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State v. Jones

Court of Special Appeals of Maryland

November 25, 2014

STATE OF MARYLAND
v.
COREY JONES

Krauser, C.J., Hotten, Berger, JJ.

OPINION

KRAUSER, C.J.

In 1999, appellant, Corey Jones, pleaded guilty, in the Circuit Court for Baltimore City, to using a minor to distribute heroin, in violation of former Article 27, § 286C.[1] He was thereafter sentenced to a term of six years' imprisonment. All but eighteen months of his six-year sentence were then suspended, to be followed by three years of probation. But, while serving his three-year period of probation, Jones violated its terms on multiple occasions and, as a consequence, in 2005, was ordered to serve three years of his suspended sentence.

After finally completing his 1999 Maryland sentence, which, ultimately amounted to nine years of either incarceration or probation, Jones, in 2011, was charged, in the United States District Court for the District of Maryland, with possession of a firearm by a felon, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 922(g). Upon pleading guilty to that charge, Jones faced a mandatory minimum sentence of fifteen years' imprisonment, under the Armed Career Criminal Act, 18 U.S.C. § 924(e), [2] which provides that an enhanced sentence be imposed upon a defendant convicted of illegal possession of a firearm, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 922(g), where that defendant has three prior convictions "for a violent felony or serious drug offense, or both, and committed on occasions different from one another." See 18 U.S.C. § 924(e)(1).

One of Jones's "three previous convictions" was his 1999 Maryland conviction for using a minor to distribute heroin. Without that conviction, Jones would not have faced sentencing under the federal enhancement statute, that is, 18 U.S.C. § 924(e). Instead, he would have been subject to only an unenhanced sentence of, at most, ten years, under 18 U.S.C. § 924(a)(2), and, notably, if the Federal Sentencing Guidelines were applied to the unenhanced sentence, he would have faced a further substantial reduction in his sentence.

While awaiting sentencing by the federal district court, Jones filed a petition for a writ of error coram nobis on October 9, 2012, in the Baltimore City circuit court, requesting that his drug conviction be vacated because his 1999 Maryland guilty plea to using a minor to distribute heroin was not, he claimed, knowingly and voluntarily made. The State responded, not only was the guilty plea valid, but, in any event, laches barred the coram nobis relief Jones was requesting because Jones had unreasonably delayed in seeking that relief and that that delay had prejudiced the State. The circuit court ultimately granted Jones's coram nobis petition and vacated his conviction, whereupon, the State noted this appeal, reiterating the claims it had made before the circuit court. Because we hold that Jones's coram nobis petition was indeed barred by laches, we reverse.

I.

In April of 1999, Jones was charged with several drug-related offenses, including using a minor to distribute heroin and possession of heroin with intent to distribute. On September 14, 1999, five months after his arrest, Jones appeared in the Baltimore City circuit court to enter a guilty plea.

At that time, the State informed the circuit court that Jones and a "Charles Turner, " a defendant in a separate and unrelated case, would respectively be entering a guilty plea and that Jones's counsel would be "standing in" for Turner's counsel during the entry of Turner's plea. The State further advised the court that, as to Jones, "[it] would be proceeding under Count II of the case, " that is, unlawful use of a minor to distribute heroin. Notwithstanding this representation by the State, Jones's counsel subsequently informed both Jones and Turner, on the record, "you're each pleading guilty to a count of possession with intent to distribute."[3] The circuit court ultimately accepted Jones's guilty plea and sentenced him to a term of six years' imprisonment, all but eighteen months of which were then suspended, and three years of probation was to follow upon his release from imprisonment.[4]

Jones thereafter failed to challenge his guilty plea, either by filing an application for leave to appeal within thirty days after sentencing or by filing a post-conviction petition while he was serving his sentence, [5] a sentence which did not expire until nine years later in 2008. During that nine-year period of time, he was either incarcerated or on probation and could have lawfully challenged his 1999 Maryland conviction via a post-conviction petition.

In 2012, Jones entered a plea of guilty, in the United States District Court for the District of Maryland, to possession of a firearm by a felon, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 922(g). Because of his three prior convictions, [6] one of which was his 1999 Maryland state drug conviction, Jones was subject, under the Armed Career Criminal Act, 18 U.S.C. § 924(e), to an enhanced sentence of at least fifteen years. He would have otherwise faced only a maximum of ten years' imprisonment, under 18 U.S.C. § 924(a)(2), and a little more than half of that sentence under the Federal Sentencing Guidelines, see U.S.S.G. § 2K2.1(a)(2); U.S.S.G. § 4A1.1; U.S.S.G., ch. 5, Sentencing Table.

Immediately following his guilty plea in federal district court, Jones, despite facing a sentence enhancement as a collateral consequence of his 1999 Maryland drug conviction, was not eligible for coram nobis relief, under extant Maryland law, as he had not previously filed an application for leave to appeal his guilty plea and, therefore, would be presumed to have waived his right to such relief. See Holmes v. State, 401 Md. 429, 445–46 (2007).[7] But, while he was awaiting sentencing on that federal charge, the Maryland General Assembly enacted Maryland Code (2001, 2008 Repl. Vol., 2013 Supp.), § 8-401 of the Criminal Procedure Article ("CP"), which provides that "[t]he failure to seek an appeal in a criminal case may not be construed as a waiver of the right to file a petition for writ of error coram nobis." Thus, Jones, under this new enactment, could now seek coram nobis relief.

Thirteen years after pleading guilty to the Maryland drug charge, but only days after the passage of CP § 8-401, enabling Jones to seek coram nobis relief, Jones, on October 9, 2012, filed a petition for a writ of error coram nobis, alleging that, because he "was never informed of the elements of the offense" to which he had pleaded guilty and because "it [was] impossible to determine the crime to which [he had] actually pleaded guilty, " his plea was not knowingly and voluntarily made. Thus, its acceptance by the circuit court was in violation of the United State Constitution and Maryland Rule 4-242(c).[8] With his petition, Jones filed a copy of the transcript of his 1999 guilty plea hearing.

In its opposition to Jones's petition, the State re-asserted that Jones's guilty plea was valid and that his petition was, in any event, barred by laches. The State then turned to the transcript provided by Jones. It was "obviously" not complete, the State pointed out, as the "record indicates and common sense suggests that there were previous discussions during which the plea was negotiated." It is "quite possible, " the State continued, that this part of the proceeding would show that [Jones] understood the nature of the charges to which he was pleading guilty." Moreover, if the court granted Jones's petition, it would be, the State observed, "irreparably hampered in its ability to prosecute" him, given that ...


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