Man seeks to withdraw guilty plea in drug case

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BURLINGTON — A Bellows Falls man who pleaded guilty to one count of distributing fentanyl and one count of being a felon in possession of a firearm is asking a federal court to reverse his plea agreement.

Christopher Paige Jr., 38, has been in federal custody since December 2017, after he and Miranda Sevene, 24, were arrested in connection with the dealing of drugs from Paige's School Street residence.

Paige was initially charged with seven counts of dealing drugs, but pleaded down to two counts in September 2018. As part of the plea agreement, the defense and prosecution settled on a term of imprisonment of 10 years followed by eight years on supervised release. During the plea agreement hearing, Paige admitted to selling drugs to a confidential informant and to possessing a firearm. His sentencing hearing in January was postponed to allow Paige's attorneys to file the motion to withdraw his guilty plea.

On March 20, Paige filed to withdraw his plea in light of the federal First Step Act's changes to mandatory minimum sentences for recidivist drug traffickers. The U.S. Attorney's Office for the District of Vermont is asking the U.S. District Court to deny Paige's motion.

Paige was arrested on Dec. 12, 2017, after he sold heroin to the confidential informant working for the Vermont Drug Task Force, according to state court documents. During his arrest, he was found in the bedroom with a loaded Bushmaster Carbon 15 assault rifle. Paige was at the time prohibited from possessing firearms under federal law due to his criminal history.

According to the court documents, Paige has at least four prior felony convictions — two for heroin possession, one for obstruction of justice and one for engaging in an unlawful firearm transaction and for being an unlawful drug user in possession of a firearm.

The U.S. Attorney's Office noted that the Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure provides that a defendant may not withdraw a guilty plea prior to sentencing unless he "can show a fair and just reason for requesting the withdrawal. ... It is the defendant's burden to establish such a reason."

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In addition to the First Step Act argument, Paige contended the government failed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that he possessed the drugs, which were stored in a safe in his father's apartment, across the hall from his own.

"Such buyer's remorse and conclusory assertions of innocence do not justify disturbing a properly-entered, voluntary guilty plea," noted the U.S. Attorney's Office. "[H]is motion reflects his regret that he made, in hindsight, a potentially poor tactical decision to plead guilty before the First Step Act became law. Paige's post hoc dissatisfaction with the bargain he struck does not justify withdrawal of his guilty plea, even if his bargaining power might have improved had he waited a few months.

"We find no requirement in the Constitution that a defendant must be permitted to disown his solemn admissions in open court that he committed the act with which he is charged simply because it later develops that the State would have had a weaker case than the defendant had thought or that the maximum penalty then assumed applicable has been held inapplicable in subsequent judicial decisions.

"Rather, courts have recognized that defendants who choose to plead guilty assume the risk that they will lose the benefit of favorable shifts in the law as part of their bargain."

In February, Sevene pleaded guilty to one count of dealing heroin. She was sentenced to time served, followed by three years of supervised release with the special condition that she report to a drug treatment center immediately upon release.

The U.S. Attorney's motion to deny Paige's request to withdraw his guilty plea was filed April 17. It is unknown when the judge will make a decision.

Bob Audette can be contacted at 802-254-2311, ext. 151, or raudette@reformer.com.


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