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United States of America v. Darwin Ramos-David
Case Number: 20-1144
Judge: Patti B. Saris
Court: United States Court of Appeals
For the First Circuit
On appeal from The UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE DISTRICT OF PUERTO RICO
Plaintiff's Attorney: W. Stephen Muldrow, United States Attorney, Mariana E. BauzáAlmonte, Assistant United States Attorney, Chief, Appellate
Division, and Thomas F. Klumper, Assistant United States Attorney
Boston, MA - Criminal defense lawyer represented defendant with two armed carjackings, armed robbery, and using and carrying a firearm in connection with a carjacking charges.
We begin with the background facts. On January 3, 2017,
four individuals took a 2008 Toyota Yaris from a woman while she
was opening her trunk; one individual pointed a firearm at her.
She reported the incident to the police. In a lineup on March 30,
2017, she identified Ramos as the perpetrator who took the car
from her at gunpoint. During cooperation discussions with the
local and federal authorities, while he was in state custody, Ramos
maintained that he had not participated in the carjacking. He
claimed the perpetrator was his brother and they looked alike. On
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April 20, 2017, Ramos was charged in a two-count indictment with
using, carrying and brandishing a firearm during and in relation
to a crime of violence in violation of 18 U.S.C.
§ 924(c)(1)(A)(ii); and carjacking under 18 U.S.C. § 2119(1).
He moved to suppress the identification as impermissibly
suggestive on February 22, 2018. On November 26, 2018, Ramos
sought a continuance of the suppression hearing because of ongoing
plea discussions. Another motion to continue the suppression
hearing to complete the plea negotiation process was granted in
mid-December 2018. In late January 2019, Ramos' counsel advised
that Ramos wanted to continue the suppression hearing, which was
rescheduled for April 4, 2019.
On March 21, 2019, the government filed a superseding
indictment, adding another five charges relating to a March 13,
2017 armed robbery of a business and a March 20, 2017 armed
carjacking of a Toyota Tacoma. On May 16, 2019, a second
superseding indictment was filed.
On the day of the arraignment on the second superseding
indictment and the rescheduled suppression hearing, May 23, 2019,
Ramos withdrew his motion to suppress, signed a plea agreement,
and pleaded guilty before a magistrate judge to all of the charges
regarding the January 3, 2017 carjacking, the March 13, 2017
robbery and the March 20, 2017 carjacking (but not to the
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associated gun charges or the felon in possession charge).1 In
stipulating to the facts supporting his plea and initialing the
facts concerning each charge, Ramos admitted that he had
participated in all three events and that he or those who aided
and abetted him were prepared to cause serious bodily harm to both
carjacking victims if doing so had been necessary to take the
At his plea hearing, the magistrate judge questioned
Ramos about the purpose of the hearing, and Ramos recounted that
it was "to plead guilty for the aforementioned counts and to accept
the time." Ramos said he was satisfied with his legal
representation, and his lawyer said she had no concerns about his
mental competence. The court found him competent to plead. The
court also confirmed that Ramos had reviewed the plea agreement,
called on the government to explain its terms, and verified with
Ramos that he was, in fact, guilty of each of the counts in the
plea agreement. The magistrate judge issued a report and
recommendation to accept the guilty plea, which was adopted by the
district court on July 2, 2019.
The plea agreement provided that the parties would agree
to recommend an 84-month prison term for knowingly using, carrying,
and brandishing a firearm "during and in relation to" the January
1 Ramos waived his right to have the plea hearing before the
district court judge.
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3, 2017 carjacking to run consecutively to the term for all of the
other offenses. The pre-sentence report ("PSR") calculated a Total
Offense Level of 25 and a Criminal History Category of III, which
yielded a guidelines range sentence of 70-87 months for the
remaining counts. The plea agreement contained a waiver of appeal
provision if he was sentenced to 162 months or fewer.
