FROM THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF
PUERTO RICO [Hon. Juan M. Pérez-Giménez, U.S.
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.
Torruella, Lipez, and Thompson, Circuit Judges.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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 ...