Friday, May 02, 2008

Magistrate Judges May Accept Guilty Pleas

US v. Benton: Benton was charged with conspiracy to distribute drugs. He reached a plea agreement with the Government, which included a provision allowing a magistrate judge to perform the Rule 11 plea hearing. That hearing took place and the magistrate judge accepted Benton's plea. Months later, Benton complained that his attorney had been ineffective by failing to adequately explain the elements of the offense to him. As a result, new counsel was appointed. After new counsel was appointed, Benton filed a motion to withdraw his guilty plea alleging that there was an inadequate factual basis, the terms were unconscionable, the Government had breached by failing to file a motion for substantial assistance, and ineffective assistance of counsel. The district court denied the motion. Benton reiterated his motion at sentencing, but it was again denied. He was sentenced to 262 months in prison.

On appeal, Benton made three arguments, all of which the Fourth Circuit rejected. First, he argued that he had the right to withdraw his plea for "any reason or no reason" because the magistrate judge lacked the authority to accept the plea. Because Benton did not make the argument to the district court, the Fourth reviewed it for plain error. The Fourth found there not to be error at all, concluding that magistrate judges can accept guilty pleas, so long as the district court can review that acceptance de novo. The court noted that a "fair and just reason" for withdrawing a plea (as required once it has been accepted) would be a defective plea proceeding before a magistrate judge. Second, he argued that his plea was not knowing and voluntary because the magistrate judge failed to adequately explain the elements of the offense and incorrectly stated the maximum term of supervised release he faced. Finally, Benton renewed his argument that his original counsel was ineffective.

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