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United States v. Ceballos-Ceballos

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

October 30, 2018



         THIS MATTER comes before the Court following a hearing on Defendant's Sentencing Memoranda (Docs. 44, 45, 49) and the United States' Sentencing Memorandum (Doc. 46). Having reviewed the pleadings of the parties and the reports from the United States Probation Office (Docs. 41, 50), heard the oral arguments of counsel, and considered the applicable law, the parties' request that the Court accept the Rule 11(c)(1)(C) plea agreement (Doc. 36) to a specific sentence of 0-6 months' incarceration is not well-taken, and is, therefore, REJECTED.


         Defendant Veronica Rodriguez-Armendariz (“Rodriguez-Armendariz” or “Defendant”) and her co-defendant husband Hector Ceballos-Ceballos (“Ceballos-Ceballos”) are charged with conspiracy pursuant to 21 U.S.C. § 846 for cocaine distribution (Count 1). Doc. 2. Ceballos-Ceballos is also charged with violation of 21 U.S.C. § 841 (Count 2, possession with intent to distribute cocaine), 18 U.S.C. § 924(c) (Count 3, using and carrying a firearm during and in relation to a drug trafficking crime), and 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(5) (Count 4, alien in possession of a firearm). Id. Rodriguez-Armendariz reached a plea agreement with the Government pursuant to Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 11(c)(1)(C) for a specific sentence of 0-6 months' incarceration on Count 1. Doc. 36, ¶ 12(a). After reaching the Rule 11(c)(1)(C) deal, the United States Probation Office (“Probation”) released Rodriguez-Armendariz's Pre-Sentence Report (“PSR”), in which Probation calculated the United States Sentencing Guidelines range to be 46-57 months, with a total offense level 23 and criminal history category I. Doc. 41, PSR, ¶¶ 20-30, 53. Probation reached the same determination for Ceballos-Ceballos. Doc. 51, ¶¶ 22-32, 62. Ceballos-Ceballos reached a Rule 11(c)(1)(C) plea agreement for 37-46 months' incarceration for Counts 1, 2, and 4. Doc. 38, ¶ 14. His sentencing hearing is set for November 7, 2018.

         In her plea agreement, Rodriguez-Armendariz made the following admission:

On April 24, 2017, in Bernalillo County, in the District of New Mexico, I knowingly and intentionally agreed with my husband, Hector Ceballos-Ceballos, to unlawfully sell cocaine to drug customers throughout Albuquerque. My husband and I used our home to package cocaine and store drug supplies, drug paraphernalia, and drug money. My husband was in possession of approximately 57 small baggies of cocaine at the time of his arrest. The New Mexico Department of Public Safety Forensic Laboratories conducted a forensic chemical analysis which showed that the drugs that my husband possessed were in fact cocaine. I was aware of my husband's cocaine trafficking activities at all times and helped him sell cocaine. I had in my home $9, 117 which was proceeds of cocaine trafficking.

Doc. 36, ¶ 10. Her husband's plea agreement states that he distributed cocaine for approximately one year, which Rodriguez-Armendariz admitted to being “aware of” at all times, and that Rodriguez-Armendariz helped package the fifty-seven baggies of cocaine discovered on Ceballos-Ceballos at the time of his arrest. Doc. 38, ¶ 12.

         The great discrepancy in the United States Sentencing Guidelines (“Sentencing Guidelines”) range calculations in Rodriguez-Armendariz's Rule 11(c)(1)C) agreement and her PSR comes from the Government's admitted failure to account for the drug quantity equivalency of $9, 117.00 found inside Rodriguez-Armendariz's purse, which she admitted was proceeds of cocaine trafficking. Probation converted the $9, 117.00 to equal 455 grams of cocaine, for a total of 475.39 grams of cocaine attributable to both defendants. PSR, ¶ 15. The Government admits that it underestimated the base offense level for Rodriguez-Armendariz when it extended the plea offer, as the Government calculated the base offense level to be 12, based on less than fifty grams of cocaine. Doc. 46 at 9. While the Government admits the mistake in estimating the base offense level for Rodriguez-Armendariz, the Government has stood by its decision to enter into the Rule 11(c)(1)(C) with Rodriguez-Armendariz and requested that the Court accept said plea agreement.

