Conviction May Survive Judge’s Plea Advice

     WASHINGTON (CN) – It was improper to automatically vacate a tax fraud conviction because the trial judge advised pleading guilty, the Supreme Court ruled Thursday.
     Anthony Davila had told the magistrate judge handling his case in 2010 that his court-appointed attorney was putting him at a disadvantage by urging him to plead guilty.
     The magistrate judge responded that “there may not be viable defenses to these charges,” and that pleading guilty sometimes was the best advice an attorney could provide his client.
     Noting Davila’s “criminal history,” the judge added that a sentence reduction could be available for acceptance of responsibility.
     “That means you’ve got to go to the cross,” the judge said. “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.”
     Soon after, Davila pleaded guilty to conspiracy to defraud the United States by obtaining false tax refunds. He was sentenced in the Southern District of Georgia to 115 months in prison. Davila then appealed, claiming that the judge’s comments amounted to improper participation in plea discussions.
     The 11th Circuit agreed and vacated his conviction, finding that “the magistrate judge’s comments at the in camera hearing amounted to judicial participation in plea discussions.”
     The court noted judicial participation is presumed and the conviction must be set aside “when the District Court contrasts the sentence a defendant would receive if he pled guilty with the sentence he would receive if he went to trial and was found guilty.”
     Such participation is barred under Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 11(c)(1), but the U.S. Supreme Court decided Thursday that the violation does not automatically require vacatur of a defendant’s guilty plea.
     It said as much despite finding that “the magistrate judge’s repeated exhortations to Davila to ‘tell it all’ in order to obtain a more favorable sentence were indeed beyond the pale.”
     Meanwhile, Rule 11(h) is “specifically designed to stop automatic vacaturs.”
     It states: “A variance from the requirements of th[e] rule is harmless error if it does not affect substantial rights,” according to the ruling.
     Likewise, “Rule 52(a), which covers trial court errors generally, similarly prescribes: ‘Any error … that does not affect substantial rights must be disregarded.'”
     “Rather than automat­ically vacating Davila’s guilty plea because of the Rule 11(c)(1) violation, the Court of Appeals should have con­sidered whether it was reasonably probable that, but for the magistrate judge’s exhortations, Davila would have exercised his right to go to trial,” Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote for the mostly unanimous court. “In answering that ques­tion, the magistrate judge’s comments should be assessed, not in isolation, but in light of the full record.”
     Concurring in the judgment and concurring in part, Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas agreed that prejudice is required for a defendant to obtain relief under Rule 11(c)(1).
     “That is the beginning and the end of this case,” Scalia added. “We should not rely on the notes of the Advisory Committee to unearth Rule 11’s alleged design, for ‘[t]he committee’s view is not authoritative’ and the text of the rule conclusively resolves the question before us.”

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