CHARLES C. BROWN
STATE OF RHODE ISLAND
Providence County Superior Court
For Plaintiff: John E. MacDonald, Esq.; John R. Grasso, Esq.
For Defendant: James R. Baum, Esq.
Before this Court are the two consolidated applications of Charles C. Brown (Mr. Brown or Petitioner) for post-conviction relief. Mr. Brown seeks to vacate his pleas of nolo contendere, entered on July 17, 1995, on the grounds that they failed to meet the requirements of Rule 11 of the Superior Court Rules of Criminal Procedure. Jurisdiction is pursuant to chapter 9.1 of title 10.
Facts and Travel
On September 23, 1994, Mr. Brown, then age twenty-three, was arrested by the Providence Police Department after a traffic stop. The police seized from the vehicle three large zip-lock bags of marijuana containing a combined weight of 2.98 pounds. In addition, the police seized two large manila envelopes, inside each of which were two more envelopes containing a total amount of $16, 110 in cash wrapped in elastic bands. The Petitioner was charged, by information, with one count of possession of marijuana with intent to deliver (Count I), one count of conspiracy to deliver (Count II), and one count of possession of one ounce to one kilogram of marijuana (Count III). (P2/1994-3584B).
While on bail on the aforementioned charges, the Providence Police Department arrested Mr. Brown on November 9, 1994, for possession of a package containing ten pounds, twelve ounces of marijuana. Mr. Brown was charged, by information, with possession of one to five kilograms of marijuana. (P2/1995-0103A).
On July 17, 1995, Mr. Brown, with the assistance of privately retained counsel, entered pleas of nolo contendere to the counts contained in the consolidated P2-1994-3584B and P2-1995-0103A cases. The Superior Court Justice, who heard and accepted Mr. Brown's pleas, sentenced him to ten years of imprisonment at the Adult Correctional Institutions (ACI), three years to serve and seven years suspended, with probation, in the P2-1994-3584B case, and fifteen years of imprisonment at the ACI, three years to serve, and twelve years suspended, with probation, in P2-1995-0103A. (Hr'g Tr. (Tr.) 5, July 17, 1995.) Each sentence was to run concurrently.
On June 3, 2003, eight years after Mr. Brown's nolo contendere pleas in the two state drug cases above, Mr. Brown was convicted in the United States District Court for the District of Rhode Island of conspiracy and possession with intent to distribute more than fifty grams of cocaine base in violation of 21 U.S.C. §§ 846, 841(a)(1), (b)(1)(A) (Count I); aiding and abetting possession with intent to distribute more than fifty grams of cocaine base in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 841(a)(1), (b)(1)(A); 18 U.S.C. § 2 (Count II); and, possession with intent to distribute more than five grams of cocaine base in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 841(a)(1), (b)(1)(B). Predicated upon Mr. Brown's prior two state drug convictions, the Federal District Court enhanced Mr. Brown's sentence. Accordingly, it sentenced him to a mandatory term of life imprisonment pursuant to the mandatory minimum of conviction under 21 U.S.C. § 841(b)(1)(A) for a defendant who has two prior drug offense convictions. Mr. Brown obtained leave from the sentence imposed by the federal court to seek post-conviction relief from the state court convictions.
On April 21, 2004, Mr. Brown, acting pro se, filed applications for post-conviction relief in PM-2004-2148 and PM-2004-2769. He asserted that (1) the convictions were obtained without probable cause; (2) the plea agreements under attack were lacking the requisite factual basis to allow the judge to accept the pleas; and, (3) that he had been denied the effective assistance of counsel as guaranteed by the Constitutions of the United States and Rhode Island. On October 21, 2009, through counsel, Mr. Brown filed a motion to amend the applications to add an additional allegation, namely, that the plea colloquy from 1995 failed to comply with Rule 11 of the Superior Court Rules of Criminal Procedure.
The State of Rhode Island (State) has filed an objection to Mr. Brown's applications for post-conviction relief. The State urges the Court to deny Mr. Brown's applications, arguing the plea colloquy complied with Rule 11. The State contends that the transcript clearly shows that Mr. Brown knowingly, voluntarily, and intelligently entered his pleas with full knowledge of the constitutional rights he was giving up. Additionally, the State raises the defense of laches.
