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Bell/Gaerte: SCOTUS guides trial courts’ involvement in plea offers

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By James J. Bell and K. Michael Gaerte
 

gaerte Gaerte
bell Bell

In the last term, the United States Supreme Court, in Missouri v. Frye, 132 S. Ct. 1399 (2012), took a small step toward inviting trial courts into plea negotiations. In concluding that a defendant was denied effective assistance of counsel because the defense attorney failed to advise his client of a plea offer, the Supreme Court suggested that “formal offers can be made part of the record . . . to ensure that a defendant has been fully advised before those further proceedings commence.” Id. 1402.

In the same term, the Supreme Court also noted the importance of the plea-negotiation process to the criminal justice system. The court stated that “criminal justice today is for the most part a system of pleas, not a system of trials . . . As explained in Frye, the right to adequate assistance of counsel cannot be defined or enforced without taking account of the central role plea bargaining plays in securing convictions and determining sentences.” Lafler v. Cooper, 132 S.Ct. 1376, 1388 (2012).

The practice of a trial court making a record of plea offers seemed to be contrary to Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 11(c)(1), which stated that the “court must not participate in [plea] discussions.” This practice also seemed to contradict the routine assurance given to defendants in guilty plea hearings in Indiana courts that the trial court was “not a party to the plea agreement.”

During this past term, in United States v. Davila, the Supreme Court limited a trial court’s participation in the plea negotiation process. 2013 U.S. LEXIS 4541 (2013). In Davila, the Supreme Court addressed the issue of whether a court’s active participation in plea negotiations requires “automatic vacatur” of a plea agreement. Id. 4. Davila was indicted for filing more than 120 false tax returns on behalf of Florida prisoners. Id. 8. During an in-camera hearing before a magistrate, Davila requested that a different attorney be appointed to represent him because his current attorney recommended that he plead guilty. Id. 9. The magistrate judge informed Davila that pleading guilty might be a “good idea” given that the government had “all of the marbles.” Id 9-10. The court urged Davila to “come to the cross” in order to qualify for a sentence reduction by accepting responsibility. Id. 11.

Three months after this hearing, Davila agreed to plead guilty. Id. 12. During the plea hearing before the District Court judge, Davila never mentioned the “come to the cross” speech, and he stated that he had not been pressured to plead guilty. Id. Eventually, the District Court found that Davila had entered a knowing and voluntary plea and sentenced him to 115 months. Id. 13.

On appeal, Davila’s counsel, citing Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 11(c)(1), argued that judicial involvement in plea discussions required that his plea be set aside. The 11th Circuit applied a “bright line rule,” finding that the court’s participation in plea negotiations required “automatic vacatur” of Davila’s plea without the need for an inquiry as to whether the error was prejudicial. Id. 14.

The Supreme Court rejected the bright-line rule application and took a more nuanced approach. While acknowledging that the magistrate’s colloquy with Davila violated Rule 11(c)(1), the Supreme Court still found that automatic reversal was not necessary. Id. 25. The court explained that the errors that rise to the level of automatic reversal are exceptional and that, in this circumstance, the magistrate’s error was not egregious enough to mandate reversal. Id. 28. In coming to this conclusion, the Supreme Court cited that Davila did not plead guilty until months after the error, that he expressly claimed he had pleaded guilty for strategic reasons, and that he affirmed the plea was knowing and voluntary at the time it was entered. Id. 27. In light of “the full record” the court vacated the 11th Circuit’s ruling and instructed that the “bright line” approach was inappropriate. Id.

Frye and Davila give guidance to trial courts on what they can or cannot do in plea negotiations. Furthermore, these cases guide lawyers who may wish to seek the court’s assistance in negotiations. While trial courts may make a record of plea negotiations and therefore, may be knowledgeable of the terms of a plea offer at sentencing, Davila makes clear that trial courts must not participate in defendants’ decisions to plead guilty.

Regardless of this prohibition, in practice, a trial court’s participation in plea negotiations is unlikely to result in reversible error. In Davila, the magistrate judge not only advised the defendant that the government had a strong case, but told him to “come to the cross.” This command had to have some effect on the defendant’s decision to plead guilty – and his attorney’s advice – even after three months had elapsed. In addition, the “full record” in this case, in which Davila admitted he had entered the plea agreement knowingly and voluntarily, was perfunctory, and the same record is made in most guilty plea hearings. Nevertheless, courts must use caution and care to not cross the line in discussing plea offers with the parties, and parties should be aware of the limitations on the court’s involvement in the plea negotiation process.•

__________

James J. Bell and K. Michael Gaerte are attorneys with Bingham Greenebaum Doll LLP. They assist lawyers and judges with professional liability and legal ethics issues. They also practice in criminal defense and are regular speakers on criminal defense and ethics topics. They can be reached via email at jbell@bgdlegal.com or mgaerte@bgdlegal.com. The opinions expressed are those of the authors.