At his scheduled sentencing hearing2 more than three
months later, on September 10, 2019, Ramos requested the withdrawal
of his plea. As the district court (Besosa, J.) later summarized,
Ramos claimed that he was
innocent of the charges against him, alleged a
discrepancy between his plea and the charges presented
to the grand jury, asserted he was beaten up at the jail
the day he signed the plea agreement, and noted he
learned the day before he signed the agreement that his
mother had had a stroke. He also stated that, on the day
of the change-of-plea hearing, he was ready for a
suppression hearing and was surprised to receive a plea
The court (Domínguez, J.) postponed the sentencing. According to
counsel, she met with Ramos after the hearing, and he was teary
and upset. Two days later, Ramos moved for an expert determination
of his mental condition pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 4241(b). In his
motion, Ramos repeated the allegations underlying his request for
withdrawal of his guilty plea, stating that the night before he
pleaded guilty, he learned that his mother had suffered a minor
2 Due to sickness of the presiding Judge, the case was
transferred to another Judge for sentencing (Domínguez, J.).
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stroke and inmates beat him because they believed him to be a
snitch. He asserted that those circumstances made him confused
and impaired his understanding during the change-of-plea hearing.
Id. The case was transferred back to the assigned judge (Cerezo,
J.), but it was then transferred to Judge Besosa, whose sentence
and order are on appeal.
In a written opinion, the district court (Besosa, J.)
denied Ramos' motions on December 11, 2019. First, the court noted
that it must order a competency hearing "if there is reasonable
cause to believe that the defendant may presently be suffering
from a mental disease or defect rendering him mentally incompetent
to the extent that he is unable to understand the nature and
consequences of the proceedings against him or to assist properly
in his defense." 18 U.S.C. § 4241(a). Relying on United States
v. Kenney, 756 F.3d 36 (1st Cir. 2014), the court found no
reasonable cause for a mental competency examination based on a
review of the proceedings before the magistrate judge in which
Ramos articulated the purpose of the proceeding, and before the
sentencing judge at the initial truncated hearing where he engaged
in "extended discourse" with the judge. The court also found that
Ramos was not entitled to a withdrawal of his plea because (1)
Ramos' claims of innocence were not credible, (2) an alleged grand
jury error (the indictment initially indicated that he had stolen
the Toyota Tacoma from one woman instead of two) did not affect
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Ramos' substantial rights, and (3) neither the beating nor his
mother's mild stroke caused coercion, duress or involuntariness.
On January 16, 2020, the district court proceeded to
sentence Ramos. At the hearing, Ramos' attorney confirmed that
his mother had been sick and put forward other mitigating factors
(including his close relationship with his young children). The
government recommended 171 months. The court, after adopting the
PSR, reflected on Ramos' criminal history, which included
"disorderly conduct, use of violence or intimidation against
public authorities, threats, carrying and using a firearm without
a license, and attempted robbery." It stated that it had
considered all of the "3553(a) factors, the elements of the
offenses, the plea agreement, and the need to promote respect for
the law and to protect the public from further crimes by Mr. Ramos,
as well as the need to address the issues of deterrence and
punishment." Id. The court then pronounced the agreed-upon 84
months for knowingly using, carrying and brandishing a firearm
"during and in relation to a crime of violence" to be served
consecutively to the 96 months for the remaining counts. The
resulting sentence of 180 months was a nine-month variance above
the guideline range.
On appeal, Ramos argues that the district court erred in
denying his motion for a mental competency examination, in denying
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his motion to withdraw his guilty plea, and in pronouncing a
sentence that is substantively unreasonable. We consider each
argument in turn.
Mental Competency. "The conviction of a person legally
incompetent to stand trial violates due process." United States
v. Maryea, 704 F.3d 55, 69 (1st Cir. 2013). Thus, Ramos could not
plead guilty "unless he [did] so 'competently and intelligently.'"
