Houman Fakhimi

United States v. Culbertson Shows how Irvine Criminal Defense Attorney can Fight bad Plea Deal

A recent court case out of New York shows that contended facts can sometimes lead to a plea agreement that not only is bad for the defendant, but also can be unlawful.

In United States v. Culbertson, a man was charged with major drug offenses after an investigation by federal agents. The defendant had troubles with his court-appointed attorneys and eventually agreed to enter a guilty plea on his own. That led to a mandatory prison sentence of 12 years.

Irvine drug crimes can lead to decades in prison, depending on many factors, including the circumstances of the case, the type of drug, amount, where it was bought and sold, if weapons were involved and also the defendant's criminal record.

Irvine criminal defense lawyers understand that these charges are serious and can lead to long prison sentences if the state can get a conviction. We have also seen problems with prosecution cases that lead to dropped charges, lowered charges and not guilty verdicts.

When the police are relying on confidential informants, convicted felons and other less-than-credible witnesses, this is bound to happen. The state will often try to convince co-defendants to flip and become state's witnesses in exchange for a softer sentence. This often leads to witnesses who are former defendants giving testimony that may not be 100 percent truthful.

In this case, the defendant was done in by a seemingly impatient judge and an overzealous prosecutor who decided to ignore facts in trying to win a conviction. According to court documents, agents began investigating a drug ring operating out of Trinidad, that worked to send drugs to the United States.

In 2007, authorities stopped a woman at an airport coming in from Trinidad. Inside a suitcase, they found 10 kilograms of cocaine and 909 grams of heroin. The woman was arrested and told agents Culbertson had set up the deal, offering $5,000 if she would smuggle the drugs. When the woman was being interrogated, he called customs to see if she was there. She called him and told him to pick her up and when he did, he was arrested.

He was later indicted on charges related to the alleged drug smuggling operation. As the case progressed, the man had conflicts with his attorneys. When the judge would no longer appoint new attorneys, he appointed an attorney to be a "standby" lawyer, whom the defendant didn't want.

As trial approached, the man filed a motion for a hearing to determine which portion of the drugs found on the woman at the airport he was responsible for. The man contended that he was only responsible for three kilograms of the 10 found on the woman. The hearing was denied and the man ended up entering the guilty plea.

In the plea, the man agreed to being responsible for five kilograms of cocaine, though he had contended responsibility for only three. The five kilograms kicked in a sentencing mandate that led to a 10-year sentence.

On appeal, a court found that the judge didn't have a factual basis to accept the plea and the prosecutor's argument of why there shouldn't be a hearing -- because they were going to rely on a five-kilogram minimum weight instead of 10 for purposes of sentencing -- shouldn't have been valid. The appeals court ordered a new trial.