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Monday, May 27, 2024 | Back issues
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Judge’s Plea Advice Will Go Before High Court

WASHINGTON (CN) - The U.S. Supreme Court will evaluate the propriety of some frank advice that a trial judge gave to a man who wanted to fight tax fraud charges.

In 2010, Anthony Davila told the magistrate judge handling his case 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 Davila did not need to show "any individualized prejudice."

"We agree with Davila that the magistrate judge's comments at the in camera hearing amounted to judicial participation in plea discussions, and the record reflects that he pled guilty after these comments were made," the unsigned decision states.

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."

"Similarly, a court may not comment on the 'weight and nature of the evidence against' a defendant," the judges added.

The circuit ordered reinstatement of Davila's not-guilty plea and assignment of another magistrate judge to the case on remand.

In its petition for certiorari, the government asked the U.S. Supreme Court to determine whether "any degree of judicial participation in plea negotiations, in violation of Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 11(c)(1), automatically requires vacatur of a defendant's guilty plea, irrespective of whether the error prejudiced the defendant."

The court granted certiorari without comment, as is its custom, on Friday.

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