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United States v. Sanchez-Mercedes

November 24, 2009

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
v.
ISAEL SANCHEZ-MERCEDES



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Juan R. Sánchez, J.

MEMORANDUM

Isael Sanchez-Mercedes asks this Court to grant his petition for a writ of habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2255.*fn1 Sanchez-Mercedes moves the Court to vacate or correct his sentence, or order an evidentiary hearing, on the grounds he received ineffective assistance of counsel in violation of his Sixth Amendment rights and he was denied due process at sentencing in violation of his Fifth Amendment rights. Because the Court finds counsel's representation was not deficient and Sanchez-Mercedes's Fifth Amendment rights were not violated, Sanchez-Mercedes's motion will be denied.

FACTS

On March 15, 2006, Sanchez-Mercedes was charged in a two-count indictment with conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute five kilograms or more of cocaine, in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 846, and possession with intent to distribute five kilograms or more of cocaine, in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 841(a)(1) and (b)(1)(A). On September 25, 2006, the day Sanchez-Mercedes was scheduled for trial, he pled guilty to both counts.

During a lengthy colloquy, the Court informed Sanchez-Mercedes of the consequences of choosing to plead guilty instead of proceeding to trial. Specifically, the Court informed Sanchez-Mercedes that by pleading guilty he would waive his right to trial and his right to confront witnesses against him, and he would have limited rights to appeal or challenge his sentence. Additionally, the Court informed Sanchez-Mercedes of the mandatory minimum and potential maximum sentence he could receive as a result of conviction on the two charges. The Court explained to Sanchez-Mercedes his sentence was issued at the Court's discretion and he could not change his plea after sentencing. Sanchez-Mercedes stated he understood this information.

Once Sanchez-Mercedes affirmed his intent to plead guilty, the Assistant United States Attorney read into the record the evidence the Government would have presented at Sanchez-Mercedes's trial. This evidence included testimony by Carlos Baez, a government informant. The Government asserted Baez would have testified he had purchased between 30 and 40 kilograms of cocaine from Sanchez-Mercedes in 2005 and early 2006, and paid Sanchez-Mercedes between $9,000 and $19,500 per kilogram for the cocaine. The Government outlined the plan of Sanchez-Mercedes and his co-conspirators to transport a huge shipment of drugs from Mexico to Allentown, Pennsylvania, in the hidden compartment of a tour bus. The Government described SanchezMercedes's role in the conspiracy, the roles his co-defendants played in the drug distribution scheme, and the circumstances surrounding Sanchez-Mercedes's arrest for this crime. At the end of the Government's recitation, the Court asked Sanchez-Mercedes if he objected to any of the factual recitation. Sanchez-Mercedes had two objections; he said he was not swerving on the road when he was pulled over by police, and he said his nephew and co-defendant, Robert Carpio-Sanchez, had no involvement in the crime. Sanchez-Mercedes said he did not disagree with any other fact and certified to the Court that the information was accurate.

A few days after his guilty plea, Sanchez-Mercedes testified as a defense witness at the trial of Carpio-Sanchez, asserting Carpio-Sanchez was not involved in the drug distribution scheme. Despite Sanchez-Mercedes's testimony, the jury found Carpio-Sanchez guilty of conspiracy to distribute drugs.

At sentencing, Sanchez-Mercedes raised three objections to the Pre-Sentence Investigation Report ("PSIR") prepared by the Probation Office. He objected to a two-level increase for obstruction of justice, the failure to include a two-level reduction for his acceptance of responsibility and further one-point reduction for notifying the Government of his intention to plead guilty, and the absence of a two-level reduction to reflect his minor role in the conspiracy. In response, the Government argued an obstruction of justice increase was appropriate because Sanchez-Mercedes's testimony at his nephew's trial was tantamount to perjury. The Government also opposed any decrease for acceptance of responsibility and argued Sanchez-Mercedes's near-perjury at his nephew's trial precluded a finding he had accepted responsibility for his crime. The Government also argued a one-point decrease for timely notification of the defendant's intention to plead guilty was not appropriate because Sanchez-Mercedes did not announce his intent to plead guilty until the day his trial was scheduled to begin. Finally, the Government opposed any decrease for SanchezMercedes's minor role in the offense, and argued instead Sanchez-Mercedes should receive a two-point increase because he had a leadership role in the criminal conspiracy.

