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United States v. Rodriguez

United States District Court, W.D. Virginia, Abingdon Division

December 4, 2017

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
v.
SANSON P. RODRIGUEZ, Defendant.

          Jennifer R. Bockhorst and Zachary T. Lee, Assistant United States Attorneys, Abingdon, Virginia, for United States; Stephen R. Wills, Roanoke, Virginia, for Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          James P. Jones United States District Judge.

         The defendant has filed a motion seeking to enforce a written plea agreement that the government contends is unenforceable due to a mutual mistake of fact. For the reasons that follow, I will not enforce the plea agreement.

         I.

         An evidentiary hearing has been held on the defendant's motion. The following are my findings of fact, based upon the evidence presented and the court's uncontested records.

         The defendant, Sanson P. Rodriguez, was charged by criminal complaint on June 19, 2017, [1] with conspiring to possess with the intent to distribute methamphetamine. He was arrested and the Federal Public Defender for this District was appointed to represent him. Nancy C. Dickenson, an Assistant Federal Public Defender, appeared for the defendant at his initial appearance and at a later detention and probable cause hearing held on June 29. Immediately following that hearing, AFPD Dickenson requested Assistant United States Attorney Zachary T. Lee, the prosecutor in the case, to propose a written plea agreement for her client.

         On July 7, AUSA Lee provided AFPD Dickenson with a proposed written plea agreement. While no indictment had been retuned at that time, the grand jury did in fact indict defendant Rodriguez along with 23 other defendants on July 10. Rodriguez was charged with conspiring to possess with intent to distribute and distribute 500 grams or more of a mixture or substance containing a detectable amount of methamphetamine and using a communication facility in committing and causing the facilitation of a felony drug offense, in violation of 21 U.S.C. §§ 846, 841(b)(1)(A), and 843(d) (Count One), as well as using and carrying and possessing a firearm in furtherance of a drug trafficking crime, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 924(c) (Count Three).

         The proposed plea agreement prepared by AUSA Lee (which will be referred to as the First Plea Agreement), permitted Rodriguez to plead guilty to a lesser included offense of Count One, in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 841(b)(1)(C). The difference between the Indictment's charge and the First Plea Agreement's proposal was substantial, in that it reduced the statutory range of punishment for Count One from a minimum of ten years and a maximum of life imprisonment to a maximum of 20 years, with no mandatory minimum. The proposed agreement also required Rodriguez to plead guilty to Count Three, which required a mandatory minimum sentence of five years, to be consecutive to any other sentence imposed. See 18 U.S.C. § 924(c)(1)(A)(i), (D)(ii).

         The First Plea Agreement also provided for a stipulation by the parties that the base offense level applicable to the defendant under U.S. Sentencing Guideline Manual (“USSG”) § 2D1.1 (2016) would be 32, representing 1.5 kilograms of a mixture or substance containing a detectable amount of methamphetamine. The government also agreed to recommend a sentence within the applicable guideline range.

         The case was set for trial to begin December 11. Because the volume of discovery required substantial review and investigation, AFPD Dickenson did not discuss the First Plea Agreement with Rodriguez in any detail for some time, except to briefly advise him that the government had offered a plea agreement that they needed to discuss. She also told him that with the proposed recommended guideline range contained in the First Plea Agreement, he could expect a sentence of “around 15 years.” Tr. 22:12, ECF No. 328.[2]

         On October 30, having heard nothing from defense counsel, and after obtaining further evidence that the methamphetamine involved in the case was the purer form of the drug known as “ice, ” which affected the possible guideline sentence, AUSA Lee sent a new written Plea Agreement to AFPD Dickenson by email. This document will be referred to as the Second Plea Agreement. It was substantially different from the First Plea Agreement in that it required a guilty plea to Count One as charged and provided for a stipulated base offense level of 36. After receiving the Second Plea Agreement, Dickenson and Lee engaged in the following email conversation:

From Dickenson to Lee:
Thanks, Zack.
Is this same plea offer you sent before? Just wanted to ...

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