Kenney, 756 F.3d at 43 (quoting Godinez v. Moran, 509 U.S. 389,
396 (1993)). To safeguard that constitutional guarantee, courts
are required to order a competency hearing on a party's motion or
sua sponte "if there is reasonable cause to believe that the
defendant may presently be suffering from a mental disease or
defect rendering him mentally incompetent to the extent that he is
unable to understand the nature and consequences of the proceedings
against him or to assist properly in his defense." 18 U.S.C.
§ 4241(a); see United States v. Soldevila-Lopez, 17 F.3d 480, 489
(1st Cir. 1994) (holding that the court must examine whether a
defendant "has sufficient present ability to consult with his
lawyer with a reasonable degree of rational understanding -- and
whether he has a rational as well as factual understanding of the
proceedings against him" (quoting Dusky v. United States, 362 U.S.
402, 402 (1960) (per curiam))).
There is no automatic entitlement to a competency
hearing: to invoke § 4241(a), a "threshold showing" of reasonable
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cause must be made. United States v. Pellerito, 878 F.2d 1535,
1545 (1st Cir. 1989). "[C]ompetence to stand trial is a functional
inquiry. A defendant may have serious mental illness while still
being able to understand the proceedings and rationally assist his
counsel." United States v. Widi, 684 F.3d 216, 220-21 (1st Cir.
2012) (citations omitted). A district court's decision on a motion
for a determination of mental competency is reviewed for abuse of
discretion. See Kenney, 756 F.3d at 43.
In determining whether reasonable cause has been shown
(and thus whether the district court abused its discretion in
denying the mental competency examination), we evaluate multiple
factors including the district court's observations of the
defendant, a review of hearing transcripts to determine if the
defendant was coherent, opinions from medical professionals, the
defendant’s own statements, and defense counsel's "conclusion of
competence" as to whether the defendant was able to assist in his
own defense. Widi, 684 F.3d at 220; see also United States v.
Hurley, 63 F.3d 1, 19 (1st Cir. 1995) ("An experienced trial lawyer
ought to be the first to notice a lack of cooperation or ability
to assist so severe as to raise competency questions."), abrogated
on other grounds by Salinas v. United States, 522 U.S. 52 (1997);
United States v. Sanchez-Ramirez, 570 F.3d 75, 81 (1st Cir. 2009)
(relying on the district court's observations of the defendant's
conduct at trial).
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In reviewing the proceedings before the magistrate judge
and the initial sentencing judge, the district judge concluded
that Ramos had not established reasonable cause to believe that he
did not understand the nature of his plea or that he could not
have assisted in the plea proceedings. As the government points
out, the record reveals no history of mental health problems, and
counsel raised no question of competency at the three arraignment
hearings or to the probation officer.
Ramos relies on two circumstances in alleging that he
should have been granted a mental competency hearing. First, he
reports that he was beaten up in his jail cell the night before
his plea for being a snitch, which affected his mental state.
Second, Ramos says that he was in distress because he found out
that his mother suffered a stroke the night before his plea.
However, Ramos did not raise these issues at the plea hearing.
Ramos' claim that he did not understand the court or the
proceedings as a result of these events is belied by the record.
Ramos read and signed the plea agreement prior to the plea hearing.
Throughout the plea hearing before the magistrate judge, Ramos
stated that he knew he was in court to plead guilty and to accept
the punishment from his plea. His counsel also confirmed that
Ramos was competent and understood the charges.3 After questioning
3 Counsel states she was not informed of the events of the
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Ramos about his understanding of the proceedings, asking his
attorney about his competence, and observing his ability to answer
questions coherently, the magistrate judge ruled that "Mr. Ramos
is competent to plead and . . . he's aware of the purpose of the
hearing." Ramos participated actively in his plea hearing,
repeatedly affirming to the court that he understood the agreement
as it was explained. Defense counsel has pointed to no red flags
during the plea colloquy that would support a claim of
incompetence. Finally, the events related—being beaten in jail
and his mother's sudden ailment—bear at most a tenuous connection
to mental incapacity.