The Court concluded a two-level increase for obstruction of justice was appropriate because, although Sanchez-Mercedes was not charged with perjury, he lied under oath at his nephew's trial by testifying his nephew was not involved in the conspiracy. The Court also concluded a two-level reduction for acceptance of responsibility was appropriate due to Sanchez-Mercedes's guilty plea. The Court found the instant facts were one of the extraordinary cases referenced in the notes to the Guidelines where both a two-level increase for obstruction of justice and a two-level reduction for acceptance of responsibility were appropriate. The Court held, because Sanchez-Mercedes did not commit perjury at his own trial, he had accepted responsibility for his actions, though he attempted to obstruct justice in the prosecution of his nephew. The Court found the additional one-point reduction for timely notification of his guilty plea was not warranted because Sanchez-Mercedes announced his decision to plead guilty on the day of his trial. The Court also held Sanchez-Mercedes was not a minor participant in the criminal conspiracy, but a leader. Due to his leadership role, as evinced by his understanding of the scope of the conspiracy and authority over other members of the conspiracy, the Court assessed a two-point increase. Additionally, the Court found this role made Sanchez-Mercedes ineligible for the Guidelines' safety-valve reduction.

After ruling on Sanchez-Mercedes's objections, the Court calculated the Sentencing Guidelines range for Sanchez-Mercedes at 292-365 months of imprisonment and three to five years of supervised release. In determining Sanchez-Mercedes's sentence, the Court considered the Guidelines range and the factors outlined in 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a). The Government asked the Court to take into consideration the large quantity of drugs involved and the sophistication of the drug distribution plan, and requested a 360-month sentence. Sanchez-Mercedes asked the Court to consider his advanced age, reputation as a hard-working family man, and absence of prior criminal convictions to impose the statutory minimum of 10 years, a sentence below the Guidelines range.

In assessing the § 3553(a)factors, the Court considered the seriousness of the offense, the massive amount of drugs involved-- 238 kilograms of cocaine--and the evidence this was not Sanchez-Mercedes's first involvement in drug distribution. The Court recognized SanchezMercedes's lack of criminal history and his educational success, heard six witnesses testify to Sanchez-Mercedes's good character, and reviewed seven character evidence letters submitted on Sanchez-Mercedes's behalf. Despite evidence of his hard-working character and lack of criminal arrests or convictions, the Court found a variance from the Guidelines was not warranted. Ultimately, the Court found a sentence within the Guidelines was appropriate because of the seriousness and sophistication of the crime, Sanchez-Mercedes's role in the crime, and the large amount of drugs involved. The court noted the amount of drugs Sanchez-Mercedes was transporting far exceeded the highest amount of cocaine addressed by the Guidelines, 150 kilograms. On May 22, 2007, the Court sentenced Sanchez-Mercedes to 360 months of imprisonment on each count, to be served concurrently, and five years supervised release on each count, to be served concurrently.

On direct appeal, Sanchez-Mercedes argued his sentence was unreasonably harsh because it was "tantamount to a life sentence." United States v. Sanchez-Mercedes, 300 Fed. Appx. 181, 182 (3d Cir. 2008). He contended this Court failed to give adequate weight to mitigating factors, including his age and his status as a first-time offender. The Third Circuit held that Sanchez-Mercedes's sentence was reasonable and affirmed his sentence. Id.

DISCUSSION

Sanchez-Mercedes asks this Court to find his sentence was imposed "in violation of the Constitution or laws of the United States." 28 U.S.C. ยง 2255(a). Specifically, Sanchez-Mercedes requests habeas relief for (1) ineffective assistance of counsel in violation of his Sixth Amendment rights, ...


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