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United States of America v. Michael Anthony Escajeda
Case Number: 19-50481
Judge: E. Grady Jolly
Court: United States Court of Appeals
for the Fifth Circuit
Plaintiff's Attorney: Not Listed
New Orleans, LA- Criminal defense lawyer represented defendant with three drug distribution charges and being a felon in possession of a firearm charges.
As part of his guilty plea, Escajeda agreed to an oral factual basis
provided by the government. According to this factual basis, a government
informant contacted the Midland, Texas police department, saying that he
could purchase cocaine from Escajeda. Officers met with the informant, gave
him a recording device and documented narcotics money, and instructed the
informant to make a controlled buy. The informant met with Escajeda and
bought cocaine. This same scenario repeated itself a second time. The
officers then approached Escajeda at his home, received his consent to search
the house, and found over 100 grams of cocaine. They also found a Glock,
ammunition, and over $6,000 in cash.
Officers Mirandized Escajeda, who then admitted that he had been
selling between four and five ounces of cocaine per week since being released
from prison about a year earlier. Escajeda also stated that he had not had a
job outside of cocaine distribution for the last six or seven years and that the
cash the officers found was from narcotics sales.
Because Escajeda had a prior felony conviction, the government
charged him with being a felon in possession of a firearm as well as two counts
of possession of a controlled substance with the intent to distribute. It also
charged him with conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute a controlled
substance. Escajeda pled guilty to all four charges and was sentenced to 162
months in prison. At sentencing, the district court also stated that upon his
release, Escajeda would be placed on supervised release for five years for the
conspiracy charge and three years for each of the other charges—to run
concurrently, “[s]o five years total, basically.”
Escajeda appeals. He argues that the factual basis provided by the
government was inadequate to support all the elements of his conspiracy
charge. And he also challenges the fact that the written terms of supervised
Case: 19-50481 Document: 00515975124 Page: 2 Date Filed: 08/11/2021
release—which provide for five years on each count—are inconsistent with
those orally imposed by the sentencing judge.
A guilty plea must comply with Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure
11, which, among other things, requires a court to determine that there is a
factual basis for the plea before entering judgment. FED. R. CRIM. P.
11(b)(3). The sentencing court must “make certain that the factual conduct
admitted by the defendant is sufficient as a matter of law to establish a
violation of the statute to which he entered his plea.” United States v. Nepal,
894 F.3d 204, 208 (5th Cir. 2018). This court reviews guilty pleas for
compliance with Rule 11, usually under the clearly erroneous standard.
United States v. Garcia-Paulin, 627 F.3d 127, 130–31 (5th Cir. 2010). But
“when the defendant does not object to the sufficiency of the factual basis of
his plea before the district court—instead raising for the first time on appeal
. . . our review is restricted to plain error.” Nepal, 894 F.3d at 208. On plain
error review, if the defendant establishes that (1) there was an error; (2) the
error was plain; and (3) the error affected the defendant’s substantial rights,
this court may grant relief if it decides that the error had a “serious effect on
the fairness, integrity or public reputation of judicial proceedings.” Greer v.
United States, 141 S. Ct. 2090, 2096–97 (2021).
When we undertake plain error review to determine whether a plea
has a sufficient factual basis, this court takes a “wide look.” Nepal, 894 F.3d
at 208. This process involves examining the entire record for facts
supporting the guilty plea and drawing reasonable inferences from those facts
to determine whether the conduct to which the defendant admits satisfies the
elements of the offense charged. Id.
Case: 19-50481 Document: 00515975124 Page: 3 Date Filed: 08/11/2021
Escajeda’s singular challenge to the factual basis supporting his guilty
plea is that there was no proof of a drug conspiracy. To prove a drug
conspiracy, the government must show (1) an agreement between two or
more persons to violate narcotics laws; (2) knowledge of the agreement; and
(3) voluntary participation in the agreement. United States v. Suarez, 879
F.3d 626, 631 (5th Cir. 2018); cf. 21 U.S.C. § 841(a)(1), (b)(1)(B)
(criminalizing possession with intent to distribute cocaine); § 846
(criminalizing any such conspiracy).
Two interrelated strands of caselaw appear, at first glance, to provide
colorable arguments that the factual basis lacked substantial proof of a
conspiracy. First, a single buy-sell agreement cannot constitute a conspiracy
under the “buyer-seller” exception—a rule that “shields mere acquirers and
street-level users . . . from the more severe penalties reserved for
distributors.” United States v. Delgado, 672 F.3d 320, 333 (5th Cir. 2012) (en
banc). But Escajeda made two sales to the government informant, so this
exception cannot cover him. Second, and somewhat more persuasive, is the
fact that an “agreement” with a government informant cannot be the basis
for a conspiracy conviction because the informant does not share the
requisite criminal purpose. Id. at 341; cf. Sears v. United States, 343 F.2d 139,
142 (5th Cir. 1965) (“[T]here can be no indictable conspiracy with a
government informer who secretly intends to frustrate the conspiracy.”). So
the two controlled buys cannot serve as proof of a conspiracy, since both
involved Escajeda selling cocaine to a government informant.
