Second Circuit Vacates Conviction Based on Insufficient Guilty Plea

Second Circuit Vacates Conviction Based on Insufficient Guilty Plea

United States v. Aybar-Peguero, Nos. 21-1711(L), 21-1847(Con), 2023 U.S. App. LEXIS 17015 (2d Cir. July 6, 2023)

Francis Jose Aybar-Peguero pled guilty to drug trafficking in violation of 21 U.S.C. Sections 841 and 846 and concealment money laundering in violation of 18 U.S.C. Section 1956(a)(1)(B)(i). During his plea colloquy, speaking through a Spanish-English interpreter, Aybar-Peguero repeatedly failed to acknowledge that he had intended to conceal the proceeds of his drug trafficking, an element of concealment money laundering. On appeal, Aybar-Peguero contends that his conviction for concealment money laundering should be reversed because an insufficient factual basis existed for his guilty plea pursuant to Rule 11 of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure.
The Second Circuit vacated Aybar-Peguero’s Section 1956(a)(1)(B)(i) conviction and sentence and remanded. The court found that the district court’s error is “plain.” In this case, Aybar-Peguero did not admit to a concealment purpose—an offense element—and the other evidence did not establish that intent either. Thus, it is clear and obvious that Rule 11(b)(3) was not satisfied. Second, the district court’s error prejudicially affected Aybar-Peguero’s substantial rights. The court reasoned that it appears likely that Aybar-Peguero would not have pled guilty to violating Section 1956(a)(1)(B)(i) had he understood its mens rea requirement and been told that he needed to state a concealment purpose. Aybar-Peguero was consistent and persistent in maintaining that his purpose was otherwise. Last, the plain and prejudicial error seriously harmed the legitimacy of the judicial proceeding. The district court’s acceptance of the guilty plea without Aybar-Peguero’s acknowledgment that he intended to conceal the source of his funds casts serious doubt upon the “fairness, integrity and public reputation of the judicial proceedings.”

What does this case mean for anyone who insists that they didn’t commit the offense(s) they were charged with, despite pleading guilty? I think it shows that people plead guilty even when they’re not really guilty of the offense charged. Remember that the government has the burden to prove every element of an offense. This burden doesn’t go away merely because someone pleads guilty. At the guilty plea hearing, the court is required to ensure the person pleading understands every element of the offense before it can accept the plea.

The road to relief is tough. While this case was a direct appeal, attacking the guilty plea after sentencing and appeals are completed is a bit more complicated. The standard is that you’d have to show your guilty plea was not “knowing and voluntary.” These two things go hand in hand, of course, so showing one usually results in satisfying the other. A key component to any attack on a guilty plea is what’s in the guilty plea hearing transcript. If the basis for the claim isn’t in the transcript, then you’ll have to allege facts with enough detail to convince the court that the record needs to be further developed, usually with an evidentiary hearing. That’s the purpose of a motion under 28 U.S.C. § 2255, requesting to vacate a conviction or guilty plea.

I go over all these details in my book INSIDER’S GUIDE: ATTACKING THE GUILTY PLEA, which is currently being revised and updated. Email to sign up for an alert when the book is released.

With respect,


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