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Guilty plea thrown out because the district court participated in plea discussions

The defendant in U.S. v Harrell received a 25 year sentence after pleading guilty to conspiracy and the substantive robbery a Miami Walgreens and a McDonalds in violation of the Hobbs Act and two counts of possession of a firearm in relation to the robberies. He argued on appeal that the district judge participated in the plea negotiations in violation of Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 11(c).

Here’s what happened in this Miami federal criminal case. On the day of trial, prior to bringing the jury venire into the courtroom, the district court stated that “it might be worth spending a few minutes in terms of the overall gravity of the situation to discuss whether or not there is some possibility of a plea or pleas of the two defendants.” The district court then engaged defense counsel for the codefendants, and the prosecutors “in a lengthy discussion regarding the likelihood of a plea from either or both of the defendants.” The discussion then turned to the possibility of a plea by the Defendant Harrell and his attorney mentioned he had been interested in the same plea certain codefendants received but that the government would not treat Mr. Harrell the same because he was facing state court charges involving murder and attempted murder pending. At one point the district court commented that Harrell was facing a “horrendous mandatory sentence that becomes somewhat irrevocable after a trial if there is a conviction.” After a recess, the government came back with an offer to an agreed upon 25 year sentence that Harrell rejected. The trial began with jury selection but after the lunch recess Harrell’s attorney announced that his client would accept the 25 year sentence. The codefendant, Dantzle, proceeded to trial and was convicted.

Because the issue was raised on appeal for the first time, the plain error standard applied. It required the defendant to show the error was plain, that the error affected his substantial rights, and the error seriously affected the fairness, integrity or public reputation of the judicial proceedings. The 11th Circuit found several violations of Rule 11(c)(1). First, the district court “instigated – without any mention of possible plea agreements from the parties” the plea-related discussions with counsel for both defendants and the government. Second, the district court improperly cautioned the defendants about the severity of his potential 32 year sentence should be convicted after trial and generally warned the defendant about the extremely high sentences they were facing should they be convicted and that the court would not have the same latitude to fashion a fair sentence if the defendants were found guilty by the jury. Third, the district court took the lead in orchestrating the plea agreement. While it found the district court had good intentions, the Rule 11 violation was plain error and reversible because comments by the district court, the defendant would reasonably have felt pressured to accept a plea rather than go to trial.

The codefendant who was convicted following trial argued on appeal that the district court erred in allowing the government to present expert testimony from a detective with respect to cell phones and cell towers without requiring the government to comply with the requirements for an expert witness opinion testimony pursuant to Rule 702. While the 11th Circuit agreed there was a violation of Rule 702, the district court abused its discretion in allowing the detective to testify as an expert. The court found the error was harmless because there was other evidence supporting the conviction