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United States v. Montero

United States District Court, D. Rhode Island

March 7, 2019



          John J. McConnell, Jr., United States District Judge.

         Alexandra Garcia Montero files her petition for post-conviction relief after having plead guilty to a drug charge. She claims ineffective assistance of counsel. Finding no basis for granting the extraordinary relief, the Court DENIES her Motion to Vacate. ECF No. 15.


         The Government indicted Ms. Garcia-Montero along with eight others allegedly involved in the so-called Valdez drug trafficking organization. C.A. No. 17" cr-37-JJM-LDA. Count I, the only count to apply to Ms. Garcia-Montero, alleged that she knowingly conspired with others to distribute, and possessed with intent to distribute, heroin, fentanyl, cocaine base, and cocaine.

         Eight months later after extensive discovery and plea negotiations, the Government filed a one-count Information against Ms, Garcia-Montero alleging that she conspired to distribute and to possess with intent to distribute heroin in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 841(a)(1) and (b)(1)(B) and § 846. It carried a maximum period of imprisonment of 40 years and a minimum mandatory of 5 years. The parties filed a Plea Agreement to this single count Information at the same time. ECF No. 2.

         The Plea Agreement called for Ms. Garcia"Montero to plead guilty to one count of conspiracy to distribute or possess with intent to deliver 100 grams or more of heroin. ECF No. 2 at 1. In exchange, the Government would dismiss similar violations involving fentanyl, cocaine base, and cocaine. Furthermore, the Government would agree not to charge Ms. Garcia-Montero with an "enhanced sentence under 21 U.S.C. § 851 which would require the court to impose a 10-jrear minimum mandatory term of imprisonment." Id. at 4.

         The Court conducted a change of plea hearing. ECF No. 19. At that hearing, Ms. Garcia-Montero testified under oath that she voluntarily signed the Plea Agreement, [1] that she was fully satisfied with her attorney's representation, that she understood there was a 5-year mandatory minimum, [2] and that she waived her right to appeal. She acknowledged that the plea was not coerced, that she was fully informed about the consequences of her plea, and that she had determined that pleading guilty was in her personal best interest.

THE COURT: Has anyone in any way, Ms. Montero, attempted to force you to plead guilty or threatened you in any way to get you to plead guilty?
THE DEFENDANT: No. THE COURT: Has anyone made any promises or assurances to you other than what's contained in the plea agreement in order to get you to plead guilty?
THE DEFENDANT: No. THE COURT: So are you knowingly and voluntarily changing your plea to guilty now because you believe it's in your best interest to do so at this time?

Id. at 12-13.

         Ms. Garcia-Montero also admitted as true the facts that the Government stated, including that she intentionally was involved in a conspiracy to distribute 100 grams or more of heroin.

[THE GOVERNMENT] The United States would have demonstrated the following facts beyond a reasonable doubt-' That from at least September 1st, 2016, up to and including April 17th, 2017, the Defendant knowingly and intentionally participated in a conspiracy in the states and districts of Rhode Island, Connecticut and Massachusetts with Juan Valdez, Claudio Valdez, Hector Valdez, with whom-I'm sorry, and Tanya Croteau to supply the Defendants' customers, who were themselves lower-level drug dealers, with heroin. She used a drug courier, Croteau, to deliver the heroin. The Defendant assisted her co-conspirators by, among other things, monitoring customer satisfaction with the heroin and reporting back to Juan Valdez which allowed him to adjust the strength of the product. The conspiracy of which the Defendant was part of involved 100 grams or more of heroin which was reasonably foreseeable to her.
THE COURT: You also heard the facts that the Government would prove if this case were to go to trial. Do you admit the facts as stated by the Government as true?


         Mr. Garcia-Moreno then plead guilty[3] and the Court found her plea to be a fully informed, knowing, and voluntary plea supported by sufficient facts.

