Tag Archives: plea agreement

You Pay Your Money and You Take Your Chance – Update for May 2, 2017

We post news and comment on federal criminal justice issues, focused primarily on trial and post-conviction matters, legislative initiatives, and sentencing issues.

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BUYER’S REMORSE

With 97% of federal defendants entering guilty pleas, you’d think that law students aspiring to federal criminal defense work (that is, if any law student actually selects that as a career option) would take classes in plea negotiation even before studying evidence, criminal procedure or appellate advocacy.

pasdedeux170502To be sure, plea agreement negotiation is an art form, sort of akin to detailed choreography that has great implications for defendants, implications often never fully appreciated until much later. The change-of-plea hearing itself is a pas-de-deux for defendant and judge, with almost every question being scripted by Rule 11(b) of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure – and almost every answer being a trap for the unwary.

It’s little wonder the Supreme Court has held that the 6th Amendment’s right to effective legal counsel extends to negotiating and signing the plea agreement.

Gilbert Spiller was a man without a lot of choices. He was busted in Chicago for selling 121 grams of crack to a police informant, and then compounding his miscalculation by later selling the same guy a loaded .40 caliber pistol so the buyer – a convicted felon – could use it to protect his own drug trafficking operation. Gil was sort of a poster boy for what’s wrong with the Windy City.

Gil, a man with three prior drug felonies, was pretty much in a corner. The federal drug trafficking statute – 21 USC 841 – is a spaghetti bowl of “if-thens.” If the amount of drugs sold exceed x, then the minimum sentence becomes y. If the defendant has x number of prior drug felonies, then the minimum sentence is y, but if the number of prior felonies is x+1, then the minimum sentence is 2y. If death or serious injury resulted from the drug sales, then the minimum sentence is z. In Gil’s case, the amount of drugs he sold would have given him a mandatory minimum sentence of five years, but his prior felonies bumped it to double that.

pleading170502When the government intends to enhance a 21 USC 841 sentence, it has to provide a notice complying with 21 USC 851. In defendant parlance, someone receiving such an enhanced sentence has been “851’d.” Gil got 851’d right away, even before the government’s plea offer arrived on his lawyer’s email.

The government proposed that Gil would plead to a drug distribution count, and admit that the conduct underlying the remaining counts was relevant for sentencing purposes. He also had to stipulate to the government’s Guidelines calculation, including a Guidelines “career offender” enhancement that would send the sentencing range into the stratosphere.

Gil’s defense attorney was puzzled by the offer. Gil would be giving up his right to appeal or argue Guidelines enhancements at sentencing, and for what? We see this in many plea agreements: the defendant give up rights in exchange for vapor, getting nothing that he could not have gotten simply by pleading guilty without the agreement (called a “blind plea”). After all, a defendant does not have to have an agreement in order to plead guilty, and sometimes, no plea agreement might be a wise idea.

Gil clearly wondered what was in the deal for him, as did his attorney. She wrote back:

Mr. Spiller has asked a great question and one that I cannot seem to answer for him: what exactly does he gain if he proceeds by plea agreement, as opposed to a blind plea. Is the government withdrawing the 851? Can you tell me one concession the government makes in the draft plea you sent over? I want to make sure I am not missing something.

In an uncharacteristic flash of candor, the Assistant U.S. Attorney responded:

The government is not withdrawing the 851 notice. You ask a good question, and I admit that the plea agreement does not offer a whole lot beyond a blind plea. There are a few minor benefits: we would dismiss two counts so he would save himself $200 in special assessments. He also gets the recognition in the plea agreement that, as things currently stand, he is entitled to acceptance of responsibility.

forme170502Gil rejected the government’s proposed plea agreement and instead entered a blind plea, pleading guilty to all three counts and reserving his right to argue his sentence and appeal. His sentencing range was 262-327 months. At sentencing, his lawyer pointed to his troubled upbringing, asking for 120 months. The court sentenced Gil to 240 months.

Once ensconced in prison, Gil became afflicted with buyer’s remorse. He filed a 28 USC 2255 motion, arguing his lawyer had been constitutionally ineffective by counseling him to execute a blind plea rather than taking the government’s proposed plea agreement. The district court denied the motion.

Last week, the 7th Circuit upheld the denial. To win, Gil had to show his lawyer’s performance fell below an objective standard of reasonableness, and that there was a reasonable chance that, but for those errors, his sentence would have been different.

The Circuit said that a reasonably competent lawyer would have tried to learn all of the relevant facts of the case, make an estimate of a likely sentence, and communicate the results of that analysis to the client before allowing him to plead guilty. That, the Court said, was just what Gil’s lawyer did. She discussed the proposed plea agreement with him and conveyed Gil’s questions (and hers) to the government. She concluded that Gil would be better off rejecting the offer and pleading blindly.

remorse170502In fact, she went one better that most attorneys. She drafted an 11-page plea declaration illustrating the understanding of the relevant facts and law underlying the case that she and Gil had reached, which she had Gil sign. In the document, which was filed with the district court, Gil acknowledged he had read the indictment and the document he was signing, and had gone over the whole thing with his attorney. (This, in our experience, is an unusual but prudent practice: it both ensures the defendant knows what is happening and protects the lawyer from “buyer’s remorse” proceedings such as Gil’s 2255 motion).

