APPEALS COURT IN ATLANTA REVERSES TAX CASE: FEDERAL JUDGES PROHIBITED FROM PARTICIPATING IN PLEA DISCUSSIONS

December 21, 2011 by Paul Kish

The United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, siting here in Atlanta, reversed a federal tax conviction today because the judge impermissibly participated in plea discussions with the Defendant. The case is United States v. Davila.

The Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure make it crystal clear that while the prosecutor and defense attorney can negotiate toward a plea agreement, the Judge may not in any way participate in these discussions. There are three main reasons for this prohibition: to avoid coercing a defendant into pleading guilty, to protect the integrity of the judicial process, and to preserve the Judge's impartiality after the negotiations are completed. The Federal Rules are quite different than what takes place in many State courts, where Judges regularly get involved in the plea discussions.

The Eleventh Circuit also has a rule holding that judicial participation in plea discussions amounts to "plain error." There are no exceptions to this rule, and a Defendant does not have to object or even show any prejudice he suffered from the judge's improper intrusion into the plea discussions. This is one of the few areas where the appeals court here in Atlanta has a rule that is more friendly to criminal defendants than other courts around the country.

In the Davila case issued this afternoon, the Federal Magistrate Judge conducted a hearing to look into Mr. Davila's dissatisfaction with appointed counsel. Davila was unhappy because the appointed lawyer only wanted to talk about a potential guilty plea. The Magistrate Judge told Davila that perhaps a plea was his best option, there might not be any defenses, and a plea might be a good idea especially because of Davila's long criminal record.

On appeal the Eleventh Circuit reversed the sentence and conviction based on the Magistrate Judge's comments. The appellate court held that these comments violated the prohibition against participation in plea discussion, because the Magistrate basically implied that Mr. Davila would certainly get a longer sentence if he did not plead. The Eleventh Circuit reversed even though it noted that the Magistrate may well have only intended to help Davila, not harm him. Additionally, the rule in the Eleventh Circuit is that when the case gets back to the District Court, it must be re-assigned to a new Judges who had no role in the earlier proceedings.