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United States v. Thomas

United States District Court, E.D. Tennessee

June 14, 2019

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
v.
LARRY EDWARD THOMAS

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          J. RONNIE GREER UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Currently before the Court is the defendant's pro se motion to withdraw his guilty pleas, [Doc. 64]. Pursuant to this Court's order, the defendant has also filed a formal motion through counsel, [Doc. 68]. The United States has responded, [Doc. 69]. On May 21, 2019, this Court held an evidentiary hearing on the matter. The motion is now ripe for review. For the reasons that follow, the defendant's motion will be DENIED.

         I. Procedural Background

         On July 30, 2018, the parties filed a signed plea agreement in this case, [Doc. 52], and the Court subsequently scheduled a change of plea hearing to commence on August 13, 2018. At the hearing on August 13, this Court ultimately accepted the defendant's guilty pleas as to Counts One and Five of the indictment, and took the parties' plea agreement under advisement. On February 7, 2019, the defendant filed a pro se motion to withdraw his guilty pleas, and further requested the Court to appoint him new counsel. On February 11, 2019, the Court held a hearing on the defendant's motion with respect to his request for a different attorney. The Court found that appointment of new counsel was appropriate at that time, and ordered the defendant to confer with his new attorney to determine if a withdrawal of his guilty pleas was still requested. See [Doc. 66]. The defendant subsequently filed a renewed motion to withdraw his guilty pleas in accordance with this Court's order, [Doc.68].

         The Court held an evidentiary hearing on the defendant's motion on May 21, 2019. The defendant was the sole witness on his behalf. The United States did not present any witnesses.

         II. FACTS

         The defendant was indicted by a federal grand jury on August 8, 2017 in a five-count indictment, [Doc. 1]. The indictment charged the defendant in all five counts, including Count One for conspiracy to distribute 50 grams or more of methamphetamine, Counts Two and Four for possession of a firearm in furtherance of a drug trafficking offense, Count Three for possession with the intent to distribute 50 grams or more of methamphetamine, and Count Five for possession of a firearm not registered with the National Firearms Registration and Transfer Record, [Doc. 3]. The defendant signed, and the parties filed, a plea agreement on July 30, 2018, [Doc. 52]. In that plea agreement, the defendant agreed to plead guilty to Count One of the indictment, conspiracy to distribute 50 grams or more of actual methamphetamine, and Count Five of the indictment, possession of a firearm not registered with the National Firearms Registration and Transfer Record. The stipulation of facts agreed to by the parties satisfying the elements of the offenses specifically set out that “[b]etween October 1, 2015 and December 31, 2015, the defendant traveled to Atlanta, Georgia, for and on behalf of another Greene County, Tennessee individual to obtain methamphetamine from Richard Alan Davis and others.” [Id. at ¶ 4]. Additionally, the plea agreement stated that the “Defendant agrees that he is responsible for conspiring with others to distribute at least 150 grams but less than 500 grams of methamphetamine (actual).” [Id.]. Also, the plea agreement stated that the defendant “further agrees that he possessed the sawed-off shotgun that was inside the residence, that the barrel of the shotgun was less than 18 inches in length, and that the firearm was not registered to him in the National Firearms Registration and Transfer Record.” [Id.]. The agreement further stated that “[t]he defendant is pleading guilty because the defendant is in fact guilty.” [Id. at ¶ 5].

         The defendant appeared before this Court at the August 13 change of plea hearing. At the change of plea hearing, the Court followed its usual plea colloquy with the defendant, explaining to the defendant the offenses he was charged with, the elements of the offenses he was pleading guilty to, his right to plead not guilty, his rights associated with a trial, the mandatory minimum penalty as well as the maximum possible penalty which the Court could impose, and also conducted other questioning of the defendant to ensure that his pleas of guilty were voluntarily and knowingly made. Based on all of the defendant's responses to the Court's questions, the Court found that the guilty pleas were in fact made voluntarily and knowingly, and adjudged the defendant guilty of Count One and Count Five of the indictment. The Court took the parties' proposed plea agreement under advisement. Sentencing has yet to commence. The defendant's instant motion requests this Court to allow him to withdraw these guilty pleas and proceed to a jury trial.

         III. Standard of Review

         Before accepting a guilty plea, the court must address the defendant personally, in open court, and determine that the defendant is entering the plea voluntarily and that it is not the result of force, threats, or promises other than those contained in the plea agreement. See Fed. R. Crim. P. 11(b). A plea must be entered into voluntarily, knowingly, and intelligently “with sufficient awareness of the relevant circumstances and likely consequences.” Brady v. United States, 397 U.S. 742, 748 (1970).

         After a guilty plea has been accepted by the court but before sentence is imposed, a defendant may withdraw a plea of guilty if “the defendant can show a fair and just reason for requesting the withdrawal.” Fed. R. Crim. P. 11(d)(2)(B). “A defendant does not have an absolute right to withdraw a guilty plea and bears the burden of proving that he is entitled to withdraw his guilty plea.” United States v. Ellis, 470 F.3d 275, 280 (6th Cir. 2006) (citing United States v. Mader, 251 F.3d 1099, 1105 (6th Cir. 2001)). Further, “[w]hen a defendant has entered a knowing and voluntary plea of guilty at a hearing at which he acknowledged committing the crime, the occasion for setting aside a guilty plea should seldom arise.” Id. (quoting United States v. Morrison, 967 F.2d 264, 268 (8th Cir. 1992)).

         The rule allowing a defendant to withdraw his guilty plea before the court imposes sentence is “designed to allow a hastily entered plea made with unsure heart and confused mind to be undone, not to allow a defendant to make a tactical decision to enter plea, wait several weeks, and then obtain a withdrawal if he believes he made a bad choice in pleading guilty.” Id. at 280-81 (internal quotation marks omitted). The factors the court should consider in determining whether the defendant has met his burden for a fair and just reason include:

(1) the amount of time that elapsed between the plea and the motion to withdraw it; (2) the presence (or absence) of a valid reason for the failure to move for withdrawal earlier in the proceedings; (3) whether the defendant has asserted or maintained his innocence; (4) the circumstances underlying the entry of the guilty plea; (5) the defendant's nature and background; (6) the degree to which the defendant has had prior experience with the criminal justice system; and (7) potential prejudice to the government if the motion to withdraw is granted.

Id. (citing United States v. Bashara, 27 F.3d 1174, 1181 (6th Cir. 1994)). “The factors listed are a general, non-exclusive list and no one factor is controlling.” United States v. Bazzi, 94 F.3d 1025, 1027 (6th Cir. 1996).

         IV. Analysis

         At the hearing for this motion, the defendant presented his own testimony regarding the circumstances of entering his guilty pleas. At the outset of the hearing, the defendant's newly appointed attorney noted to the Court his surprise at the lack of discovery in this case. Counsel initially suggested that it would be largely unconscionable for the defendant's former counsel to proceed to trial with the apparent lack of discovery. However, after discussion, counsel later acknowledged that there may be some strategic justification that the defendant's former lawyer had in the quick resolution of this case without involving facts related to concurrent state court proceedings in Georgia. In any ...


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