Even though Ramos might have felt stressed by the
unfortunate events of the evening before the plea, the court did
not abuse its discretion in determining that he was mentally
competent to enter a plea based on (1) his and his attorney's
statements at the plea colloquy, and (2) the lack of any evidence
that provided the court with reasonable cause to find Ramos
Plea Withdrawal. Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure
11(d)(2)(B) governs a motion to withdraw a guilty plea filed
between the plea colloquy and the imposition of a sentence. See
United States v. Merritt, 755 F.3d 6, 9 (1st Cir. 2014). Under
Rule 11, defendants are not entitled to withdraw their pleas;
instead, they must show a "fair and just reason" for withdrawal.
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Id. (quoting Fed. R. Civ. P. 11(d)(2)(B)). In applying that
standard, courts have held that relevant considerations include:
(1) whether the original plea was knowing, intelligent,
and voluntary and in compliance with Rule 11, (2) the
strength of the reason for withdrawal, (3) the timing of
the motion to withdraw, (4) whether the defendant has a
serious claim of actual innocence, (5) whether the
parties had reached (or breached) a plea agreement, and
(6) whether the government would suffer prejudice if
withdrawal is permitted.
United States v. Gardner, 5 F.4th 110, 114 (1st Cir. 2021); see
also United States v. Cotal-Crespo, 47 F.3d 1, 4 (1st Cir. 1995).
This court reviews a district court's denial of a motion
to withdraw a guilty plea for abuse of discretion, which "occurs
when a material factor deserving significant weight is ignored,
when an improper factor is relied upon, or when all proper and no
improper factors are assessed, but the court makes a serious
mistake in weighing them." United States v. Adams, 971 F.3d 22,
38 (1st Cir. 2020) (quoting United States v. Soto-Beníquez, 356
F.3d 1, 30 (1st Cir. 2003)) (internal quotation marks omitted).
Based on a review of the factors, we conclude that they
weigh in favor of the district court's decision to deny the motion
First, the district court found the magistrate judge
diligently followed the requirements of Rule 11, and Ramos pleaded
guilty in accordance with a plea agreement which he signed or
initialed multiple times. He concluded that the transcript of the
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plea colloquy "evinces the voluntary, knowing, and intelligent
manner of the plea . . . ." Ramos' claim that he was confused was
properly rejected in light of the extensive colloquy and initialed
plea agreement. A court "typically disregard[s] representations
at a plea colloquy 'only when the allegations [of impairment] were
highly specific and usually accompanied by some independent
corroboration.'" United States v. Santiago-Miranda, 654 F.3d 130,
138 (1st Cir. 2011) (quoting United States v. Pulido, 566 F.3d 52,
59 (1st Cir. 2009)).
Ramos’ claim of lack of voluntariness rests largely on
the physical violence while in jail and stress from familial
circumstances. Assuming these facts to be true, the district court
found that these facts may be "probative of [his] motivation for
pleading guilty, [but they] do not necessarily show coercion,
duress, or involuntariness." Santiago-Miranda, 654 F.3d at 137.
We have held that the stress of familial problems, without more,
does not render a plea involuntary. See Adams, 971 F.3d at 39
(noting that knowledge of the hardship inflicted on "his ailing
mother and his children" did not "show duress or lack of
voluntariness"); United States v. Caramadre, 807 F.3d 359, 369
(1st Cir. 2015) (explaining that the defendant's depression and
his wife's breakdown did not transform the decision to change his
plea into one lacking free will); Pellerito, 878 F.2d at 1541
(determining that a defendant’s conversations with his
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hospitalized mother, despite agitating him, did not render that
defendant's plea involuntary). Nor did Ramos allege that his
guilty plea was coerced by the threats made during the prison
beating. The "beating," it should be noted, left no signs visible
to counsel the following day, did not lead to any medical
treatment, and was not corroborated by any other evidence. Rather,
he believed he was being beaten to punish him for being a "snitch,"
not in order to get him to plead guilty. He denied he was
threatened during the plea colloquy. See Kenney, 756 F.3d at 48
(holding that a defendant's answers "carry a strong presumption of
verity" (quoting United States v. Martínez-Molina, 64 F.3d 719,
733 (1st Cir. 1995))).
