rodríguez-Vélez, United States Attorney, on brief for appellee.

          Before Torruella, Lipez, and Thompson, Circuit Judges.

          LIPEZ, Circuit Judge.

         José Mejía-Encarnación appeals from a judgment of conviction and a sentence of 121 months' imprisonment entered by the district court after he pleaded guilty to two counts of conspiring to possess with intent to distribute narcotics. On appeal, Mejía argues that, at the change of plea hearing, the district court did not adequately probe whether the medications he was taking would affect the voluntariness of his plea, and that the district court abused its discretion by denying his third motion for substitute counsel after his plea was entered. He seeks to have his sentence vacated and the case remanded for a hearing to determine whether his guilty plea should be set aside. Because we find no plain error or abuse of discretion in the district court's actions, we affirm.

         I.

         Mejía was indicted in July 2012 on two counts of knowingly and intentionally conspiring to possess with intent to distribute narcotics in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 846. He had allegedly conspired with two others, one of whom turned out to be a government informant, to import cocaine and heroin into Puerto Rico from the Dominican Republic in March through May of 2012. Mejía instructed the informant to travel from Puerto Rico to the Dominican Republic in his car via ferry, to meet with a supplier who would load the car with narcotics, and to return to Puerto Rico with the car. Subsequently, upon re-entry into Puerto Rico, Customs and Border Patrol agents stopped and searched the vehicles of both the informant and Mejía's co-conspirator, finding 2, 576 grams of heroin in one vehicle and 8 kilograms of cocaine in the other.

         During the pre-trial proceedings, Mejía was represented by three different attorneys. First, Federal Public Defender Victor González-Bothwell was appointed to represent him, but Mejía soon chose to retain Luis Rivera-Rodríguez as counsel instead. While Mejía was represented by Rivera, the government presented him with a plea deal. After seeking and receiving several extensions of the deadline to file a motion for change of plea, Mejía moved for change of plea at a scheduling conference, and a hearing on that motion was set for May 2013.

         A week before the scheduled change of plea hearing, Mejía filed a pro se motion for substitute counsel, claiming that Rivera had provided ineffective assistance of counsel due to his "lack of action and continuous omissions." Rivera then filed a letter explaining to the court that he had met with Mejía and that Mejía had stated that he filed the motion because he was frustrated that Rivera "could not get a better offer/plea agreement from the government, " but that Mejía had indicated that he was willing to continue to have Rivera represent him. At the hearing, Mejía confirmed that he filed the motion because he was unsatisfied with the government's plea deal. The court explained that "[t]he decision to offer you a plea has nothing to do with Mr. Rivera. That's a decision of the prosecution." The government agreed, stating that its "offer stands as it is" and that "[i]t's nothing that is in the power or control of Mr. Rivera." Despite these explanations, Mejía stated that he wanted new counsel, and the court granted his request, appointing Ovidio E. Zayas-Pérez to represent him.

         While represented by Zayas, Mejía filed a second change of plea motion. On the day of the hearing on that motion, however, the government informed the magistrate judge that no agreement had been reached, and it requested that a trial date be set. At the same time, Zayas filed a motion to withdraw as Mejía's defense counsel. His motion explained that, although he had obtained a more favorable plea deal than the one offered to Mejía when he was represented by Rivera, and although he had met with Mejía several times to discuss the plea offer, Mejía was not satisfied with his representation and had rejected the deal. The judge granted the motion and reappointed González, the federal public defender, to represent Mejía.

         Although González continued to try to negotiate a plea agreement on Mejía's behalf, the government declined to offer another deal. Mejía was thus confronted with the option of pleading guilty without any agreement or going to trial. On the day the trial was set to begin, González informed the court that Mejía intended to enter a guilty plea, and a change of plea hearing was held. The court began the hearing by asking Mejía how he was feeling. The following conversation ensued:

MR. MEJÍA: I feel fine physically and mentally in spite of the fact that I have some health conditions. I have high blood pressure. I have a hernia in my groin. I also take medication for cholesterol. And finally I'm taking medication to be able to sleep, as well as for depression.
COURT INTERPRETER: Correction. I'm taking medication for depression in order to be able to sleep because ...

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