7th Circuit vacates conspiracy conviction for drug dealer who didn’t understand charge

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The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals has vacated and remanded a drug dealer’s conviction of conspiracy as well as his sentences after concluding a district court failed to clear up any confusion regarding his guilty plea.

In September 2018, officers from the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department and the Drug Enforcement Agency executed a search warrant at Thomas Goliday’s home in Indianapolis, recovering assorted drugs and a loaded handgun.

Arriving during the search, Goliday waived his Miranda rights and agreed to speak to the officers, admitting the drugs and gun found in the home were his. Goliday then told the officers he had bought 2 ounces of heroin every week for the last year from the same supplier and would resell the heroin in smaller amounts.

However, “Goliday’s attempted cooperation did not pan out — indeed, from his perspective, it backfired,” the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals wrote. “In the government’s view, his statements to police regarding his heroin purchases supplied the basis for an additional charge. Adding together the weekly two-ounce purchases from his supplier, the indictment charged Goliday with conspiring to distribute more than 1,000 grams of heroin.”

Goliday was also charged with three counts of possession with intent to distribute drugs. Additionally, the government filed an information under 21 U.S.C. § 851 notifying Goliday that, based on a prior felony drug conviction, he faced an enhanced sentence if convicted.

Before the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana, Goliday pleaded guilty to all charges.

During Goliday’s plea hearing, the government read into the record what it viewed as the factual basis for the conspiracy charge: “Through investigation, officers learned that Goliday had been receiving 2 ounces of heroin a week for a year from a coconspirator, [totaling] in excess of 1,000 grams of heroin, which heroin he then resold to others in exchange for financial remuneration.”

But Goliday told the court that he wanted to get his drug dealer caught and that he didn’t have 1,000 grams of drugs but 80 grams in his house at the time.

According to court documents, Southern Indiana District Judge James P. Hanlon told Goliday, “Well, the question, then, is that there is no allegation that you had 1,000 grams or more of a mixture or substance that contained a detectable amount of heroin. It alleges that there was a conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute and to distribute heroin and that the conspiracy involved 1,000 grams or more.”

When asked if that was true, Goliday confirmed.

The district court subsequently found a sufficient factual basis for Goliday’s guilty plea to the conspiracy charge. Additionally, the district court determined there was sufficient factual support for Goliday’s plea to the three § 841(a)(1) substantive drug possession charges and sentenced him to four concurrent terms of 15 years.

Without the conspiracy charge, Goliday would have faced a statutory minimum sentence of 10 years and a maximum of life.

On appeal, Goliday argued the district court should not have accepted his plea to the conspiracy charge, alleging it did not ensure he understood the nature of the charge and did not confirm the existence of facts sufficient to demonstrate a conspiracy with his heroin supplier.

The 7th Circuit judges agreed, concluding that Goliday cleared the high bar of Rule 11(b) of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure and that the district court plainly erred.

“The district court’s explanation is accurate as far as it goes, but on this record it did not go far enough,” Judge Michael Scudder wrote. “According to the district court, the first element of a § 846 conspiracy is that the ‘conspiracy … existed.’ That might have sufficed if, in the totality of the circumstances, other portions of the plea colloquy gave us comfort that Goliday understood the charge against him. But we know from what Goliday later said that he harbored significant confusion about perhaps the key element of the conspiracy charge: ‘an agreement [between Goliday and his supplier] to commit a crime other than the crime that consists of the sale itself.’

“… After the government read its proffered factual basis into the record, Goliday spoke up,” Scudder continued. “He told the district court that he did not understand how he could be liable for the full 1,000 grams involved in the alleged conspiracy, maintaining that he only had ‘80 grams … in [his] house’ and that he had only mentioned the 1,000-gram amount in a statement to investigators ‘to help them [convict his] supplier’ — so they could ‘go bust this guy and get the drugs from him.’”

Further, the 7th Circuit found Goliday’s statements reflected a two-fold misunderstanding.

“First, he did not appreciate that he faced charges for entering into a more wide-reaching partnership with his supplier beyond an agreement to buy particular quantities of heroin,” Scudder wrote. “Second, he did not understand the consequences of conceding that point — that he would be held legally responsible for all drug amounts traceable to that illegal agreement, not just those quantities he possessed at the time of his arrest.

“… Faced with Goliday’s evident confusion on this crucial point, Rule 11 required the district court to tap the brake pedal and slow things down a touch to ensure that Goliday knew what he was accepting responsibility for.”

Similarly, the 7th Circuit found error with respect to the district court’s Rule 11(b)(3) obligation to ensure a sufficient factual basis for accepting Goliday’s guilty plea on the conspiracy count.

“We have rejected the argument before and do so again today,” Scudder wrote. “A prosecution based ‘only on evidence that a buyer and seller traded in large quantities of drugs, used standardized transactions, and had a prolonged relationship’ leaves the jury to ‘choose between two equally plausible inferences’ — a conspiracy and an ordinary buyer-seller relationship are equally likely. … With the evidence thus ‘essentially in equipoise,’ we have said, ‘the jury must acquit’ in the absence of ‘some other evidence of a conspiratorial agreement to tip the scales.’”

“… That leaves the question whether the error is so serious as to impugn the ‘fairness, integrity, or public reputation of the judicial proceedings’ and justify the exercise of ‘our discretionary authority to correct an unpreserved error,’” Scudder wrote. “… We believe the answer is yes in the totality of what is before us here. The district court did not ensure that Goliday had ‘real notice of the true nature of the charges against him,’ which the Supreme Court has called ‘the first and most universally recognized requirement of due process.’ Bousley v. United States, 523 U.S. 614, 618 (1998). And its failure to ensure an adequate basis for the plea means the court may have allowed Goliday to plead guilty to an offense of which he is actually innocent. … Neither error can stand.”

Thus, the 7th Circuit vacated the conspiracy conviction under 21 U.S.C. § 846 and remanded for further proceedings on the charge. Additionally, because the mandatory minimum sentence for the § 846 conviction may have increased Goliday’s sentence on the other three convictions, the case was remanded for plenary resentencing.

The case is United States of America v. Thomas L. Goliday, 21-1326.

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