THE COURT: The Court has heard from the Government the evidence it would present if this matter were to go to trial. The Court has questioned the Defendant regarding her understanding of the nature of these proceedings and the consequences of entering a plea of guilty to the charge. It is, therefore, the finding of this Court in the case of the United States v. Alexandra Garcia Montero that the Defendant is fully competent and capable of entering an informed plea, that the Defendant is aware of the nature of the charges and the consequences of the plea and that the plea of guilty is a knowing and voluntary plea supported by an independent basis in fact containing each of the essential elements of the charge; and, therefore, the plea is accepted, and the Defendant is now adjudged guilty of that offense.

ECF No. 19 at 21-22.

         Before sentencing, Ms. Garcia-Montero's attorney filed a Sentencing Memorandum. ECF No. 5.

         At sentencing, Ms. Garcia-Moreno's attorney made a presentation to the Court highlighting mitigating factors from Ms. Garcia-Moreno's background and highlighting relevant 18 U.S.C. § 3553 factors.

         The Court then sentenced Ms. Garcia-Moreno to 60 months of imprisonment. ECF No. 23.

         Now, Ms. Garcia-Montero seeks to vacate her judgment of conviction because she alleges that her counsel was constitutionally ineffective. She alleges that her attorney did not: (1) show her the Pre-Sentence Report (PSR) (ECF No. 15 at 13); (2) file an appeal (Id., at 4); (3) object to the incorrect drug weight triggering a mandatory minimum sentence (Id., at 5); (4) request the "Fast-Track Program" (Id. at 6, 14); and (5) raise mitigating factors at sentencing. Id. at 8. The Government objected to Ms. Garcia-Montero's Motion. ECF No. 24.


         Section 2255 provides for post-conviction relief if a court sentenced a petitioner in violation of the Constitution or if the sentence is otherwise subject to collateral attack. United States v. Addonizio, 442 U.S. 178, 185 (1979); David v. United States, 134 F.3d 470, 474 (1st Cir. 1998). In seeking to attack collaterally his sentence, the petitioner bears the burden of proving "exceptional circumstances" that call for redress under § 2255. See Hill v. United States, 368 U.S. 424, 428 (1962); Mack v. United States, 635 F.2d 20, 26-27 (1st Cir. 1980). For example, an error of law must be a "fundamental defect which inherently results in a complete miscarriage of justice." Hill, 368 U.S. at 428; accord David, 134 F.3d at 474.

         The Sixth Amendment guarantees defendants the right to effective assistance of counsel. Lema v. United States, 987 F.2d 48, 51 (1st Cir. 1993) (citing Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 687 (1984)). Even so, "[t]he Constitution does not guarantee a defendant a letter-perfect defense or a successful defense! rather, the performance standard is that of reasonably effective assistance under the circumstances then obtaining." United States v. Natanel, 938 F.2d 302, 309-10 (1st Cir. 1991).

         A defendant who claims that he was deprived of his Sixth Amendment right to effective assistance of counsel must prove:

(1) that his counsel's performance fell below an objective standard of reasonableness; and
(2) a reasonable probability that, but for counsel's unprofessional errors, the result of the proceeding would have been different.

Strickland, 466 U.S. at 687-88, 694; see also United States v. Manon, 608 F.3d 126, 131 (1st Cir. 2010).

         This same principle applies in the context of guilty pleas. See Hill v. Lockhart, 474 U.S. 52, 57 (1985). The Lockhart Court held that "the two-part Strickland v. Washington test applies to challenges to guilty pleas based on ineffective assistance of counsel." Id. at 58; see also Padilla v. Kentucky, 559 U.S. 356, 371 n.12 (2010) ("In [Lockhart, the Court recognized—'for the first time—that Strickland applies to advice respecting a guilty plea."). In the context of guilty pleas, the first prong of the Strickland test is just a restatement of the standard of attorney competence described above. Lockhart, 474 U.S. at 58.

The second, or "prejudice," requirement, on the other hand, focuses on whether counsel's constitutionally ineffective performance affected the outcome of the plea process. In other words, in order to satisfy the "prejudice" requirement, the defendant must show that there is a reasonable probability that, but for counsel's errors, he ...

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