Next, Ramos argues that the district court arbitrarily
disregarded his claim of innocence as not credible with respect to
the January 3, 2017 incident. "Merely voicing a claim of innocence
has no weight in the plea-withdrawal calculus; to be given weight,
the claim must be credible." United States v. Gates, 709 F.3d 58,
69–70 (1st Cir. 2013) (finding that a defendant's claim of
innocence was not credible when it contradicted his statements in
the change-of-plea colloquy and when the defendant produced no
evidence to "prompt" the court to reject his prior
Here, Ramos' protestations of innocence as to the
January 3, 2017 carjacking are directly refuted by the stipulation
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of facts that he signed as part of his plea agreement, the PSR
that he did not object to, his affirmation to the probation officer
that he was guilty of the crimes to which he pleaded, and his
confirmations during the plea colloquy that he was guilty of the
January 3, 2017 carjacking.
Ramos points to his longstanding claims of innocence and
his refusal to plead multiple times in the past. He claims that
he was taken by surprise by the offer of a plea agreement on the
day of the suppression hearing. But his protestations of surprise
ring hollow as the plea negotiations spanned multiple months. As
evidence of his innocence, he points to his motion to suppress, in
which he stated that the conditions of the lineup identification
were suggestive and thus prone to "mistaken identification." While
this motion may (or may not) have had merit, he abandoned it after
months of plea negotiations: he withdrew it prior to his changeof-plea hearing after a plea agreement had been signed in which he
admitted involvement in the January 3, 2017 carjacking. Without
any evidence to support the credibility of his claim of innocence,
this factor weighs against Ramos.
The timing factor also weighs against Ramos. The
district court noted that the "the timing of defendant's request
to withdraw his plea weakens his request." Our case law confirms
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Because the timing of a defendant's attempted plea
withdrawal is highly probative of motive, close
scrutiny of the chronology is important in
adjudicating whether retraction is fair and just.
While an immediate change of heart may well lend
considerable force to a plea withdrawal request, a
long interval between the plea and the request
often weakens any claim that the plea was entered
in confusion or under false pretenses.
Doyle, 981 F.2d at 595; see also United States v. Pagan-Ortega,
372 F.3d 22, 31 (1st Cir. 2004) (finding a "two month lag between
the plea hearing and appellant's motion to withdraw place[d] it
well within the area of vulnerability because of untimeliness").
By waiting three months (with opportunities during that
time to tell his attorney he wished to withdraw his plea) and
announcing a desire to withdraw a plea during the sentencing
hearing, Ramos "sap[ped] strength from any proffered reason for
withdrawal." Doyle, 981 F.2d at 595. It is true that the
government has not shown it would be prejudiced if Ramos withdrew
his plea. However, because all the other factors weigh against
withdrawal, absence of prejudice does not tip the balance. We
thus find that the district court did not abuse its discretion
when it denied Ramos' motion to withdraw the plea.
Substantive Reasonableness. By arguing for the lowest
possible sentence, Ramos properly preserved his challenge to the
substantive reasonableness of his sentence. See Holguin-Hernandez
v. United States, 140 S. Ct. 762, 766-67 (2020). A sentence that
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is "greater than necessary" is substantively unreasonable. Id. at
767 (quoting 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a)).
Substantive reasonableness is reviewed under an abuse of
discretion standard. United States v. Vázquez-Martínez, 812 F.3d
18, 26 (1st Cir. 2016). In considering a sentence's substantive
reasonableness, this court examines "the district court's
contemporaneous oral explanation of the sentence, its nearcontemporaneous written statement of reasons, and what fairly can
be gleaned by comparing what was argued by the parties or proffered
in the [PSR] with what the sentencing court ultimately did."
