Supreme Court Rules That Judge Participating In Plea Bargaining Does Not Warrant Vacatur

Filed under: Criminal Law, News by Contributor @ June 19, 2013

Last week, the United State Supreme Court issued its opinion on United States v. Davila. The Court sought to answer the question: when a federal judge gives nonprejudicial advice to the defendant during plea bargaining and the defendant pleads guilty, is the appropriate remedy to vacate the guilty plea? In a unanimous decision, the Court ruled that vacatur is not appropriate. Justice Ginsburg wrote the Court’s opinion, and Justice Scalia wrote an opinion concurring in part and concurring in judgment with which Justice Thomas joined.

Anthony Davila was charged with several federal crimes, including Conspiracy To Defraud The United States by filing false income tax returns. Davila did not have a lawyer at a pre-plea in camera hearing, and the U.S. Magistrate Judge advised him that his best option would be to plead guilty given the strength of the government’s case. Three months later, Davila pleaded guilty.

The district judge’s actions were a clear violation of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure Rule 11(c)(1), which states, “the court must not participate in [plea] discussions.” Immediately prior to sentencing, Davila moved to vacate his plea and dismiss the indictment, alleging a violation of Rule 11(c)(1). The district judge denied the motion, and Davila appealed. The Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit ruled that the judge violated Rule 11(c)(1) and that vacatur of the guilty plea was the appropriate relief. The government appealed that decision and the United States Supreme Court granted certiorari.

While there is no doubt as to whether or not the district judge violated Rule 11(c)(1), the Court was tasked with determining the appropriate relief. The Court unanimously decided that Davila was not prejudiced in any way by the district judge’s suggestion and that the harmless error did not warrant vacatur. The lack of prejudice Davila faced by the judge’s suggestion is evidenced by the fact that Davila took three months to plead guilty, pleaded guilty before a different district judge, and swore under oath that he was not pressured into pleading guilty.

Regarding appropriate relief for a nonprejudicial violation of Rule 11(c)(1), Rule 11(h) states that “a variance from the requirements of this rule is harmless error if it does not affect substantial rights.” Rule 52(a) states, “any error, defect, irregularity, or variance that does not affect substantial rights must be disregarded.” The Court held that it follows then that the error must be ignored and that vacatur is not warranted.

It is interesting to note that one of the reasons that trial judges are often precluded from participating in plea-bargaining is that once a judge has rendered an opinion regarding the appropriateness of a plea bargain, the defendant’s right to a trial is necessarily affected. For instance, if the judge says that the deal is fair and the defendant should take it, will the judge then be offended if the defendant rejects that advice and goes to trial? And could that come back to haunt the defendant, if convicted, at the time of sentencing? Please leave your thoughts on this issue in our comments section.

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