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  1. Have been seeing this wonderful physician for a few years and was one of his patients who told him about what we were being told at CVS. Multiple ones. This was a witch hunt and they shold be ashamed of how patients were treated. Most of all, CVS should be ashamed for what they put this physician through. So thankful he fought back. His office is no "pill mill'. He does drug testing multiple times a year and sees patients a minimum of four times a year.

  2. Brian W, I fear I have not been sufficiently entertaining to bring you back. Here is a real laugh track that just might do it. When one is grabbed by the scruff of his worldview and made to choose between his Confession and his profession ... it is a not a hard choice, given the Confession affects eternity. But then comes the hardship in this world. Imagine how often I hear taunts like yours ... "what, you could not even pass character and fitness after they let you sit and pass their bar exam ... dude, there must really be something wrong with you!" Even one of the Bishop's foremost courtiers said that, when explaining why the RCC refused to stand with me. You want entertaining? How about watching your personal economy crash while you have a wife and five kids to clothe and feed. And you can't because you cannot work, because those demanding you cast off your Confession to be allowed into "their" profession have all the control. And you know that they are wrong, dead wrong, and that even the professional code itself allows your Faithful stand, to wit: "A lawyer may refuse to comply with an obligation imposed by law upon a good faith belief that no valid obligation exists. The provisions of Rule 1.2(d) concerning a good faith challenge to the validity, scope, meaning or application of the law apply to challenges of legal regulation of the practice of law." YET YOU ARE A NONPERSON before the BLE, and will not be heard on your rights or their duties to the law -- you are under tyranny, not law. And so they win in this world, you lose, and you lose even your belief in the rule of law, and demoralization joins poverty, and very troubling thoughts impeaching self worth rush in to fill the void where your career once lived. Thoughts you did not think possible. You find yourself a failure ... in your profession, in your support of your family, in the mirror. And there is little to keep hope alive, because tyranny rules so firmly and none, not the church, not the NGO's, none truly give a damn. Not even a new court, who pay such lip service to justice and ancient role models. You want entertainment? Well if you are on the side of the courtiers running the system that has crushed me, as I suspect you are, then Orwell must be a real riot: "There will be no curiosity, no enjoyment of the process of life. All competing pleasures will be destroyed. But always — do not forget this, Winston — always there will be the intoxication of power, constantly increasing and constantly growing subtler. Always, at every moment, there will be the thrill of victory, the sensation of trampling on an enemy who is helpless. If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face — forever." I never thought they would win, I always thought that at the end of the day the rule of law would prevail. Yes, the rule of man's law. Instead power prevailed, so many rules broken by the system to break me. It took years, but, finally, the end that Dr Bowman predicted is upon me, the end that she advised the BLE to take to break me. Ironically, that is the one thing in her far left of center report that the BLE (after stamping, in red ink, on Jan 22) is uninterested in, as that the BLE and ADA office that used the federal statute as a sword now refuses to even dialogue on her dire prediction as to my fate. "C'est la vie" Entertaining enough for you, status quo defender?

  3. Low energy. Next!

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  5. OK, take notice. Those wondering just how corrupt the Indiana system is can see the picture in this post. Attorney Donald James did not criticize any judges, he merely, it would seem, caused some clients to file against him and then ignored his own defense. James thus disrespected the system via ignoring all and was also ordered to reimburse the commission $525.88 for the costs of prosecuting the first case against him. Yes, nearly $526 for all the costs, the state having proved it all. Ouch, right? Now consider whistleblower and constitutionalist and citizen journalist Paul Ogden who criticized a judge, defended himself in such a professional fashion as to have half the case against him thrown out by the ISC and was then handed a career ending $10,000 bill as "half the costs" of the state crucifying him. http://www.theindianalawyer.com/ogden-quitting-law-citing-high-disciplinary-fine/PARAMS/article/35323 THE TAKEAWAY MESSAGE for any who have ears to hear ... resist Star Chamber and pay with your career ... welcome to the Indiana system of (cough) justice.

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