Eleventh Circuit Vacates Conviction Because Judge Improperly Participated in Plea Discussions – U.S. v. Davila

January 5, 2012 by David S. Seltzer

An important part of my job as a Miami criminal defense lawyer is helping clients understand the advantages and disadvantages of pleading guilty or going to trial. This is known as a plea deal or plea bargain, and it may be a tough call in some circumstances — but it should always be made by a well informed client who was free of improper interference. That’s why I was interested to see a recent Eleventh Circuit decision vacating a conviction that was wrongly influenced by the judge’s comments. In United States v. Davila, Anthony Davila of Georgia was being prosecuted for conspiracy to defraud the United States, using a scheme involving false tax refunds. The Eleventh found that the magistrate judge should not have essentially advised Davila on his defense strategy.

During a hearing before a magistrate judge, Davila requested the discharge of his court-appointed attorney, complaining that the attorney had not discussed options other than pleading guilty. The magistrate judge suggested that there was no other viable defense, and advised Davila that the only thing under his control was whether he planned to accept responsibility, thus allowing a lowered offense level. The opinion quoted the judge as telling Davila “You’ve got to tell the probation officer everything you did in this case regardless of how bad it makes you appear to be because that is the way you get that three- level reduction for acceptance, and believe me, Mr. Davila, someone with your criminal history needs a three-level reduction for acceptance.” Davila did eventually plead guilty and receive a sentence of 115 months, more than nine years.

His appeal to the Eleventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals argued that these comments were essentially improper participation in the plea discussions. By commenting on the weight of the evidence, Davila argued, the magistrate judge was suggesting that the sentence for a plea would be more favorable than a sentence coming out of a conviction. As a preliminary matter, the court noted that Davila failed to object to this in trial court, so it must review the court’s decision for plain error. Fortunately for Davila, the appeals court found plain error. The Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure expressly say that the court must not participate in plea agreement discussions, with no exceptions. Under Eleventh Circuit precedent, the defendant need not show any actual prejudice as a result; it is enough to show that the behavior was improper. Thus, it vacated Davila’s sentence and sent it back for retrial with a different judge.

Though I certainly handle fraud as a south Florida tax evasion attorney, this case has implications for a wide range of criminal cases. The Eleventh’s ruling reiterates that judges may not step into the plea deal discussion in any way, no matter how well intentioned. Indeed, this magistrate judge may have intended nothing more than to help Davila — but he was violating the law as well as unduly influencing the process. This is not just a technical violation. As the opinion in this case noted, allowing judges to participate in a plea discussion makes their preferences known (or seems to), which tends to change the parameters of the debate, bring the judge’s impartiality into question and possibly coerce the result. As a Fort Lauderdale fraud defense lawyer, I feel that preventing this protects both my clients and the integrity of the case itself.

If you’re charged with a crime in south Florida, don’t wait to call Seltzer Law, P.A., to discuss your legal options and your rights. We answer phone calls 24 hours a day and seven days a week, because we know arrests and complications don’t stop after business hours end. To learn more or set up a meeting, call us toll-free at 1-888-THE-DEFENSE (1-888-843-3333) or send us a message online.

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