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Rule 11 And What Constitutes A Valid Plea In Federal Court


Rule 11 And What Constitutes A Valid Plea In Federal Court

U.S v Pattee

United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit

2016 WL 1594572

Decided April 21st, 2016

Issue: Whether the district court erred when it failed to inform the defendant of all of his rights under Rule 11 at a plea hearing and whether the plea was invalid as a result.cuffs

Holding: The Second Circuit held that although the trial court failed to inform the defendant of five of the fifteen rights under Rule 11, that failure did not render the defendant’s plea invalid. ?In order to establish that a Rule 11 violation affected substantial rights, the defendant must show that there is a reasonable probability that, but for the error, he would not have entered the plea, United States v. Vaval, 404 F.3d 144, 151 (2d Cir. 2005), quoting United States v. Dominguez Benitez, 542 U.S. 74, 83 (2004). If the misinformation in all likelihood would not have affected a defendant’s decision-making calculus, then the error would be harmless, and the guilty plea need not be vacated, United States v. Harrington, 354 F.3d 178, 184 (2d Cir. 2004). In short, Pattee must show that the district court’s error had an effect on his decision to plead guilty, United States v. Harrison, 241 F.3d 289, 293 (2d Cir. 2001). The United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit held Pattee was advised of the severe penalties he faced, understood the elements of the charges against him, and was aware of the strength of the evidence. He had been advised many times of his right to counsel, including appointed counsel if he was unable to afford a retained attorney, and had taken steps to invoke that right.

Under these circumstances, there is no rational basis to conclude that, had Pattee only been advised one more time, or more explicitly, of the specific details of the rights associated with the trial that he was knowingly waiving, he would not have chosen to plead guilty and seek leniency by accepting responsibility. The fact that this strategy did not work out to his satisfaction does not render the plea involuntary.

courttttRule 11 of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure

Rule 11 explicitly requires a court, before accepting a plea of guilty, to inform the defendant of a number of specified matters. See Fed. R. Crim. P. 11(b)(1)(A)-(N). Rule 11 is designed to assist the district judge in making the constitutionally required determination that a defendant’s guilty plea is truly voluntary. United States v. Maher, 108 F.3d 1513, 1520 (2d Cir. 1997).

Facts: Bradley W. Pattee appeals from a judgment of conviction on several counts of producing, distributing and possessing child pornography, and from his sentence principally to 47 years imprisonment, arguing that the court’s failure to comply fully with Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 11 requires the Court to vacate his plea of guilty to production, distribution, and possession of child pornography, and that the sentence imposed by the district court is procedurally and substantively unreasonable. The district courts unobjected-to failure to comply strictly with all aspects of Rule 11 was not plain error affecting substantial rights, and Pattee’s admission that the hard drives on which the child pornography was found had traveled in interstate commerce provided sufficient factual basis to meet the commerce element of the child pornography production statute, so the Court held that they find no reason to vacate the plea. The district court did not commit procedural error in connection with his sentence, nor was the sentence substantively unreasonable given the serious nature of Pattee’s crime. Accordingly, the United State Supreme Court for the Second Circuit affirmed.

Legal Analysis: Pattee argues that his guilty plea was invalid due to the asserted defects in the plea proceedings and the lack of a factual basis for his plea to the production of child pornography count. He also argues that his sentence was procedurally and substantively unreasonable.

Rule 11 of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure explicitly requires a court, before accepting a plea of guilty, to inform the defendant of a number of specified matters. See Fed. R. Crim. P. 11(b)(1)(A)-(N). Rule 11 is designed to assist the district judge in making the constitutionally required determination that a defendant’s guilty plea is truly voluntary. United States v. Maher, 108 F.3d 1513, 1520 (2d Cir. 1997). Rule 11 was originally both stricter and simpler.

Harmless ErrorGavel and old clock

A harmless error provision was added in 1983 to avoid reversals for inadvertent deviations, which a very literal reading of Rule 11 would appear to require. Id.; see Fed. R. Crim P. 11(h). Rule 11(h) was enacted to make clear that guilty pleas should not be overturned, even on direct appeal, when there has been a minor and technical violation of Rule 11, which amounts to harmless error. United States v. Westcott, 159 F.3d 107, 112 (2d Cir. 1998.)

