Tag Archives: withdrawal of guilty plea

Just Sign Right Below the Illusory Promise – Update for January 4, 2018

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


Jose Rivera-Cruz agreed to plead guilty to being a felon in possession of a gun. He signed a plea agreement in which the government (1) did not agree to reduce or dismiss any of charges, (2) reserved the right to argue for a statutory-maximum sentence, and (3) did not stipulate to a criminal history category of offense level. The plea agreement did permit Jose to argue for a 96-month sentence (a right he had with or without a plea agreement), and let the government argue for a statutory-maximum 120-month sentence (the most sentence Jose could get by law). However, the government did agree to recommend that Jose receive a 3-level acceptance of responsibility.

pleadeal180104After getting hammered with the full 120 months by the district judge, Jose argued on appeal that he should be allowed to get out of the plea agreement due to lack of consideration. Under basic contract law, both parties must give and receive consideration. If there is no consideration, the contract is not enforceable. Jose argued that just as Oz never did give nothing to the Tin Man that he didn’t already have, Jose got absolutely nothing under the plea agreement that he could not have gotten by pleading to the indictment without a plea agreement.

considerationLast week, the 1st Circuit disagreed. The appellate court held the plea agreement provided Jose with “at least three separate benefits, each of which independently constituted sufficient consideration.” First, the government agreed to move for the third acceptance-of-responsibility point under USSG 3E1.1(a), something it did not have to do because Jose refused to plead guilty until the eve of trial. The Circuit said the fact the 3-level reduction did not help him at sentencing made no difference: “the government’s voluntary agreement to submit the same three-point reduction, rather than a two-point reduction, certainly gave Rivera-Cruz a better ‘chance at less’ in front of the district court.”

tinman180104Second, the government agreed not to seek a 4-point obliterated-serial-number enhancement under USSC 2K2.1(b)(4)(B). The Presentence Report included the enhancement anyway, and Jose complained the government did not fight it, but the Court said the AUSA had no “affirmative obligation… to object to the enhancement at sentencing. In any case, the government’s voluntary agreement not to include the… enhancement in the plea agreement improved Rivera-Cruz’s chances of obtaining a more lenient sentence, and accordingly constituted sufficient consideration for his plea.”

Finally, the government agreed not to seek a 15-year mandatory minimum Armed Career Criminal Act sentence. Jose argued on appeal that the promise was meaningless, because he never would have qualified for an ACCA sentence. The 1st Circuit said that did not matter: “the government was under no obligation to drop its pursuit of an ACCA sentence. Its decision to do so in the plea agreement… provided Rivera-Cruz with a ‘chance at less’ during sentencing,” whether that chance was meaningful or not.

United States v. Rivera-Cruz, Case No. 16-2398 (1st Cir., Dec. 22, 2017)

– Thomas L. Root


Once You Say It, You Own It – Update for June 15, 2017

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


changeofplea170616Anyone spectator who has ever endured a change-of-plea hearing in Federal court has some sense of what the prophet Isaiah meant when he wrote of inhabiting eternity. The hearing drones on and on, with discussions about the defendant’s mental state, understanding of his or her rights, the nature of the rights being given up by the guilty plea, the elements of the charges, maximum and minimum sentences, fines and restitution, effect of the Guidelines, and on and on.

The whole back-and-forth between the defendant and the judge – known as the plea colloquy – is scripted by F.R.Crim.P. 11, which covers in detail what has to happen during the guilty plea. Such hearings go on over 70,000 times a year in federal court, and virtually every one of them is mind-numbing.

Before accepting a plea of guilty, the court must determine that the plea is voluntary and did not result from force, threats, or promises other than those in the plea agreement. One question that is almost always asked is whether the defendant is fully satisfied with his or her legal counsel, the representation, and advice received. Another is whether anyone had  threatened or attempted in any way to force the defendant to plead guilty.

ecoli170616At first blush, the questions seem silly. If the defendant is being forced to plead guilty, he or she is hardly going to screw the pooch by telling the judge that. Even worse is the question about satisfaction with counsel. The defendant has not even had his or her guilty plea accepted, let alone get sentenced. It’s as though Yelp required you to post your restaurant review before your appetizer arrives. Sure, the maître d’ was polite, and the tablecloths clean and starched. But you may well feel much different at 3 o’clock tomorrow morning, when you discover that e.coli. had been living in the house salad.

meanit170616As meaningless as the answers may be, they nevertheless because granite-hard truth if the defendant ever suffers buyer’s remorse. Consider Kevin Reed. Halfway through his federal fraud trial, he decided to plead guilty. During the plea colloquy, the district judge asked Kevin if he was “fully satisfied with the counsel, representation, and advice” he had been given. Kevin replied, “Yes.  He’s  excellent.”  He  also  confirmed  that  no  one  had  threatened him or attempted “in any way” to force him to plead, and that he was pleading guilty of his “own free will” because he was actually guilty.

A few months later, as sentencing loomed, Kevin hired a new set of lawyers. They moved to withdraw the plea, arguing that Kevin’s trial attorney’s ineffective representation at trial left Kevin with no choice but to bail out, and thus coerced him to plead guilty. The district court denied the motion.

Last Tuesday, the 7th Circuit upheld the district court. The Circuit acknowledged that a defendant could withdraw a guilty plea, but such a motion is “particularly unlikely to have merit if it seeks to dispute the defendant’s sworn assurances to the court.”

That was exactly what Kevin was trying to do. He argued that his trial attorney ignored tens of thousands of documents and didn’t interview dozens of potential witnesses, but he did not identify any of the witnesses or documents or show how they would have bolstered his case. More importantly, the appellate panel tartly noted, Kevin kind of forgot to mention any of this in his plea colloquy, or to complain that he was answering “yes” to the court only because his attorney told him to.

trifles170616At the plea colloquy, Kevin said his lawyer was excellent and that his plea was voluntary. “Those sworn statements were not ‘trifles’,” the 7th said, that Kevin could simply “elect to disregard.” To be sure, a plea entered because counsel is unprepared for trial would be an involuntary plea, but the district court found Kevin’s claim of lawyer ineffectiveness “vague,” and the appellate court agreed.

The problem is that at the change-of-plea colloquy, a defendant – especially one unfamiliar with the criminal process – has no way to know whether his lawyer has provided good representation or not. Nevertheless, a defendant will be held to the words he or she speaks. Whether the defendant knows the correct answer or not, that answer is going to bind him or her. Say it like you mean it, because once you give the answer, you own it.

United States v. Reed, Case No. 16-3428 (7th Cir., June 13, 2017)

– Thomas L. RootLISAStatHeader2small