Gil admitted in his 2255 motion that his attorney believed it was worth it to reserve his right to challenge the government’s Guidelines calculation — a right he would have sacrificed by signing the plea agreement — and believed she could get him a “better sentence.” The Court said her decision “sounds in strategy rather than in emotion, and a strategic decision, even if clearly wrong in retrospect, cannot sup-port a claim that counsel’s conduct was deficient.”

endof170502The Circuit observed that a “fair assessment of attorney performance requires that every effort be made to eliminate the distorting effects of hindsight, to re-construct the circumstances of counsel’s challenged conduct, and to evaluate the conduct from counsel’s perspective at the time.” This is especially true in the plea-bargaining context, the Court said, citing “the many uncertain-ties surrounding the difficult decision of whether to plead guilty.”

The 7th concluded that the district court had “a sufficient basis in the record to characterize counsel’s decision as strategic: Her email, Spiller’s affidavit, the government’s proposed plea agreement, and Spiller’s Plea Declaration, taken together, obviated the need for an evidentiary hearing.”

Spiller v. United States, Case No. 15-2889 (7th Cir., Apr. 28, 2017)

– Thomas L. Root

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The Price of Magical Thinking – Update for April 17, 2017

We post news and comment on federal criminal justice issues, focused primarily on trial and post-conviction matters, legislative initiatives, and sentencing issues.

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YOU SHOULD HAVE TAKEN THE DEAL WHEN IT WAS OFFERED…

magic170417Defendants facing trial often engage in magical thinking about their cases: they believe jurors will find reasonable doubt in the most convoluted explanations, that judges will suppress evidence for the most tenuous of justifications, that they will be bailed out by the admissions of co-defendants who are being rewarded for testifying for the government.

None of this happens often. In fact, it happens so seldom – TV shows notwithstanding – that it’s newsworthy when it arises. With a conviction rate approaching 99%, the government enjoys many hits and very few misses.

But the same kind of magical thinking that convinces problem gamblers that they’re going to beat the odds afflicts defendants. What their lawyers tell them enters their ears but does not reach their brain except through a filter that strips out the cold, hard truth. And later, when the defendants have become inmates, they recall what they want to recall of it.

takedeal170417Take Glen Allen, for example. The lawyer defending him from drug trafficking charges filed a motion to suppress evidence obtained in a search, but told Glen the motion was not likely to succeed, and he should take a plea deal of 91-121 months. Glen refused the deal, and told his lawyer not to negotiate any more deals. He said the proposed sentence “was too much time for me to do according to my involvement.”

Glen figured he knew better than his attorney, so he tried to file his own motion to suppress. When that didn’t work, he asked to hire a new lawyer, which was granted.

When he hired new counsel Clay Janske – whom Glen selected because he “would not be scared” to try the case before a jury – Glen explained to him that he was not interested in a plea deal and told him not even to discuss a new plea offer. Clay litigated the motion to suppress, which was denied. A few days prior to trial, a co-defendant agreed to testify against Glen. The government told Clay that if Glen went to trial, it would seek an enhanced sentence under 21 USC 851 based on Glen’s prior drug felonies. The enhancement would give Glen a mandatory life sentence.

Glen came to his senses, and took the latest plea deal, a mandatory minimum of 10 years. The court figured his guidelines at 121-151 months, and gave him the bottom.

mistake170417Glen filed a petition under 28 USC 2255, claiming his attorney was ineffective in explaining the first plea agreement to him. Gary said Clay told him he would only get “a couple of more years” if he went to trial instead of pleading guilty. Clay said he had told him that, but it was based on inaccurate information Glen gave his lawyer about his criminal history. Glen said that if Clay had properly advised him about the potential of a mandatory life sentence, he would have pleaded guilty before the suppression hearing. Instead, he pleaded guilty right before trial and faced a 10-year mandatory minimum instead of a 5-year one.