United States v. Martin, 520 F.3d 87, 93 (1st Cir. 2008) (internal
citations omitted). We keep in mind that "there is not a single
reasonable sentence but, rather, a range of reasonable sentences."
Id. at 92. "[A] major deviation from [the sentencing guidelines]
must ‘be supported by a more significant justification than a minor
one.'" Id. at 91 (quoting Gall v. United States, 552 U.S. 38, 50
Ultimately, as long as "the sentencing court articulated
'a plausible sentencing rationale' and reached 'a defensible
result,'" the sentence will be upheld. United States v. Matosde-Jesús, 856 F.3d 174, 179 (1st Cir. 2017) (quoting Martin, 520
F.3d at 96).
After determining the proper guidelines range, not
challenged by either party, the sentencing court stated that it
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had considered the statutory factors in 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a). It
then went on to describe Ramos and the crimes he pleaded to,
Mr. Ramos is 30 years old. He is a resident of
Bayamón, Puerto Rico, and has three dependents,
ages 13, 10, and 8. He completed the tenth grade
and was unemployed at the time he committed the
He is in good physical and mental health. He
experimented with marijuana as a teenager but
denied any history of drug dependence.
This is his third criminal conviction. His
prior record involves disorderly conduct, use of
violence or intimidation against public
authorities, threats, carrying and using a firearm
without a license, and attempted robbery.
The Court has taken into consideration the
elements of the offenses and Mr. Ramos'
participation in them.
He participated in three robberies, including
two carjackings, brandishing a dangerous weapon
during one of the carjackings and during the
robbery of the Hydroponics of the Caribbean
The Court has also considered all the 18 U.S.
Code 3553(a) factors, the elements of the offenses,
the plea agreement, and the need to promote respect
for the law and to protect the public from further
crimes by Mr. Ramos, as well as the need to address
the issues of deterrence and punishment.
Ramos contends that the court's explanation did not
justify its imposition of a 9-month upward variance. "[A]
reviewing court must assess the sentencing court's explanation of
an upwardly variant sentence in a practical, common-sense manner.
. . . The extent of the explanation must be commensurate with the
extent of the variance." United States v. Díaz-Lugo, 963 F.3d
145, 156 (1st Cir. 2020). To be sure, the sentencing court's
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explanation is brief, but the upward variance of nine months (over
171 months) was not substantial. The court predicates its sentence
on Ramos' circumstances, criminal history, and the violent nature
of his three armed robberies among other considerations. The court
properly considered the need to protect the public and to deter
Ramos from committing further crimes. Thus, the sentencing court's
specific reasons for imposing a modest above-the-guidelines
sentence for two carjackings and an armed robbery within a span of
three months complied with § 3553(c) and provided a plausible
rationale. See United States v. Díaz-Arroyo, 797 F.3d 125, 129-
30 (1st Cir. 2015).
Without much explanation, Ramos contends that the
sentencing court did not adequately take into account mitigating
circumstances. However, the sentencing court indicated its
awareness of the Ramos' personal history and characteristics (like
his children and lack of drug dependence) as required by § 3553(a).
Ramos' real complaint seems to be that the court "weighed those
factors less heavily than he would have liked." United States v.
Rivera-González, 776 F.3d 45, 50 (1st Cir. 2015). A sentencing
court has "wide limits" in the balancing of a defendant’s personal
characteristics, id., and these limits were not transgressed here.
Overall, Ramos' sentence was not an abuse of discretion given the
totality of the circumstances.
Outcome: For the reasons stated above, we find that the district
court did not err when it denied Ramos' motion for a determination
of mental competency and motion to withdraw his plea and pronounced
a sentence that was substantively reasonable.