Nevertheless, the factual basis is not deficient. A drug distribution
conspiracy agreement—and the conspiracy itself—may be “tacit” and
inferred from “circumstantial evidence,” “presence,” and “association.”
United States v. Akins, 746 F.3d 590, 604 (5th Cir. 2014); United States v.
Case: 19-50481 Document: 00515975124 Page: 4 Date Filed: 08/11/2021
Crooks, 83 F.3d 103, 106 (5th Cir. 1996). And here, the factual basis contains
plenty of circumstantial evidence of Escajeda’s involvement in a drug
distribution conspiracy. For example, sizeable amounts of cash, large
quantities of drugs, and the presence of weapons have all served as proof for
drug conspiracy charges in this court’s caselaw. See, e.g., Suarez, 879 F.3d at
631 (describing guns and “distributable quantities” of drugs as providing
proof of a conspiracy); Crooks, 83 F.3d at 107 (noting the defendant’s
possession of “nearly $1400 in cash” as proof of a conspiracy); United States
v. Maseratti, 1 F.3d 330, 338–39 (5th Cir. 1993) (furnishing large quantities of
drugs, including having a “trunkful” of marijuana, as proof of a conspiracy).1
All of these items were found at Escajeda’s home.
Furthermore, an individual “need not know all the details of the
unlawful enterprise . . . so long as he knowingly participates in some fashion
in the larger objectives of the conspiracy.” United States v. Booker, 334 F.3d
406, 411 (5th Cir. 2003); cf. Rogers v. United States, 340 U.S. 367, 375 (1951)
(clarifying that “the identity of the other members of the conspiracy is not
needed” since a person “can be convicted of conspiring with persons whose
names are unknown”). The factual basis includes statements by Escajeda
that he had not had a job outside of cocaine distribution for the last six or
seven years and that he sold four to five ounces of cocaine a week for the past
1 There is some discrepancy in the caselaw as to whether a large quantity of drugs
alone may serve as sufficient proof of a conspiracy. Compare Delgado, 672 F.3d at 334
(stating that although “possession of a large quantity of drugs”—in that case 500 pounds—
“is not, by itself, sufficient to support a conspiracy conviction,” it “can help justify the
inference that more than one person must be involved in moving the large quantity toward
its ultimate dispersal”), with United States v. Michelena-Orovio, 719 F.2d 738, 751–52 (5th
Cir. 1983) (finding that a single act of importing twelve tons of marijuana, “more than mere
mortals could personally consume in a lifetime,” was enough to prove a conspiracy to
possess with intent to distribute). But since Escajeda was also found with a sizeable amount
of cash and a gun, we need not wade into that issue here, except to say that the difference
in quantities may be dispositive.
Case: 19-50481 Document: 00515975124 Page: 5 Date Filed: 08/11/2021
year. The government need not discover and name Escajeda’s buyers or
suppliers to prove that he “knowingly participate[d] in some fashion in the
larger objectives” of a conspiracy to distribute drugs. The evidence here—
including Escajeda’s statements—is enough.
In short, there was no error, let alone a plain one that affected
Escajeda’s substantial rights. Cf. United States v. Smith, 997 F.3d 215, 224-
25 (5th Cir. 2021) (finding plain error that affected the defendant’s
substantial rights because he would not have pleaded guilty under the
circumstances). The evidence found at Escajeda’s home, along with his
statements to law enforcement, clearly show that that he was involved in a
drug distribution conspiracy.
Finally, Escajeda contends—and the government agrees—that the
district court erred by entering a written judgment that included terms of
supervised release different from those orally pronounced. The district court
orally sentenced Escajeda to five years of supervised release on the
conspiracy charge and three years on each of the other charges; on the other
hand, the written terms of supervised release provide for five years on each
count. This scrivener’s error should be corrected. Cf. United States v.
Devine, 934 F.2d 1325, 1348 (5th Cir. 1991). Federal Rule of Criminal
Procedure 36 is “normally used” to make such corrections. See FED. R.
CRIM. P. 36; United States v. Spencer, 513 F.3d 490, 491 (5th Cir. 2008)
Outcome: We therefore remand to the district court for the limited purpose of modifying
the terms of supervised release so they are consistent with the court’s oral
pronouncement at sentencing.
AFFIRMED; REMANDED for the limited purpose described herein.