Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Extensive District Court Involvement in Plea Negotiations Is Plain Error Requiring Reversal

US v. Bradley: Bradley and his co-defendants Jones and Bennett were charged with various drug and firearm offenses relating to a conspiracy to distribute crack in and around Baltimore. Early in the proceedings, Bennett sought to enter a guilty plea, but balked when informed that a charge that he thought had a sentence of 10 years in prison actually exposed him to at least 10 years, and possible life, in prison. Bennett backed out of the deal and the Government obtained a five-count superseding indictment against the three men, charging conspiracy to distribute 50 grams or more of crack, distribution of crack, possession of crack with intent to distribute, and two separate counts of possessing firearms in connection with drug trafficking. Bennett was charged in all five counts, while Bradley and Jones were charged with conspiracy and one firearm count.

Trial began on January 28, 2002, with the first witness testifying the next day. On January 30, before the jury arrived, the district court met privately with the defendants and counsel and encouraged them to consider entering guilty pleas. At one point, the court said "frankly, based on what I am hearing now . . . your clients may be better off pleading guilty to the indictment." The court then called the Government's counsel into the courtroom and discussed the situation with them as well. After a 3-hour adjournment, the Government reported that no plea agreement could be reached because of sentencing issues. Bradley attempted to enter a guilty plea to the indictment, but would not admit that he was guilty of conspiracy, so the district court rejected the plea.

Two weeks passed and the trial continued, until the court again brought up the possibility of the defendants entering plea bargains. After badgering the defendants about pleading guilty, the court asked for a response from the defendants themselves:

Jones objected to 'the way you keep on judging us.' The court responded that the jury would be judging them, not the court. Jones replied: 'You keep telling us to cop out, like we are already guilty.' The court replied, 'I keep telling you that you are presumed innocent.' Jones then stated, 'It don’t seem like it.' Jones went on to state that he was not satisfied with the plea option the Government had presented to him: 'The only deal they give is they tell [us] to cooperate or go to trial. I’m going to trial because I won’t cooperate with them.'

The next day, Bennett indicated that he wanted to plead guilty, but the district court said it would only accept guilty pleas from all three defendants at the same time. Six days later, all three agreed to plead guilty to the indictment. Ironically, when the Government during the Rule 11 proceedings indicated that the two firearm charges against Bennett would have to be run consecutively, producing a 40-year mandatory minimum, Bennett stated that he didn't want to plead guilty to that much time, to which the court responded, "I don't blame you." The Government eventually dropped one of the firearm charges, dropping the mandatory minimum sentence to 20 years. The district court accepted the defendants' pleas and sentenced them to 296 months (Bradley), 720 months (Jones), and life in prison (Bennett).

On appeal, Bradley and company argued that their pleas were involuntary because the district court was impermissibly engaged in the plea negotiations. After first determining that the issue was subject to plain error review, the Fourth Circuit agreed and reversed the convictions. The Government conceded the error and that it was plain, but argued that the error did not affect the defendants' substantial rights and did not seriously affect the fairness and integrity of the judicial proceedings. The Fourth Circuit rejected both arguments, holding that the Government's focus on defense counsel's role in the pleas "totally ignores the applicable standard for determining the effect on substantial rights in cases involving Rule 11 violations." The Fourth also rejected the Government's argument regarding the impact on the fairness and integrity of the proceedings, noting that "[w]e have not found a single case in which the extent of judicial involvement in plea negotiations equalled that in the case at hand."

You really have to read the full facts of the case to get a grasp of how much influence the district court had on these pleas.

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