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Guilty plea could be withdrawn because the Judge commented on consequences the defendant faced if he did not plead guilty

The defendant in U.S. v. Castro 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. Because he was taking medication and said he was under the influence of the medication at that time, the plea hearing was postponed. The plea agreement called for Castro to plead guilty to seven of his charges including 3 drug counts and 4 firearm counts. A this 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 he wanted the court to appoint a new attorney from the public defender’s office to represent him. The district court confirmed that Castro wanted a new attorney. 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 does not plead the government may charge him with other things that will make the sentence more severe. After being told that by the district judge, Castro announced that he would proceed by taking the plea with his counsel and he withdrew his request for the appointment of a public defender. He was later sentenced to 156 months. Soon after the sentencing he moved to withdraw his guilty plea saying he was unhappy with his counsel and his sentence. In his appeal, Castro argued that the district court participated in plea discussions in violation of Rule 11(c)(11).

The 11th Circuit repeated the rule that provides for the parties to engage in plea discussions but the rule was designed separate the sentencing court from any plea discussions for two reasons: 1) judicial participation in the plea process may coerce the defendant into accepting a plea agreement involuntarily; 2) judicial participation may affect the court’s impartiality; and 3) judicial participation affects the appearance of impartiality. Citing 11th Circuit’s opinion in United States v. Johnson, the court said that any discussion between the defendant and the sentencing court of the consequences of a guilty plea as compared to going to trial is inherently coercive. The court reaffirmed 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. It did not matter that the district court may have been motivated by concern that Castro be thoroughly apprised of the situation he faced, no matter how well-intentioned. Until a plea agreement is reached between the parties, the sentencing court cannot offer comments touching upon proposed or possible plea agreements because those comments could coerce the defendant into entering a plea involuntarily. The Defendant was allowed to withdraw his guilty plea and the case was assigned to a different judge.

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