United States District Court, D. Maryland
USA, Plaintiff (8:10-cr-00472-RWT-3): Christen Anne Sproule,
Mara Zusman Greenberg, Office of the United States Attorney,
Carlos Jose Trejo Ruiz, Petitioner (8:15-cv-01143-RWT): C
Justin Brown, LEAD ATTORNEY, Law Office of C Justin Brown
LLC, Baltimore, MD.
W. TITUS, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.
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, 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.
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.
& PROCEDURAL HISTORY
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, 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. 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. 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.
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.
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.
§ 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
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.
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. Id. at 12-13.
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
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
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, ...