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Comments by judge on the consequences of not pleading guilty do not give automatic right to withdraw guilty plea

In the first U.S. v. Castro decision the Eleventh Circuit initially held that the defendant in this South Florida criminal case could withdraw his federal criminal plea because the district court violated Rule 11(c)(1) by advising Castro about the penal consequences of rejecting his federal criminal plea agreement. In that decision, the court held that Rule 11 creates a bright-line rule and the district court violated the rule against judicial participation in plea discussions by telling Castro he faced a sentence even more severe if he rejected the plea agreement. The Defendant was allowed to automatically withdraw his federal guilty plea and the case was assigned to a different judge. The court of appeals vacated that decision and granted a rehearing in this second U.S. v. Castro decision, after the Supreme Court’s decision in U.S. v. Davila, which abrogated the rule that a plea will be automatically vacated for judicial participation in the plea discussions. Under Davila, the court must consider the full record and determine whether it was reasonably probable that, but for the single comment of the district court, Castro would have exercised his right to go to trial.

Reviewing this record showed the defendant was indicted on five counts of possessing marijuana and cocaine with intent to distribute and several firearms offenses including carrying a firearm during and in relation to a drug trafficking offense. Castro had hired an attorney and entered a not guilty plea at his arraignment. He later negotiated a plea agreement with the government which was reduced to writing and signed by Castro just minutes before his change of plea hearing. The plea agreement called for Castro to plead guilty to seven of his charges including 3 drug counts and 4 firearm counts. At the change of plea hearing Castro told the district court that he did not want to go forward with the change of plea and was not happy with his defense lawyer and wanted the court to appoint a new attorney to represent him. At the request of the defense counsel, the district court advised Castro of the consequences of reneging on his plea agreement with the government. The district court asked Castro if he understood that the government made certain concessions in the plea offer and if he did not plead the government could charge him with other things that will make the sentence more severe. Afterwards, Castro announced that he would take the plea and he withdrew his request for the appointment of a public defender. After the plea but prior to the sentencing Castro hired a new attorney. He was later sentenced to 156 months.

Davila held that when a defendant does not complain to the district court about its participation in plea discussions, a reviewing court should consider whether it was reasonably probable that but for the exhortations of the district court, the defendant would have exercised his right to go to trial. To make that determination, the court of appeals must evaluate the comments of the district court not in isolation but in light of the full record. The 11th Circuit found that Castro’s decision to plead guilty was not a result of the district court’s comments so much as it was from his desire to shorten the duration of his inevitable sentence for crimes he committed. The court of appeals was not convinced that Castro would have rejected the plea agreement had the district court not advised him of the consequences of reneging on his plea agreement. By pleading guilty, he avoided a second charge of carrying a firearm during a drug trafficking offense for which he faced a mandatory 25 year sentence to run consecutively to his other sentences. For this reason his conviction was affirmed. The issue raised here is a common one seen in federal criminal courts where a defendant tries to withdraw the guilty plea after receiving an unexpected severe sentence.