Reyes v. State, 1092, Sept. Term, 2020

CourtCourt of Special Appeals of Maryland
Writing for the CourtLeahy, J.
Citation268 A.3d 919,253 Md.App. 476
Parties Jeanette REYES v. STATE of Maryland
Docket Number1092, Sept. Term, 2020
Decision Date26 January 2022

253 Md.App. 476
268 A.3d 919

Jeanette REYES
STATE of Maryland

No. 1092, Sept. Term, 2020

Court of Special Appeals of Maryland.

January 26, 2022

Argued by Jeremy Eldridge (Eldridge, Nachtman & Crandell, LLC, Baltimore, MD), all on the brief, for Appellant.

Argued by Menelik Coates (Brian E. Frosh, Atty. Gen., on the brief), Baltimore, MD, for Appellee.

Arthur, Leahy, Deborah S. Eyler (Senior Judge, Specially Assigned), JJ.

Leahy, J.

253 Md.App. 479

Jeanette Reyes, born in El Salvador in 1976, came to this country as a child. She is not a citizen, but she has been a lawful permanent resident since October 27, 1990, when she was fourteen years old.

In 2003, Ms. Reyes was charged with possession of a controlled dangerous substance with intent to distribute. The State intended to prosecute her for possession with intent to distribute cocaine, which would have had a maximum possible sentence of twenty years’ imprisonment. But at some point in the charging process, an error was made. The State mistakenly maintained that the maximum sentence she faced was only five years, not twenty, and she was told as much at her initial appearance.1

Ms. Reyes pleaded guilty at a hearing on June 9, 2003. Throughout the entire hearing, all parties involved, including the presiding judge, were operating under the belief that the maximum sentence for her offense was five years. The plea was made pursuant to a very limited agreement, which provided only that Ms. Reyes would plead guilty, the State would ask for a sentence on the high end of the guideline range, and Ms. Reyes would ask for a sentence on the low end. The parties believed that the guidelines ranged from probation up

253 Md.App. 480

to twelve months’ imprisonment; however, the actual range was from six months’ to three years’ imprisonment.

Before Ms. Reyes pleaded guilty, she claims that she asked her attorney whether pleading guilty would make it harder for her to gain American citizenship, and her attorney advised her that her plea would have no effect and that it would be off her record in five to seven years. In fact, the conviction makes her permanently ineligible for citizenship and makes her subject to deportation with no possibility of discretionary relief.

268 A.3d 922

Now, faced with these significant immigration consequences, Ms. Reyes seeks to have the conviction vacated through a petition for a writ of error coram nobis. She argues that her plea was obtained in violation of Maryland Rule 4-242(c), which requires the court to determine that a defendant "understand[s] the nature of the charge and the consequences of the plea." Her petition was denied by the Circuit Court for Montgomery County, and she appealed that decision to this Court.2

The record reflects that Ms. Reyes did not understand the consequences of her plea, nor could she reasonably have been expected to. The misinformation she was given about her maximum possible sentence, as unintentional as it may have been, denied her the opportunity to reach a considered decision about whether to plead guilty or go to trial. We reach this conclusion in light of the totality of her circumstances: she was not born in this country; she had an otherwise clean record, giving her no experience in the criminal justice system; based on transcripts, she appeared to speak imperfect English; all authority figures in the process, including her attorney, consistently misstated both the maximum sentence she faced and the corresponding sentencing recommendation that the State

253 Md.App. 481

would make; and, it appears that her lawyer reassured her, incorrectly, that pleading guilty would not affect her chances of becoming a citizen.

Accordingly, we vacate the judgment of the circuit court denying Ms. Reyes's coram nobis petition and remand for further proceedings.


The Underlying Crime

At Ms. Reyes's plea hearing, the circuit court heard a proffer of facts from the State. According to the State's proffer, on March 5, 2002,3 a police informant had "arranged to meet with Ms. Reyes to purchase a quarter ounce of cocaine" from her for $600. Several police officers observed Ms. Reyes, who was with two other individuals that day. "At one point she got out of the car, went to the back of her vehicle, opened up the trunk and appeared to be manipulating something in the back of the trunk. The deal didn't go through."

