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Monday, July 15, 2024 | Back issues
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Ninth Circuit Holds Judge Abused Discretion

SEATTLE (CN) - A federal judge abused his discretion by refusing to allow a man to plead guilty to drug charges, thereby subjecting him to a stiffer penalty, the Ninth Circuit ruled.

Lloyd Nickle, a Montana resident, was arrested in October 2013 and ultimately convicted on a charge of conspiring to possess a controlled substance with the intent of distributing it.

Lloyd, who faced two charges involving at least 500 grams of methamphetamine, was sentenced to 30 years in prison.

Nickle appealed his case to the Ninth Circuit, claiming the district court abused its discretion by rejecting his guilty plea. and by preventing him at his jury trial from cross-examining witnesses cooperating with the government.

After filing his notice of appeal, Senior U.S. District Judge Sam Haddon issued a sue sponte order, directing that Nickle's forfeited cash and the proceeds from the sale of his forfeited property be used to cover the cost of his court-appointed counsel.

Nickle appealed his conviction and sentence, while the U.S. Attorney's Office appealed the reimbursement order.

Under his rejected plea agreement, Nickle agreed to plead guilty to one count involving 50 grams of meth. In exchange, the government agreed to dismiss the two more severe charges and make favorable sentencing recommendations.

Haddon, however, refused to accept the plea, pressing Nickle for more details about his involvement in the crime.

Nickle responded that "the conspiracies were other than Montana, in other states," prompting Haddon to end the hearing and refuse to "accept a plea from this man under these circumstances."

The Ninth Circuit ruled on Monday that Haddon had no basis upon which to reject Nickle's plea.

"Nickle never denied committing an element of the offense, nor did he protest his innocence," wrote U.S. Circuit Judge Alex Kozinski in Monday's 17-page opinion. "If the judge had doubts about whether Nickle understood the charge or was disputing guilt, that would have been a proper basis for rejecting the plea."

He added: "The judge's stated reason for rejecting the plea - that Nickle's limited admissions left no 'clear record that warrants this court in making the kind of decision that I think I am obligated to make' - was inapt. There is no requirement in Rule 11(b) that the defendant himself give an in-depth account of his crime or confirm that everything in the government's offer of proof is true."

Kozinski noted that the district court's error made things much worse for Nickle who was "convicted of two offenses that carried substantially higher maximum sentences than the single offense to which he was ready to plead guilty."

The Ninth Circuit vacated Nickle's convictions and remanded the case so he could plead guilty under his original terms. Nickle is not required to do so, however, which means a new trial is possible.

Because a new trial is possible, the court reviewed Nickle's claims of error during the first trial, which the Ninth Circuit panel said would "help guide the parties and the district court on remand."

Nickle also claimed Haddon erred by refusing to allow him to cross-examine witnesses for the prosecution.

Specifically, Nickle was not allowed to discuss the government's plea deals for three witnesses that testified against him.

"[W]e are not going to get into introduction of the plea agreement in this proceeding ... There's no Rule 35 that's been filed," Haddon said after Nickle's attorney, Palmer Hoovestal, began questioning the first witness.

Haddon told the jury that Rule 35 was "irrelevant to the issues in this case at this time."

The Ninth Circuit disagreed with that assessment.

"As the government concedes, the excluded testimony was unquestionably relevant," Kozinski wrote. "Rule 35 provides that 'upon the government's motion ... the court may reduce a sentence if the defendant, after sentencing, provided substantial assistance in investigating or prosecuting another person' ... Our law is clear: 'Where a plea agreement allows for some benefit or detriment to flow to a witness as a result of his testimony, the defendant must be permitted to cross examine the witness sufficiently to make clear to the jury what benefit or detriment will flow, and what will trigger the benefit or detriment."

He added: "The district court had it precisely backwards: It is the fact that the government had not yet made a Rule 35 motion that would give the witnesses the greatest incentive to tailor their testimony to please the prosecution."

The panel also vacated the district court's sue sponte order on Nickle's forfeited cash and the proceeds from the sale of his forfeited property.

"Once the district court ordered the defendant's assets forfeited, it was as if the government had title to them all along, and they were not available for payment from or on behalf of the defendant," Kozinski said.

Finally, the Ninth Circuit panel remanded the case to another judge, expressing little confidence that Haddon, given his handling of the case thus far, could preside with the necessary objectivity.

"We find it unlikely that the district judge would be able to put out of his mind his already-developed notions about what Nickle's punishment should be," Kozinski said. "Therefore 'to preserve the appearance of justice,' we remand to a different judge."

Nickle's attorney, Palmer Hoovestal in Helena, Mont., did not immediately return a phone call Tuesday morning.

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