Standard of Review
"Once a defendant has entered a plea of guilty or of nolo contendere and sentence has been imposed, any issue relating to the validity of the plea must be raised by way of post-conviction relief." State v. Vashey, 912 A.2d 416, 418 (R.I. 2006) (quoting State v. Desir, 766 A.2d 374, 375 (R.I. 2001) (superseded by statute on other grounds)). Post-conviction relief is a statutory remedy available to a previously convicted defendant who now contends that his or her conviction was in violation of the state or federal constitution, (see State v. Laurence, 18 A.3d 512, 521 (R.I. 2011)), or the laws of this State. See § 10-9.1-1. The filing of an application can be made at any time. See § 10-9.1-3 ("An application may be filed at any time.").
"A plea of nolo contendere is the substantive equivalent of a guilty plea in Rhode Island." State v. Figueroa, 639 A.2d 495, 498 (R.I. 1994) (citing State v. Feng, 421 A.2d 1258, 1266 (R.I. 1980)). "Guilty pleas are valid only if voluntarily and intelligently entered, and the record must so affirmatively disclose." Figueroa, 639 A.2d at 498 (citing Boykin v. Alabama, 395 U.S. 238, 242 (1969)). Thus, a defendant, who enters a plea of nolo contendere, "waives several federal constitutional rights and consents to judgment of the court." Feng, 421 A.2d at 1266 (citing Johnson v. Mullen, 120 R.I. 701, 390 A.2d 909 (1978)).
In a post-conviction relief procedure, the "applicant bears the burden of proving, by a preponderance of the evidence, that he [or she] is entitled to post-conviction relief." Burke v. State, 925 A.2d 890, 893 (R.I. 2007) (citing Larngar v. Wall, 918 A.2d 850, 855 (R.I. 2007)). Thus, the applicant bears the burden of proving by a preponderance of the evidence that he or she did not intelligently and understandingly waive his or her rights. See Figueroa, 639 A.2d at 498 (citing Cole v. Langlois, 99 R.I. 138, 142-43, 206 A.2d 216, 218-19 (1965)). "[A] plea will be vacated when it is shown to have been obtained from a defendant unaware and uninformed as to its nature and its effect as a waiver of his fundamental rights." Id. (citing Cole, 99 R.I. at 140-41, 206 A.2d at 218). Since post-conviction relief proceedings are "civil in nature[, ]" Ouimette v. Moran, 541 A.2d 855, 856 (R.I. 1988), the rules and statutes that are applicable in civil proceedings shall apply to post-conviction relief applications. See § 10-9.1-7 ("All rules and statutes applicable in civil proceedings shall apply except that pretrial discovery proceedings shall be available only upon order of the court.")
Law and Analysis
The State asserts that Mr. Brown's application for post-conviction relief should be barred under the doctrine of laches. It contends that the nine-year delay in filing the instant applications prejudices the State because it would be unable to effectively reprosecute charges due to the fact that the physical evidence in these cases have been destroyed pursuant to Providence Police Department policy.
It is well established that "[c]ourts . . . will not assist one who has slept upon his rights  and shows no excuse for his laches in asserting them." A.C. Aukerman Co. v. R.L. Chaides Constr. Co., 960 F.2d 1020, 1029 (Fed. Cir. 1992) (en banc) (quoting Lane & Bodley Co. v. Locke, 150 U.S. 193, 201 (1893)). Although a post-conviction relief "application may be filed at any time[, ]" (§ 10-9.1-3), the lack of an explicit statutory limitation "does not preclude the application of the doctrine of laches." Raso v. Wall, 884 A.2d 391, 394 (R.I. 2005). Accordingly, "[t]he state may invoke the defense of laches as an affirmative defense to an application for post-conviction relief." Santos v. State, 91 A.3d 341, 344 (R.I. 2014).
To prevail on the affirmative defense of laches, the State must satisfy a two-prong test: it must prove "by a preponderance of the evidence that the applicant unreasonably delayed in seeking relief and that the state is prejudiced by the delay." Id. (emphasis added). The underlying rationale of this test is based on the fact that:
"[l]aches, in legal significance, is not mere delay, but delay that works a disadvantage to another. So long as parties are in the same condition, it matters little whether one presses a right promptly or slowly, within limits allowed by law; but when, knowing his rights, he takes no steps to enforce them until the condition of the other party has, in good faith, become so changed that he cannot be restored to his former state, if the right be then enforced, delay becomes inequitable and operates as an estoppel against the assertion of the right." Id. at 344-45 (quoting School Comm. of City of Cranston v. Bergin-Andrews, 984 A.2d 629, 644 (R.I. 2009)).
Determining the existence of unreasonable delay and prejudice "are both questions of fact, which require that specific determination[s] be made in light of the circumstances of the particular case." Santos, 91 A.3d at 345 (quoting Heon v. State, 19 ...