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Ruiz v. United States

United States District Court, D. Maryland

November 25, 2015

CARLOS JOSE TREJO RUIZ, Petitioner,
v.
UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Respondent

          For USA, Plaintiff (8:10-cr-00472-RWT-3): Christen Anne Sproule, Mara Zusman Greenberg, Office of the United States Attorney, Greenbelt, MD.

         For Carlos Jose Trejo Ruiz, Petitioner (8:15-cv-01143-RWT): C Justin Brown, LEAD ATTORNEY, Law Office of C Justin Brown LLC, Baltimore, MD.

         MEMORANDUM OPINION

         ROGER W. TITUS, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         On August 4, 2010, Petitioner Carlos Jose Trejo Ruiz was indicted along with eight other defendants and charged with a single count of conspiracy to distribute cocaine and cocaine base, ECF No. 1. A Superseding Indictment was returned on December 22, 2010, ECF No. 145, that added additional counts not involving Trejo Ruiz, who remained named as a defendant only in Count One charging conspiracy. Less than six weeks before the scheduled trial,[1] a Second Superseding Indictment was returned that, for the first time since the inception of the case, added four additional charges against Trejo Ruiz. A new Count Four charged him with possession of a machinegun during and in relation to a drug trafficking offense in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 924 (c) (1) (B) (ii), an offense that carries a mandatory minimum consecutive sentence of thirty years. ECF No. 335. After a five-day trial beginning on June 26, 2012, the jury returned a verdict finding Trejo Ruiz guilty on all counts. ECF No. 364.

         Trejo Ruiz has now filed a petition under 28 U.S.C. § 2255 to vacate, set aside, or correct his sentence based on ineffective assistance of counsel. ECF No. 509. He alleges unreasonable performance due to his attorney's failure to request a jury instruction that conviction under the machinegun count required proof of mens rea, i.e., proof that he knew that the weapon was a machinegun. ECF No. 509, at 1. He alleges that he was prejudiced by the unreasonable performance because a reasonable juror, properly instructed, would have been unlikely to convict him of the machinegun charge. For the reasons that follow, the Court agrees with Trejo Ruiz and will vacate his conviction and sentence on the machinegun charge.

         BACKGROUND & PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         Between July 2009 and August 2010, Trejo Ruiz, a first-time, non-violent offender, participated in a drug trafficking ring led by Nestor Vladamir Sandoval-Roca. After being found guilty on all counts at the conclusion of his five-day jury trial,[2] Trejo Ruiz appeared for sentencing on November 8, 2012. He was initially sentenced to a 360-month term of imprisonment with all sentences to run concurrently, followed by five years of supervised release.[3] ECF No. 448, at 2-3. On November 20, 2012, after a motion by the Government questioning the legality of concurrent sentences, this Court amended the sentence for the machinegun charge to run consecutively, thereby increasing Trejo Ruiz's term of imprisonment to 480 months.[4] ECF No. 440; ECF No. 450, at 2. Thus, Trejo Ruiz, a minor participant in the drug conspiracy, was sentenced to a term of imprisonment far greater than that of all of his co-conspirators--including the undisputed ringleader, Sandoval-Roca, who received only 210 months. Trejo Ruiz's other co-conspirators received sentences of thirteen, twenty-three, twenty-four, thirty, forty-six, and fifty-seven months. All told, Trejo Ruiz received a sentence that was greater than all his co-conspirators' sentences combined.

         The Fourth Circuit affirmed this Court's verdict and sentence on January 10, 2014, and the Supreme Court denied certiorari on April 21, 2014. ECF No. 487-2; Trejo-Ruiz v. United States, 134 S.Ct. 1902, 188 L.Ed.2d 931 (2014). On April 21, 2015, Trejo Ruiz filed a timely motion pursuant to § 2255 seeking to set aside, correct, or vacate his sentence. ECF No. 509. The Government responded in opposition on June 8, 2015, ECF No. 514, and Trejo Ruiz filed a reply in support of his motion on June 29, 2015, ECF No. 515.

         The central dispute in this case concerns Trejo Ruiz's sale or transfer of a machinegun to Sandoval-Roca. ECF No. 509, at 1. Trejo Ruiz maintains that he never knew that the weapon was capable of automatic firing, and that his counsel's failure to request a jury instruction on the mens rea requirement of the machinegun charge constituted unreasonable and prejudicial error. Id. at 2, 18.

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         Under § 2255, a petitioner must prove by a preponderance of the evidence that " the sentence was imposed in violation of the Constitution or laws of the United States, or that the court was without jurisdiction to impose such sentence, or that the sentence was in excess of the maximum authorized by law." 28 U.S.C. § 2255; see Miller v. United States, 261 F.2d 546, 547 (4th Cir. 1958). The claim must have a " fundamental defect which inherently results in a complete miscarriage of justice" or " an omission inconsistent with the rudimentary demand of fair procedure." Hill v. United States, 368 U.S. 424, 428, 82 S.Ct. 468, 7 L.Ed.2d 417 (1962).

         ANALYSIS

         Trejo Ruiz asserts ineffective assistance of counsel based on the failure of his attorney to request an instruction that in order to convict, the jury must find beyond a reasonable doubt that he knew that the firearm he possessed was a machinegun. ECF No. 509, at 1. As a result, Trejo Ruiz argues that a key element of the crime was not proven beyond a reasonable doubt, a notion that Trejo Ruiz's then defense counsel, Anthony Martin, concedes both now and on appeal was a critical error. See ECF No. 509-1.

         In its response, the Government first contends that a mens rea element is not required to prove a violation of § 924 (c) (1) (B) (ii). ECF No. 514, at 9-11. Second, the Government contends that any potential mens rea requirement under § 924 (c) (1) (B) (ii) results from a statutory construction argument for which precedent did not exist at the time of the trial. Id. at 5-9. As a result, the Government argues that the Court cannot find defense counsel's performance deficient and that Trejo Ruiz cannot demonstrate prejudice. Id. Third, the Government points to the same evidence that Trejo Ruiz presents (witness testimony and the weapon's physical characteristics) and avers that " in the light most favorable to the Government," a jury could have reasonably concluded that Trejo Ruiz knew that the firearm was a machinegun.[5] Id. at 12-13.

         Courts examine claims of ineffective assistance of counsel under the two-prong test set forth in Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 687, 104 S.Ct. 2052, 80 L.Ed.2d 674 (1984). Under the performance prong, a petitioner must show that counsel's performance was deficient. Id. " Judicial scrutiny of counsel's performance must be highly deferential." Id. at 689; see also United States v. Terry, 366 F.3d 312, 317 (4th Cir. 2004). The alleged deficient performance must be objectively unreasonable and " requires showing that counsel made errors so serious that counsel was not functioning as the 'counsel' guaranteed the defendant by the Sixth Amendment." Strickland, 466 U.S. at 687. The Court must evaluate the conduct at issue from counsel's perspective at the time, and must " indulge a strong presumption that counsel's conduct falls within the wide range of reasonable professional assistance." Id. at 689.

         Under the prejudice prong, a petitioner must show that the deficient performance prejudiced the defense, and but for counsel's unprofessional errors, there is a reasonable probability that the result of the proceeding would have been different. Id. at 687, 694. Unless a petitioner makes both showings, the Court cannot find that the conviction resulted from a breakdown in the adversarial process that renders the result unreliable. Id. at 696.

         If there is not a mens rea requirement under § 924 (c) (1) (B) (ii), then the analysis does not need to go any further because counsel's performance was not objectively unreasonable. If this Court does find the existence of a mens rea requirement, ...


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