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United States v. Sumter

United States District Court, D. South Carolina, Florence Division

June 27, 2019

United States of America Plaintiff,
James Latron Sumter, Defendant.


          R. Bryan Harwell, Chief United States District Judge.

         This criminal case is before the Court on Defendant James Latron Sumter's motion to withdraw guilty plea. ECF No. 73. For the reasons that follow, the Court denies Sumter's motion to withdraw guilty plea.


         On July 16, 2018, a criminal complaint was filed charging Sumter with conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute and to distribute cocaine and heroin in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 846. ECF No. 3. On July 18, 2018, at Sumter's initial appearance, the Court appointed attorney Nicholas Lewis (“plea counsel”) to represent Sumter. ECF No. 11.

         On August 15, 2018, a federal grand jury indicted Sumter in a single-count indictment for conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute and to distribute a quantity of cocaine and a quantity of heroin with death and serious bodily injury resulting from use of said substances, in violation of 21 U.S.C. §§ 841(a)(1), 841(b)(1)(C), and 846. ECF No. 26. The same day, the Government filed notice pursuant to 21 U.S.C. § 851 that Sumter was subject to enhanced penalties based on a 2011 conviction for “Manufacture, Possession of other Controlled Substance in Schedule I, II, II, with Intent to Distribute.” ECF No. 30. Given the 2011 felony, if Sumter was found guilty of the offense charged in the indictment, he faced mandatory life imprisonment. ECF No. 28; 21 U.S.C. § 841(b)(1)(C).

         The Government made three plea offers to Sumter. The first offer, made on September 25, 2018, was based upon the mandatory life sentence, but contained a cooperation provision allowing Sumter the opportunity to earn time off his sentence. ECF No. 95 at 3. The second offer was based on a penalty of twenty years to life imprisonment (the penalty applicable to the crime on which Sumter was indicted if there was no previous felony). Id. at 4; 21 U.S.C. § 841(b)(1)(C). Under the second offer, made November 27, 2018, the Government agreed to withdraw the enhanced penalty applicable under 21 U.S.C. § 851; the second offer also provided Sumter the ability to earn time off his sentence by cooperating. ECF No. 95 at 4. Sumter was to decide by the pretrial conference on December 3, 2018, whether he wished to plead guilty or go to trial. Id.

         At the December 3, 2018 pretrial conference, the Court conducted a hearing pursuant to Missouri. v. Frye, 566 U.S. 134 (2012), at which time Sumter indicated he understood his options, and the Court extended by several days the deadline for Sumter to decide whether to accept the second plea offer. ECF No. 95-2. Following the Frye hearing, the Government extended a third plea offer to Sumter. ECF No. 95 at 4. The third offer allowed Sumter to plead guilty and receive a stipulated sentence in the range of 168-216 months pursuant to Fed. R. Crim. P. 11(c)(1)(C). Id. Over the next few days, plea counsel and the Government negotiated changes to the second offer, including reserving a right for Sumter to appeal the enhancement for serious bodily injury or death. Id.

         On December 7, 2018, Sumter pled guilty to count one of the indictment pursuant to a written plea agreement which took the form of the revised second offer. ECF Nos. 95 at 5, 59, 60. Under the plea agreement, Sumter agreed to plead guilty to count one of the indictment without the enhanced penalties under 21 U.S.C. § 851; he was thus facing possible imprisonment of twenty years to life. ECF No. 59. ¶ 1. The plea agreement provided an opportunity for Sumter to earn time off his sentence through cooperation and specifically reserved a right for Sumter to appeal his sentence or raise a post-conviction relief challenge based upon future changes in the law regarding the enhancement for death or serious bodily injury. Id. ¶¶ 9, 13.

         At the December 7, 2018 hearing, the Court conducted a complete plea colloquy under Fed. R. Crim. P. 11. The Court confirmed plea counsel had explained to Sumter the charge against him, the possible punishments, and Sumter's rights, that plea counsel thought Sumter understood these things, and that plea counsel felt the Government could produce sufficient evidence to meet its burden of proof. ECF No. 95-3 at 5. Plea counsel indicated no mental evaluation had been done for his client and he had no doubts regarding his client's competence. Id. at 5-6. The Court then placed Sumter under oath. Id. at 6. The Court confirmed with Sumter that he had no impairments impacting his ability to understand what he was doing and he understood he was pleading guilty. Id. at 7-8. The Court also confirmed Sumter was fully satisfied with plea counsel's representation. Id. at 8-9.

