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United States v. Walker

United States Court of Appeals, Fourth Circuit

April 25, 2019

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Plaintiff - Appellee,
CHARLES YORK WALKER, JR., Defendant-Appellant.

          Argued: January 31, 2019

          Appeal from the United States District Court for the Southern District of West Virginia, at Charleston. Joseph R. Goodwin, District Judge. (2:16-cr-00174-1)


          Jonathan D. Byrne, OFFICE OF THE FEDERAL PUBLIC DEFENDER, Charleston, West Virginia, for Appellant.

          Steven Loew, OFFICE OF THE UNITED STATES ATTORNEY, Charleston, West Virginia, for Appellee.

         ON BRIEF:

          Christian M. Capece, Federal Public Defender, Lex A. Coleman, Assistant Federal Public Defender, OFFICE OF THE FEDERAL PUBLIC DEFENDER, Charleston, West Virginia, for Appellant.

          Michael B. Stuart, United States Attorney, W. Clinton Carte, Assistant United States Attorney, OFFICE OF THE UNITED STATES ATTORNEY, Charleston, West Virginia, for Appellee.

          Before WILKINSON, NIEMEYER, and KING, Circuit Judges.


         Defendant Charles York Walker, Jr., appeals from drug and firearms convictions and his resulting 120-month sentence in the Southern District of West Virginia. After the district court rejected a plea agreement under which Walker would have pleaded guilty to a single count of possession with intent to distribute heroin, Walker pleaded guilty - without a plea agreement - to three drug offenses of a four-count indictment. A jury trial was then conducted on the firearms charge in the fourth count of the indictment and Walker was found guilty thereof. On appeal, Walker contends that the court erred in three respects: by rejecting his plea agreement with the United States; in sustaining the prosecution's peremptory strike of an African-American woman from the jury; and in calculating his advisory Guidelines range. As explained below, we affirm the criminal judgment.



         In early 2016, several law enforcement agencies in Kanawha County, West Virginia, were investigating drug trafficking in a task force called the Metropolitan Drug Enforcement Network Team ("MDENT"). See J.A.S. 669-70.[1] Between April and July 2016, MDENT used confidential informants to conduct seven controlled buys of heroin from Walker. On two of those occasions, the heroin purchased from Walker contained the opioid fentanyl.[2]

         On July 14, 2016, MDENT officers arrested Walker in Charleston, West Virginia. They searched Walker's person in connection with his arrest and recovered small amounts of marijuana, cocaine, and heroin. That same day, the MDENT officers executed a search warrant at an apartment in Charleston, which informants had linked to Walker's drug business. The officers who conducted the search found and seized, inter alia, a .38-caliber Rossi handgun, a .45-caliber Kimber handgun, five boxes of .45-caliber ammunition, a set of drug scales, and two cell phones, one of which belonged to Walker. The officers then obtained and executed a search warrant for Walker's cell phone, from which they seized text messages concerning drug activity, plus photos that depicted Walker holding the .45-caliber Kimber pistol. Two days before Walker's arrest, the MDENT officers learned from an informant that Walker "pistol-whipped" a man named Corns, who owed Walker for drugs. See J.A.S. 674. After Walker's arrest, the officers interviewed Corns, who admitted purchasing illegal drugs from Walker and said that Walker had beaten him with a .38-caliber revolver.

         On September 13, 2016, a federal grand jury in Charleston returned a six-count indictment against Walker. The indictment alleged three counts of distributing heroin and two counts of distributing fentanyl, in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 841(a)(1), plus a single charge of possessing the two firearms as a convicted felon, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1).



         Four months after he was indicted, in January 2017, Walker entered into a plea agreement with the United States. Pursuant thereto, Walker agreed to plead guilty to a criminal information that charged him with a single count of possession with intent to distribute heroin, in contravention of 21 U.S.C. § 841(a)(1). After the Government filed the information, the district court conducted a plea hearing on January 26, 2017. The court accepted Walker's guilty plea but deferred acceptance of the plea agreement pending a presentence report (the "PSR").

         The Probation Office prepared the PSR by April 2017, and the parties thereafter submitted sentencing memoranda to the district court. Based on the plea agreement, the PSR recommended a base offense level of 12, the lowest possible level for offenses involving heroin or fentanyl. The PSR also recommended a 2-level enhancement for possession of a firearm and a 2-level reduction for acceptance of responsibility, for a total offense level of 12. The PSR determined that Walker's criminal history category was IV, resulting in an advisory Guidelines range of 21 to 27 months.

