Friday, December 19, 2014

District Court "Repeated and Direct" Urging that Defendant Accept Plea Bargain Is Plain Error

US v. Sanya: Sanya ran a credit card fraud scheme, to which he pleaded guilty in federal court July 2012.  He was released on bond pending sentencing.  Six weeks later he was arrested after having restarted the fraud scheme.  He was charged in federal court again, this time with multiple charges including access device fraud and aggravated identity theft.  The Government quickly offered a plea bargain that would allow the sentencings for the original conviction and the new charges to take place at the same time.  Sanya rejected the offer initially, but after the district court opined at a detention hearing about the benefits of doing so, Sanya changed his mind.  After entering a guilty plea, he was sentenced to a total (on both convictions) of 212 months in prison.

On appeal, the Fourth Circuit vacated his second set of convictions because of the district court's insertion of itself into plea negotiations.  Applying plain error review, the court found that the district court erred (as the Government conceded) and that the error was plain (as the Government did not).  As to whether the error affected Sanya's substantial rights, the court concluded that the record showed a "reasonable probability that, but for the error, he would not have entered the plea," including his initial refusal of the offer, the breadth of the district court's commentary, and the swiftness with which Sanya changed his mind (he signed a plea agreement five days after the hearing).  The court distinguished the Government's reliance on cases taken from other jurisdictions, raised mostly in a series of five Rule 28(j) letters filed in three weeks ("perhaps a record," the court notes).  Finally, the court concluded that the error was of the kind that it should notice, observing that the district court's comments were "repeated and direct" and that its "exhortations saturated the hearing."

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