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United States of America v. Alexis Villegas

March 22, 2012


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


Defendant Alexis Villegas asks this Court to vacate his guilty plea and sentence pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2255. Villegas, whose first language is Spanish, argues his trial counsel was ineffective in failing to have an interpreter present during meetings with Villegas and in failing to provide Villegas with written Spanish translations of the Guilty Plea Agreement, the Presentence Investigation Report, and other case-related documents. Finding Villegas's arguments meritless, this Court will deny his request for relief.


In January 2005, Villegas was indicted on one count of conspiracy to commit hostage taking, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1203(a); one count of hostage taking and aiding and abetting, in violation of 18 U.S.C. §§ 1203(a) and 2; one count of using and carrying a firearm during and in relation to a crime of violence and aiding and abetting, in violation of 18 U.S.C. §§ 924(c) and 2; and one count of possession of a firearm by an alien, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(5)(A). The charges arose out of an October 2004 incident in which Villegas and two co-defendants kidnapped a victim from his home at gunpoint and then held him hostage for several days while demanding $1 million in ransom from the victim's parents. A superseding indictment was returned in April 2005, charging Villegas with the same crimes.

On May 23, 2005, Villegas pleaded guilty to these charges pursuant to a cooperation plea agreement with the Government. In the Guilty Plea Agreement, Villegas agreed to waive "all rights to appeal or collaterally attack [his] conviction, sentence, or any other matter relating to this prosecution, whether such a right to appeal or collateral attack arises under 18 U.S.C. § 3742, 28 U.S.C. § 1291, 28 U.S.C. § 2255, or any other provision of law."*fn1 Guilty Plea Agreement ¶ 10.

At the change of plea hearing, an interpreter was present to assist Villegas, and Villegas initially testified through the interpreter. Because it quickly became apparent to this Court-itself a native Spanish speaker-that Villegas could understand the Court's questions in English, however, the Court inquired into Villegas's ability to speak and understand English.*fn2 Villegas testified he was able to speak, understand, and write English; could understand the Court's questions; and generally had a "pretty good" understanding of English. Plea Hr'g Tr. 9-10. When asked whether he needed an interpreter, Villegas explained he would need the interpreter only for "some words." Id. at 10. Based on these statements-and with Villegas's agreement-this Court conducted the balance of the plea hearing in English on the understanding that Villegas would notify the Court if there was anything he did not understand, in which case the Court would afford Villegas an opportunity to consult with the interpreter and his counsel. Id. at 10-11.

After again confirming Villegas could understand the Court and could speak English, the Court verified that Villegas had reviewed the Guilty Plea Agreement with his counsel at the Federal Detention Center and had also read the agreement on his own. Id. at 17-20. Although an interpreter was not present when Villegas reviewed the plea agreement with his counsel, Villegas testified he "read it, too[,] and [he] underst[oo]d it." Id. at 18. This Court thereafter reviewed the Guilty Plea Agreement with Villegas in detail, including the statutory maximum sentence on each count, the mandatory minimum sentence on the firearms charge, and the possible deportation consequences of the plea. E.g., id. at 27-30. The Court also reviewed the appellate waiver provision with Villegas, explaining Villegas would be permitted to appeal his sentence only if the Government appealed, if the Court imposed a sentence greater than the statutory maximum, or if the Court unreasonably departed from the Sentencing Guidelines. See id. 43-44. At the conclusion of the colloquy, the Court accepted Villegas's guilty plea, finding Villegas alert, competent and I think that he is capable of making an informed decision as to whether to plead guilty or not guilty.

I am satisfied that he understands sufficient English to be able to respond to my questions and has done so on this record quite well.

I am satisfied that there is an independent basis in fact for the plea and I'm confident that he understands the charges, the maximum penalty, the minimum mandatories that apply and that he's giving up some basic and fundamental rights to a trial.

Id. at 52-53.

In September 2008, pursuant to the terms of the Guilty Plea Agreement, in which he agreed to cooperate with the Government, Villegas testified as a Government witness at the trial of Jose Antonio Santiago, one of his co-defendants. At the outset of his testimony, Villegas explained that while he was "not completely" fluent in English, he did not have a problem understanding English. Trial Tr. 4-5, Sept. 4, 2008. Villegas then proceeded to testify for a full day and a half in English, without the assistance of an interpreter.

On May 1, 2009, Villegas appeared before this Court for sentencing. At the sentencing hearing, this Court granted the Government's motion for a downward departure from the Guidelines sentencing range and the mandatory minimum sentence, and sentenced Villegas to 204 months of imprisonment, a sentence well below the effective advisory Guidelines range of 294-346 months.*fn3

Although Villegas had testified in English at the change of plea hearing and at his co-defendant's trial, he addressed the Court through an interpreter at the sentencing hearing. Sentencing Hr'g Tr. 30, May 1, 2009.

Notwithstanding the appellate waiver in the Guilty Plea Agreement, Villegas filed a direct appeal. On January 19, 2010, the Third Circuit granted the Government's motion to enforce the appellate waiver and for summary affirmance. Thereafter, Villegas filed the instant ยง 2255 motion seeking to vacate his guilty plea and sentence on the ground his counsel was ...

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