         The Court reviewed the sentencing guidelines, relevant conduct, the Court's discretion to vary from the guidelines, and the statutory sentencing factors under 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a). Id. at 9-11. The Court explained that parole had been abolished, the basics of supervised release, and the consequences of pleading guilty to a felony. Id. at 12-13. The Court spoke about the rights Sumter would have at trial and that Sumter was giving up those rights by pleading guilty. Id. at 13-15. Having reviewed all of that, the Court confirmed Sumter was pleading guilty freely and voluntarily, was not being forced to plead, and no one had promised him anything not in the plea agreement to get him to plead guilty. Id. at 15-17.

         The Court confirmed Sumter had received a copy of the indictment, reviewed it with plea counsel, and told plea counsel everything he needed to know about the case. Id. at 17. The Court reviewed the indictment and the elements of the offense with Sumter; Sumter admitted to each of the elements of the offense. Id. at 17-19. The Court also went through the potential penalties for the offense; Sumter stated he understood the possible penalties and had reviewed them with plea counsel. Id. at 19-20. The Government summarized the plea agreement and Sumter confirmed he had reviewed the agreement, entered it freely and voluntarily, and understood it. Id. at 20-26. The Government withdrew the information it had filed pursuant to 21 U.S.C. § 851. Id. at 24.

         The Government provided a factual basis for the case. Id. at 26-30. According to the Government, the victim contacted a cooperating witness and asked him to help her obtain $100 worth of heroin and cocaine which the witness said he could do via an individual later identified as Sumter. Id. at 27. The witness called and texted Sumter regarding the drug deal and took the victim to a location where Sumter provided $100 worth of heroin and cocaine. Id. The victim used the drugs, subsequently suffered an overdose, and died. Id. at 27-28. Sumter was not present when the victim died; following the victim's death, the cooperating witness disposed of the victim's remains in a remote wooded area, destroyed her cellphone, and took some of her personal effects to another individual who burned them to destroy the evidence. Id. at 28.

         If the case were to proceed to trial, the Government advanced it would provide a text message recovered from the witness's phone; the message between the witness and Sumter detailed the drug transaction and corroborated phone calls. Id. at 28. The cooperating witness would also testify that he had previously served as middleman in drug transactions where he bought drugs from Sumter and then provided the drugs to other individuals. Id. at 28-29. Several other witnesses would testify regarding their drug activities with Sumter. One witness would testify that in early 2017. he purchased heroin from Sumter, used the heroin, and suffered an overdose leading to hospitalization. Id. at 29.

         Following the Government's summary of the facts, Sumter generally agreed with the Government's summary of what he did, admitted to the elements of the offense, and stated he was - in fact - guilty of the offense. Id. at 30-31. Sumter's sole objection to the Government's summary was regarding the final potential witness who had purportedly suffered an overdose in early 2017 after using heroin sold by Sumter; Sumter said he knew nothing about that. Id. at 30.

         The Court found Sumter competent and capable of entering a plea, found his plea was a knowing and voluntary plea with facts to support each of the elements of the offense, and accepted Sumter's guilty plea. Id. at 30-31.

         Starting in mid-January, 2019, Sumter filed a number of letters asking to withdraw his guilty plea. ECF Nos. 62, 63, 65, 67, 96, 97, 98, 99, 100. On February 11, 2019, the Clerk of Court docketed Sumter's pro se motion to substitute attorney. ECF No. 69. On February 12, 2019, plea counsel filed a motion to withdraw Sumter's guilty plea, ECF No. 73, and - upon Sumter's request - filed a motion to substitute attorney, ECF No. 72.

         On February 19, 2019, the Magistrate Judge held a hearing on the motions to substitute counsel. ECF No. 80. The Magistrate Judge found plea counsel had not done anything wrong but granted the motions to substitute counsel. ECF Nos. 80, 104 at 11-12.[1] The Court then appointed attorney W. James Hoffmeyer (“post-plea counsel”) to represent Sumter. ECF No. 81.

         On April 18, 2019, the Government filed a response in opposition to Sumter's motion to withdraw guilty plea. ECF No. 95. On May 29, 2019, the Court held a hearing on Sumter's motion to withdraw guilty plea. ECF No. 102. The Court heard argument from the parties, admitted five exhibits, [2] and took the ...

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