SCOTUS: No Automatic Reversal of Conviction When Judge Improperly Participated in Plea Discussions

Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 11 sets forth various requirements and prohibitions relating to guilty pleas, including a ban on judges participating in plea discussions.  If there is a violation, Rule 11(h) specifies that a “variance from the requirements of this rule is harmless error if it does not affect substantial rights” — no harm, no foul.  However, at least two circuits have adopted a rule of automatic vacatur of the guilty plea if the judge participated in plea discussions.  Other circuits, including the Seventh, have applied the general 11(h) harmless error rule in these situations.

Earlier today, in United States v. Davila (No. 12-167), the U.S. Supreme Court unamimously resolved the circuit split in favor of the general harmless error rule.  As the Court saw it, the legal question was an easy one: “[N]either Rule 11 itself, not the Advisory Committee’s commentary on the Rule singles out any instructions [in Rule 11] as more basic than others.  And Rule 11(h), specifically designed to stop automatic vacaturs, calls for across-the-board application of the harmless-error prescription . . . .”

The Court declined to adopt any bright-line rules regarding the application of the harmless-error rule: “Our essential point is that particular facts and circumstances matter.”  Having determined that the lower court should have applied the harmless-error rule, the Court chose to remand for further consideration of the “particular facts and circumstances.”  At the same time, the Court did say, “Had Davila’s guilty plea followed soon after the Magistrate Judge told Davila that pleading guilty might be the ‘best advice’ a lawyer could give him, this case may not have warranted our attention.”  The suggestion seems to be that a guilty plea entered “soon after” the judge recommended such a plea would pretty clearly not fall into the category of harmless error.  What made Davila’s case more difficult was the three-month delay between the Rule 11 violation and the guilty plea.

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Habeas Roundup: SCOTUS (Slightly) Eases Petitioners’ Paths

The U.S. Supreme Court has issued a flurry of habeas corpus decisions in the past two weeks.  The habeas petitioner won in two of the cases and lost in the third.  There are no blockbusters in the group, but habeas fans may find hope in two of the decisions that long-awaited breakthroughs may be in the works.

One that will be welcomed by habeas fans is McQuiggin v. Perkins (No. 12-126).  Perkins was convicted of murder in state court, with the judgment becoming final in 1997.  More than eleven years later, Perkins filed a federal habeas corpus petition, alleging that he received unreasonably poor representation by his trial counsel.  The petition plainly violated the one-year statute of limitations for habeas petitions, but Perkins sought to get around the statute by presenting evidence that he was actually innocent of the crime of which he was convicted.  The Supreme Court has long recognized that actual innocence is an exception to the procedural default rule, which normally bars federal courts from considering habeas claims that were not timely raised in state court.  Perkins argued that there should also be an actual-innocence exception to the statute of limitations, and the Supreme Court agreed in a 5-4 decision.

Does this new exception threaten to eviscerate the statute of limitations?  (more…)

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Lessons From Sixteen Years of the PLRA and AEDPA

I have some reflections on the great 1996 prisoner litigation reforms in an essay newly uploaded to SSRN.  Here is the abstract:

In 1996, Congress adopted two sweeping statutes that were intended to restrict the ability of prisoners to obtain redress in federal court for violations of their constitutional rights. This essay introduces an issue of the Federal Sentencing Reporter assessing the legacy of these two laws, the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty and Prison Litigation Reform Acts, and considers the extent to which these statutes highlight structural flaws in the way that the political and legal systems engage with prisoner litigation.

The essay, entitled “Not So Sweet: Questions Raised by Sixteen Years of the PLRA and AEDPA,” was published at 24 Fed. Sent. Rep. 223 (2012).

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Habeas Corpus and the Right to Effective Assistance of Counsel

My new article on habeas corpus and the right to effective assistance of counsel is now out: Bypassing Habeas: The Right to Effective Assistance Requires Earlier Supreme Court Intervention in Cases of Attorney Incompetence, 25 Fed. Sent. Rep. 110 (2012).  Here is the abstract:

This article considers the interplay between habeas corpus law and the Sixth Amendment right to effective assistance of counsel. Certain peculiarities of federal habeas have given a schizophrenic character to recent Supreme Court decisions on ineffective assistance. At the same time that the Court has displayed a new willingness to extend Sixth Amendment protections to the plea-bargaining arena, the Court has also evinced a particular hostility to ineffective assistance claims arising in habeas. The present article identifies the roots of this schizophrenia in the Court’s 2000 decision in Williams v. Taylor. The Court’s trajectory from Williams to the present suggests that, absent a significant ideological makeover, the Court is unlikely in habeas cases to bring greater vigor and clarity to the right to effective assistance. The Court and advocates pushing the Court to adopt stronger Sixth Amendment protections should thus focus their efforts on cases emerging directly from state-court systems, rather than on collateral post-conviction challenges in federal court.

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District Court May Deny Crack Sentence Reduction Based on False Statements, Seventh Circuit Holds

The U.S. Sentencing Commission wisely made its 2011 reductions to the crack sentencing guidelines retroactive, but this decision left district judges with discretion to deny sentence-reduction requests based on, among other things, a defendant’s post-sentencing misconduct.

Larry Purnell has learned the scope of this discretion the hard way.  Purnell pled guilty to crack and firearms offenses in 2007.  In his plea colloquy, Purnell admitted to the gun allegations under oath.  Based on various concessions from the government in return for his guilty plea, Purnell’s guidelines range for the crack offense was 78-97 months, and he received a sentence at the bottom of this range.  Despite the relative lenience of this treatment, Purnell later mounted collateral attacks on the gun conviction, claiming that his alleged weapon was really only a BB gun — in contradiction to his own statements at the plea colloquy.