Police then pulled Ms. Reyes over in a traffic stop based on a traffic infraction, and Ms. Reyes gave her consent for them to search herself and her vehicle. The officers searched the back of the vehicle where Ms. Reyes had been seen manipulating something, and they found 16 grams of cocaine.

Ms. Reyes was advised of her rights, and she waived her right to counsel. She told the officers that she was there to sell a quarter ounce of cocaine for $600 to the buyer whom the police had used as an informant.

Additionally, in its proffer, the State indicated that if the case had gone to trial, the State would have called an expert witness who "would have testified that based on the facts of this case and his training and experience, that 16 grams and

253 Md.App. 482

the facts in that case were sufficient to suggest

268 A.3d 923

that [Ms. Reyes] had the intent to distribute cocaine."

Ms. Reyes's attorney stated that he and Ms. Reyes "ha[d] no substitutions or corrections to the State's proffered facts." Ms. Reyes, an immigrant and a mother of two children,4 was charged with possession with intent to distribute cocaine under Maryland Code (2002), Criminal Law Article ("CR"), § 5-602.5 ,6

Criminal Proceedings

Ms. Reyes made her initial appearance in the District Court for Montgomery County on March 6, 2003. A "Charge Summary" was filed that day at 3:01 AM, which described her charge as "CDS POSS W/INT TO DIST" and listed the penalty as "5 Y &/or $15,000.00." In 2003, however, possession with intent to distribute cocaine carried a maximum sentence of 20 years and/or $15,000. CR § 5-608(a).7

253 Md.App. 483

The district court also issued an "Initial Appearance Report" which certified that Ms. Reyes had been informed "of each offense charged and of the allowable penalties." This report did not expressly state what offenses and penalties Ms. Reyes was informed of.

A "Pre-Indictment Memorandum" dated April 9, 2003 stated that Ms. Reyes and the State had reached an agreement whereby she would plead guilty, and the State would ask for a sentence within the sentencing guidelines. Significantly, the Pre-Indictment Memorandum also stated that her sentencing guidelines range was "Probation to 12 months." This guidelines range was incorrect. The correct guidelines range, later agreed upon by the parties at Ms. Reyes's sentencing hearing, was six months to three years.8 The State

268 A.3d 924

also filed an information on the same day which charged her with one count of possession with intent to distribute a controlled dangerous substance, but it did not state a maximum sentence or sentencing guidelines range.

253 Md.App. 484

Ms. Reyes pleaded guilty to possession with intent to distribute a controlled dangerous substance in a circuit court hearing that was held on June 9, 2003. Before her plea was accepted, the court asked her a series of questions to determine whether her plea was knowing and voluntary. The record reflects the following colloquy:

THE COURT: Ms. Reyes, I need to ask you a few questions before I accept this plea to make sure you understand what you're doing and that you're doing it freely and voluntarily. Tell me first how old you are.

MS. REYES: How old I am?


MS. REYES: 26.

THE COURT: How far have you gone in school?

MS. REYES: Graduated from high school.

THE COURT: Were you on probation for anything when the events in this case occurred?

MS. REYES: Never.

THE COURT: All right. And, do you understand that if you are not a citizen of the United States a finding of guilty in this case could affect your status in this country?

MS. REYES: Yes, Your Honor.

THE COURT: And, you don't have to plead guilty at all. You have an absolute right to have a trial. If you elected to go forward with a trial, you are presumed innocent. You don't have to do anything. The burden is completely on the State to prove you guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

If you elected to go to trial, your attorney would have a chance to question witnesses that the State would call and to call witnesses on your behalf. You would be free to testify to talk about what happened, by [sic] you don't have to testify and no one can think badly of you if you elect not to testify. You couldn't be found guilty unless all 12 jurors unanimously agreed you

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