Judge rejects plea deal for cocaine defendant

WOODSTOCK – Shenandoah County Circuit Judge Dennis L. Hupp has rejected a plea agreement for a Texas man who authorities say was carrying more than four pounds of cocaine in his car when a state trooper pulled him over for a traffic stop.

Judges usually approve plea agreements, but Hupp was troubled by the sentence of 1½ years in prison and 10 years of supervised probation proposed for the defendant, Erwin Orlando Paniagua.

Paniagua was charged with possession with intent to distribute cocaine and transporting cocaine into Virginia, each of which carries a maximum penalty of 40 years in prison. The plea agreement between Assistant Public Defender Peter McDermott and Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Kristen Zalenski called for the dropping of the transporting charge and an Alford plea of guilty to possession with intent to distribute.

An Alford plea allows a defendant to maintain his innocence while admitting the prosecution has enough evidence to convict him.

Court records state that Paniagua was driving a 2014 Toyota Camry north on Interstate 81 on Feb. 15 when a state trooper noticed him behaving nervously as the Camry passed the trooper’s location.

A criminal complaint states the trooper pulled out behind Paniagua and saw the Camry “make an unsafe lane change from left lane to right lane less than a car length in front of a tractor trailer” around mile marker 264.

The complaint states the trooper stopped Paniagua and received consent to search the car, which led to the discovery of 2,000 grams of cocaine, the equivalent of about 4.4 pounds. A subsequent test conducted at a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration laboratory determined the amount of cocaine to be about 1,988 grams.

“That’s a lot of cocaine,” Hupp told Zalenski and McDermott. “That’s two kilos.”

“Yes, your honor,” Zalenski replied.

“I’m sorry. I cannot accept the agreement,” Hupp told her.

Zalenski, who said Paniagua is an undocumented immigrant, and McDermott will try to settle the case again at a hearing scheduled for Nov. 30 before Judge Ronald Napier.

Contact staff writer Joe Beck at 540-465-5137 ext. 142, or jbeck@nvdaily.com