         Both parties objected to aspects of the PSR. The Government sought an additional enhancement because of Walker's attack on Corns, and Walker challenged the proposed firearm enhancement. The Government sought a sentence of between 24 and 30 months, while Walker requested a sentence of 12 months plus a day.


         On June 26, 2017, the district court conducted another hearing and rejected the plea agreement.[3] As the court explained, the PSR revealed a number of troubling facts. Walker, who was 38 years old, had several juvenile theft convictions and about 18 criminal convictions as an adult, and several of his convictions related to drugs and firearms. The court emphasized that, despite Walker's multiple convictions - and myriad other charges not pursued to conviction - he had consistently received lenient sentences and had served only about eight years in prison. The court also reviewed and emphasized Walker's violent history. For example, the PSR revealed that Walker had pistol-whipped three different persons (including Corns). Additionally, the court considered a separate incident that resulted in a domestic battery charge against Walker.

         Of particular concern to the district court was the nature of the drug offenses in the indictment, that is, trafficking in heroin and fentanyl. The court underscored the terrible toll that those drugs had exacted on the entire country - and on West Virginia in particular - describing in detail the scale and cost of the "heroin and opioid crisis." See J.A. 86. Drawing on a November 2016 report from the DEA, the court emphasized that an average of 91 Americans died from opioid overdoses every day. Locally, it was reported that 844 West Virginians died of drug overdoses in 2016.

         Having recited the impact of the nation's opioid epidemic, the district court also expounded on its concerns about excessive plea bargaining in the federal courts. The court outlined justifications for the extensive plea bargaining used in the federal system and rejected as empirically unsound the common rationale of "overburdened prosecutors and judges." See J.A. 93. For example, the court observed that, despite an increase in the number of federal prosecutors in the past 40 years, the number of federal criminal trials had significantly decreased during that period (from approximately 8500 to 2000 trials per year). The court concluded:

Because the most common justifications for plea bargaining no longer have any substantial heft, the counterweight of the people's general interest in observing and participating in their government requires close consideration of proffered plea bargains in every case. I conclude that the courts should reject a plea agreement upon finding that the plea agreement is not in the public interest.

Id. at 96. The court then identified four factors that should be used to assess whether a plea agreement is in the public interest: (1) "the cultural context surrounding the subject criminal conduct"; (2) "the public's interest in participating in the adjudication of the criminal conduct"; (3) the possibility of "community catharsis" absent the transparency of a jury trial; and (4) whether, in light of the PSR, it appeared that the "motivation" for the plea agreement was "to advance justice" or to "expediently avoid trial." Id. at 97-98.

         Applying those factors to Walker's plea proceedings, the district court determined that: (1) "the cultural context is a rural state [West Virginia] deeply wounded by . . . heroin and opioid addiction"; (2) "the public has a high interest in [the] adjudication of heroin and opioid crimes" because of the severity of the opioid crisis in West Virginia; (3) a jury trial could permit the "peaceful expression of community outrage" at Walker's "vicious criminal acts"; and (4) the principal motive behind Walker's plea agreement was convenience. See J.A. 97-98. Consequently, the court rejected the plea agreement reached between Walker and the United States.

         In response, Walker's counsel acknowledged the district court's view of Walker's case but challenged its contention that a jury trial would be preferable to resolution by the plea agreement. Walker's lawyer also disputed the proposition that the plea agreement had been reached "out of expedience," and emphasized what he called the relatively minor drug quantities involved in Walker's offenses. See J.A. 102-03. The lawyer concluded by asking the court to "at least evaluate reconsidering with respect to [Walker's] case." Id. at 103. The court declined to alter its position, however, and scheduled a hearing to permit Walker to withdraw his guilty plea. Walker withdrew his guilty plea two days later, on June 28, 2017.

         Four months thereafter, in October 2017, the grand jury returned a superseding indictment that charged Walker with two counts of distributing heroin, one count of distributing fentanyl, and a single charge of possessing firearms as a convicted felon. In the course of addressing pretrial motions, the district court denied Walker's motion to sever the firearms charge from the drug charges. On November 7, 2017, Walker pleaded guilty - without a plea agreement - to ...

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