What Glen didn’t get – and many defendants don’t get – is that it is not enough just to show a lawyer gave lousy advice about a plea deal. After all, lawyers do that all the time, either because they’re not focused, not very bright, or not working the right information. In order to win a claim of ineffective assistance for bad advice on a plea, a defendant has to be able to show that but for the bum advice, he or she would have probably taken the deal. Last Friday, the 8th Circuit showed just how inflexible a standard that can be.

oops170417The appeals court held Glen had nothing coming, because being ignorant of the risk he might get a life sentence was not all that drove Glen’s decision. True, the Court said, Glen pointed to the fact that once he learned he might get a life sentence, he quickly pleaded guilty. Glen argued that fact showed a “substantial, not just conceivable, likelihood” that he would have accepted the initial plea offer had Clay only advised him he could get life. The Circuit held, however, that it was clear that Glen’s decision “was motivated by his belief that the plea offer was not favorable enough and his hope that he would succeed on the suppression motion.”

guilty170417The district court found that two factors — the decision of Glen’s co-defendant to testify and the possibility of a life sentence — influenced Glen’s decision to plead guilty. In other words, Glen failed to prove that “but for his counsel’s advice, he would have accepted the plea.”

“Under similar circumstances,” the Circuit said, “we concluded a habeas claimant failed to show prejudice in part because he was unwilling to consider pleading guilty, had always expressed a desire to proceed to trial, and none of counsel’s discussions about the possibility of a guilty plea seemed to sway him.” Thus, the Court held, Glen “failed to prove, by a substantial likelihood, that he would have accepted the offer to plead pursuant to the earlier proposed terms.”

Allen v. United States, Case No 15-3607 (8th Cir. 2017)

– Thomas L. Root

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What’s in a Name? – Update for February 24, 2017

We post news and comment on federal criminal justice issues, focused primarily on trial and post-conviction matters, legislative initiatives, and sentencing issues.

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A SHAKESPEARE FESTIVAL

Bruce Swisshelm signed a plea agreement to resolve his bank fraud indictment. It included the fairly Government promise not to argue for a sentence above the top of the Guideline range, and the defendant would not argue for a sentence below the bottom.

rose170224Bruce’s sentencing range was 57-71 months, but his attorney vigorously argued for a downward variance and bombarded the court with letters from the community attesting to the fact that Bruce was a great guy. The Government objected to her tactics, arguing that defense counsel’s arguments and the letters violated the plea agreement. Bruce’s lawyer disagreed, saying the agreement only prohibited her from arguing for a downward departure, and all she was asking for was a variance.

Variance, departure? A difference, is it not? Bruce’s attorney was undoubtedly emulating Renaissance lawyer Juliet, who once argued, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose, By any other name would smell as sweet.” And there is little doubt the judge found her arguments as sweet as a rose: despite the 57-71 month Guidelines range and the terms of the plea agreement, the court sentenced Bruce to 12 months and a day.

The Government appealed, arguing in essence, “Lord, what fools these mortals be” if they think they did not breach the plea agreement. Earlier this week, the 8th Circuit agreed.

Defense counsel just wanted the court to picture her client in the best possible light.
          Defense counsel just wanted the court to picture her client in the best possible light.

The Court of Appeals admitted that there are a lot of case out there holding  what’s to be done when the Government breaches a plea agreement, but that it had never decided the appropriate remedy when the defendant violates the deal. The Court said, “We do not now decide the proper remedy for any future defendant’s breach of a plea agreement, but in the particular circumstances of this case we decline to treat Swisshelm’s breach of the plea agreement differently from a breach by the government.”

A governmental breach of a plea deal always carries with it constitutional due process concerns. Those concerns are not present in where the breaching party is the defendant, but “principles of contract interpretation” nevertheless causes the Court to hold Bruce “accountable to the terms of the plea agreement. The parties agreed that they would not request a sentence outside the Guidelines range, and the government agreed not to pursue the several additional charges and Guidelines enhancements it could have lodged against Swisshelm in return for his guilty plea… Swisshelm thus received the benefit of the plea agreement—the government’s forbearance from seeking an above-Guidelines sentence—but deprived the government of its corresponding bargained-for benefit—Swisshelm’s forbearance from seeking a below-Guidelines sentence. “

Defense attorneys know that some clients just can't be prettied up at sentencing, no matter how hard one tries...
     Defense attorneys know that some clients just can’t be prettied up at sentencing, no matter how hard one tries…

The Court ordered resentencing in front of a different judge, which is precisely the remedy Bruce would have gotten if the Government had breached. Bruce – who had to think he had a real soft-touch sitting on the bench – complained that a different judge was hardly necessary and that his breach had been harmless. Doing the math, the 8th figured that a decrease in sentence from 57 months to 12 months was quote material. It said the different judge “may in the exercise of discretion consider the letters submitted on Swisshelm’s behalf for the purpose of determining a sentence within the Guidelines range, but not for the purpose of considering a downward departure or variance from the Guidelines range.”

The Court noted that appointment of a new judge in cases like this is standard, and was “in no sense to question the fairness of the sentencing judge; the fault here rests on the defendant, not on the sentencing judge.”

Bruce can’t be thinking that “All’s well that ends well.” He’s already served his 12-month sentence, and was just released last month. He’s now looking to going back for another 45 months, at least.

United States v. Swisshelm, Case No. 16-1416 (8th Circuit, February 22, 2017)

 – Thomas L. Root

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