         Additionally, Probation applied enhancements that the Government apparently did not anticipate and that prevented Rodriguez-Armendariz from being eligible for safety-valve consideration. Doc. 46 at 9; PSR, ¶ 21; Doc. 50 at 1-2. Rodriguez-Armendariz has not objected to the conversion of the $9, 117.00 to 455 grams of cocaine, for a total amount of 475.39 grams of cocaine. PSR, ¶ 15. She has filed objections to not receiving reductions for the safety valve consideration and for a minor role, as well as an objection to an enhancement for maintaining a premises for drug distribution and a firearms enhancement. Doc. 49.

         Rodriguez-Armendariz and her husband have consented to removal from the United States after their terms of incarceration. Doc. 36, ¶ 23; Doc. 38, ¶ 24. They have two children, ages eleven and thirteen, both of whom are U.S. citizens and have some cognitive or intellectual limitations. At the October 9, 2018 hearing, Rodriguez-Armendariz identified grounds for a downward variance to support the request that the Court accept the Rule 11(c)(1)(C) plea and impose a sentence of 0-6 months' incarceration. After expressing concern about a sentencing disparity between Rodriguez-Armendariz and Ceballos-Ceballos, the Court continued the sentencing hearing until it was prepared to rule on the plea agreement. The Court now rejects the Rule 11(c)(1)(C) plea agreement proposed by Rodriguez-Armendariz and the Government because a sentence of 0-6 months' incarceration for Rodriguez-Armendariz is not a sentence that is sufficient to satisfy the goals of sentencing.


         I. Relevant law on Rule 11(c)(1)(C) plea agreements

         The Tenth Circuit explained in United States v. Robertson, 45 F.3d 1423 (10th Cir. 1995), that “[i]n addressing the question of whether, and under what circumstances a district court may reject a plea agreement entered into between the defendant and government, our starting point is Rule 11 which describes the procedures for the acceptance or rejection of those agreements.” 45 F.3d at 1437. The Circuit further provided that “[w]hile Rule 11 vests district courts with the discretion to accept or reject plea agreements, the rule does not define the criteria to be applied in doing so. On the contrary, so long as district courts exercise sound judicial discretion in rejecting a tendered plea, Rule 11 is not violated.” Id. (citation omitted); Fed. R. Crim. P. 11(c)(3)(A); see United States v. Carrigan, 778 F.2d 1454, 1462 (10th Cir. 1985) (“There is no absolute right to have a guilty plea accepted, and a court may reject a plea in the exercise of sound judicial discretion.” (citing Santobello v. New York, 404 U.S. 257, 262 (1971)); see also Morgan v. United States Dist. Court (In re Morgan), 506 F.3d 705, 710 (9th Cir. 2007) (“Nowhere does Rule 11 define the criteria by which a district court should exercise the discretion the rule confers, or explain how a district court should determine whether to accept a plea agreement.”).

         Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 11(c)(1)(C) allows the prosecution and the defendant to agree to a specific sentence range, and if the Court accepts a plea agreement pursuant Rule 11(c)(1)(C), then it is bound to impose a sentence within the agreed upon range. Fed. R. Crim. P. 11(c)(1)(C). But “[b]ecause sentencing is within the exclusive purview of the district court, the court has a wide range of discretion to either accept or reject sentence bargains, as contemplated by Rule 11(c)(1)(B) and (C).” United States v. Macias-Gonzalez, 219 Fed.Appx. 814, 817 (10th Cir. 2007). Indeed, federal sentencing law requires the sentencing judge to impose “a sentence sufficient, but not greater than necessary, ” to comply with the purposes of federal sentencing, in light of the Guidelines and other § 3553(a) factors. 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a). Although the Sentencing Guidelines are not binding, “[i]n deciding whether to accept an agreement that includes a specific sentence, the district court must consider the Sentencing Guidelines.” Hughes v. United States, 138 S.Ct. 1765, 1773 (2018). Sentence bargaining, as reached here, severely “implicates judicial discretion by limiting the sentencing power of the district court.” Robertson, 45 F.3d at 1437 (noting specific sentence plea agreements “attempt to completely curtail that discretion, [and] a district court's decision to preserve that aspect of judicial power is not an abuse of discretion”).

         II. ...

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