These collateral attacks failed, but Purnell was given a fresh opportunity for a sentence reduction thanks to the Commission’s retroactive changes to the crack guidelines.   (more…)

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What’s Next for the Right to Effective Assistance of Counsel?

I have a new article on SSRN that considers recent developments in the Supreme Court relating to effective assistance of counsel.  Here’s the abstract:

This article considers the interplay between habeas corpus law and the Sixth Amendment right to effective assistance of counsel. Certain peculiarities of federal habeas have given a schizophrenic character to recent Supreme Court decisions on ineffective assistance. At the same time that the Court has displayed a new willingness to extend Sixth Amendment protections to the plea-bargaining arena, the Court has also evinced a particular hostility to ineffective assistance claims arising in habeas. The present article identifies the roots of this schizophrenia in the Court’s 2000 decision in Williams v. Taylor. The Court’s trajectory from Williams to the present suggests that, absent a significant ideological makeover, the Court is unlikely in habeas cases to bring greater vigor and clarity to the right to effective assistance. The Court and advocates pushing the Court to adopt stronger Sixth Amendment protections should thus focus their efforts on cases emerging directly from state-court systems, rather than on collateral post-conviction challenges in federal court.

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Defendant Can Challenge Attorney’s Failure to Appeal Despite 2255 Waiver

Charged in federal court with drug trafficking, Fred Dowell decided to enter into a plea agreement with the government.  The deal included various stipulations as to his sentence, but reserved for Dowell the right to challenge the government’s contention that he should be sentenced as a career offender under the federal sentencing guidelines.  Assuming the stipulations were accepted by the sentencing judge, Dowell waived his right to appeal the sentence, except that he expressly reserved the right to appeal an adverse career offender determination.  Dowell also surrendered his right to mount a collateral attack on the sentence under 28 U.S.C. §2255.

Dowell was, in fact, sentenced as a career offender.  By his account, he instructed his lawyer to appeal this decision, as he had reserved the right to do.  No appeal was filed.  By the time Dowell realized this, it was already too late for an appeal to be taken.  Accordingly, he tried a §2255 motion in the district court, contending that his lawyer’s failure to appeal constituted ineffective assistance of counsel in violation of the Sixth Amendment.  Sorry, said the district court, but you waived your rights under §2255 in the plea agreement.

Earlier today, the Seventh Circuit reversed in Dowell v. United States (No. 10-2912).   (more…)

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Observations on Lafler and Frye: Little Relief in Sight for Defendants Whose Lawyers Botched Plea Negotiations

In a pair of much-noted decisions last March, the Supreme Court held that the constitutional right of defendants to effective assistance of counsel is not limited to trial representation, but also extends to plea bargaining.  More specifically, in Lafler v. Cooperthe Court addressed the case of a man who was convicted at trial after his lawyer advised him to turn down a generous plea deal on the basis of what seems to have been an egregious misunderstanding of the law; the Court held that the original offer must again be made available to the defendant.  Meanwhile, in Missouri v. Frye, the Court addressed the case of a man whose lawyer failed to tell him of a pending plea offer until after the offer had expired; the Court held that the lawyer’s performance fell below the constitutionally required minimum, but remanded for a determination as to whether the defendant had actually been prejudiced by his lawyer’s incompetence.

To read Justice Scalia’s two dissents in these cases, one might think the Court had radically broken from precedent and opened up plea bargaining to constitutional scrutiny for the first time.  In truth, the principle that the Constitution guarantees minimally competent legal representation at what is without question the most important phase of contemporary criminal litigation follows naturally from the Court’s earlier decisions and has been widely recognized in the lower courts for years.  Nor is there anything novel about the Court imposing constitutional standards on the plea-negotation process; the Court began doing so in the 1970′s.

In fact, Lafler and Frye remind me of one of the Court decisions from that era, Henderson v. Morgan (1976).  The comparison is not meant as a compliment.   (more…)

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The Sixth Circuit Gets Its Turn in the Woodshed

With the Court’s end-of-term flurry now complete, I find myself with a substantial backlog of interesting cases to blog about.  I’ll start with Parker v. Matthews (No. 11-845), a habeas case.  Actually, this case should be paired up with last month’s decision in Colemen v. Johnson, which I blogged about here.  In Coleman, the Court took the Third Circuit to task for a habeas grant.  The Court emphasized the high level of deference that federal habeas courts must show to state-court decisions on the merits, particularly state-court decisions rejecting Jackson v. Virginia claims (i.e., that the trial evidence did not establish the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt).  In light of Coleman and a recent run of similar decisions, it has seemed to me that the Court is trying to shut down federal habeas review entirely for certain types of state-court decisions on the merits.

Parker continues the pattern.  This time, it was the Sixth Circuit’s turn to be taken to the woodshed.  The very first sentence of the per curiam opinion set the tone: “In this habeas case, the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit set aside two 29-year-old murder convictions based on the flimsiest of rationales.”  The Court left no doubt that the Sixth Circuit had not only gotten it wrong in Parker, but it had gotten it badly wrong.

(more…)

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Another Habeas Slap-Down From the Supremes–Where Is Habeas Law Heading?

The Supreme Court summarily overturned yet another habeas grant earlier this week in Coleman v. Johnson (No. 11-1053).  Johnson was convicted in Pennsylvania state court as an accomplice and co-conspirator in a murder.  Without getting into all of the details, let’s just say that the state’s case against Johnson was circumstantial and something less than airtight.  Johnson thus sought to have his conviction overturned in state court on the ground that the evidence was insufficient to support the jury’s verdict, invoking Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U.S. 307 (1979).  The state courts rejected this claim, as did a federal district court, but the Third Circuit reversed.

The Supreme Court overturned the Third Circuit’s decision in a brusque per curiam opinion.

(more…)

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