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Tuesday, July 23, 2024 | Back issues
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Judge Screwed Up Fast-Track Plea Deal

PASADENA, Calif. (CN) - Paul Gabriel Morales Heredia, a Mexican national, faced a long prison sentence and deportation in 2012 after being picked up along the U.S.-California border and charged with illegal re-entry. He had been removed to Mexico at least three times since 1992 and had felony convictions for burglary, receiving stolen property and selling heroin, according to the 9th Circuit.

With such convictions and prior removals, Morales could have been sentenced to as many as 20 years in prison. But a fast-track, immigration-only plea deal offered him just 3 months behind bars and 3 years of supervised released in exchange for pleading guilty to illegal re-entry.

Through similar fast-track deals in border states, the federal government has secured more than 30,000 illegal re-entry prosecutions every year for the past five years, according the 9th Circuit.

However, a prosecutor's recounting of "prejudicial details likelier to inflame than to provide information" about Morales' criminal history during his sentencing led the appellate court to consider for the first time the "principles governing the breach" of such fast-track plea deals.

The prosecutor in Morales' case told U.S. District Judge Stephen Wilson, in Santa Ana, Calif., that the greatly reduced sentence was reasonable, though he told the judge that Morales had "allegedly choked the mother of his then-infant daughter, grabbed her face, shook her vigorously, shoved her against a wall, and cut her lip," and adding that his convictions "communicated a consistent disregard for both the criminal and immigration laws of the United States."

After the hearing, Judge Wilson rejected the plea deal and sentenced Morales to more than 10 years behind bars.

A three-judge appellate panel unanimously reversed on Wednesday and ordered resentencing.

Fast-track or not, the government clearly breached the terms of its plea agreement with Morales, the panel found.

"The Department of Justice has prosecuted an increasing number of federal immigration crimes in recent decades," wrote Judge Kim McLane Wardlaw. "To alleviate the resulting strain on the criminal justice system, it recommends substantial sentencing discounts for defendants who quickly plead guilty and waive important constitutional and procedural rights. Fast-track agreements serve the interests of all involved. The government is obligated to adhere strictly to their terms, just as it must - and usually does - honor its promises under all plea agreements."

Wardlaw continued: "In this case, the government's inflammatory discussion of Morales's previous crimes served no practical purpose but to argue implicitly for a harsher punishment than the government had agreed to recommend. It also violated the government's express promise not to suggest in any way that the district court impose a sentence other than the stipulated one."

The panel remanded to Santa Ana for reassignment to a different judge and resentencing.

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