Moreover, the Supreme Court has held that when a defendant has failed to object in the district court to a violation of Rule 11, reversal is appropriate only where the error is plain and affects the defendant’s substantial rights. United States v. Vonn, 535 U.S. 55, 58?59 (2002).

This Court has stated time and again that they have adopted a standard of strict adherence to Rule 11. United States v. Rodriguez, 725 F.3d 271, 277 n.3 (2d Cir. 2013), quoting United States v. Livorsi, 180 F.3d 76, 78 (2d Cir. 1999). But since strict adherence is subject to harmless error (and, in the absence of objection, plain error) review, the Court’s scrutiny is strict only at the level of assessing compliance, and does not frequently require vacatur of a plea. In the absence of an objection, deviations from Rule 11 will not warrant appellate relief when the defendant’s substantial rights have not been affected. Still, a district court’s failure to follow the basic requirements of Rule 11 requires that this Court examine critically even slight procedural deficiencies to ensure that the defendant’s guilty plea was a voluntary and intelligent choice and that none of the defendant’s substantial rights has been compromised. Rodriguez, 725 F.3d at 277 n.3, quoting Livorsi, 180 F.3d at 78. Thus, district court judges are required to adhere strictly to Rule 11’s requirements.

Luckily, compliance with Rule 11 is not a difficult task. The decision to follow the Rule is not a discretionary decision, nor a judgment call that a district court must make quickly and under pressure. Technical errors can be avoided if a district or magistrate judge has a standard script for accepting guilty pleas, which covers all of the required information.

It is, therefore, part of counsel’s responsibility, and is in the client’s interest, to object if all elements of Rule 11 are not covered. The government also has an interest in assuring that the plea proceeding is done correctly, both to protect the defendant’s rights in the interest of justice, and to protect the record and avoid time-consuming appeals by defendant’s who subsequently suffer buyers remorse and wish they had not pled guilty. Therefore, prosecutors too should alert the judge to any provisions that have been missed.

handcuffsIncanting rights and eliciting affirmative answers as required by the Rule goes only so far in assuring that a defendant really understands what is at stake. And the issues that are relevant to each defendant in making the choice whether to plead may differ in ways not captured by the Rule. Because even strict adherence to Rule 11 may not cover every issue that may be relevant to assessing a particular defendant’s understanding. District and magistrate judges must be alert to ways to go beyond rote recitals, in order to make sure that the defendant’s waiver of rights is truly knowing and voluntary. The Rules list of required elements of a guilty plea proceeding should serve as a baseline and a trigger to seek out additional issues relevant to the particular defendant. Nevertheless, Rule 11, with its list of elements that the Supreme Court and Congress have determined should be addressed with every defendant, constitutes a required minimum in assuring that a defendant understands the nature of the charges, the penalties he faces, and the rights that he is giving up by entering a plea. Compliance with the Rules requirements should be automatic.

In this case, the deficiencies in the Rule 11 colloquy did not affect Pattees decision to plead guilty, it is nevertheless disturbing that district courts do not routinely follow the minimal procedures put in place to protect defendants rights. While the plain error standard typically addresses the situation of individual defendants, an element of plain error review is whether the error seriously affected the fairness, integrity or public reputation of judicial proceedings. United States v. Youngs, 687 F.3d 56, 59 (2d Cir. 2012, quoting United States v. Flaharty, 295 F.3d 182, 195 (2d Cir. 2002).

Plain Error

Plain error review requires a defendant to demonstrate that (1) there was error, (2) the error was plain, (3) the error prejudicially affected his substantial rights, and (4) the error seriously affected the fairness, integrity or public reputation of judicial proceedings. Youngs, 687 F.3d at 59 (internal quotation mark omitted), quoting Flaharty, 295 F.3d at 195.

In order to establish that a Rule 11 violation affected substantial rights, the defendant must show that there is a reasonable probability that, but for the error, he would not have entered the plea. United States v. Vaval, 404 F.3d 144, 151 (2d Cir. 2005), quoting United States v. Dominguez Benitez, 542 U.S. 74, 83 (2004). If the misinformation in all likelihood would not have affected a defendants decision-making calculus, then the error would be harmless, and the guilty plea need not be vacated. United States v. Harrington, 354 F.3d 178, 184 (2d Cir. 2004). In short, Pattee must show that the district courts error had an effect on his decision to plead guilty. United States v. Harrison, 241 F.3d 289, 293 (2d Cir. 2001).

Although Pattee argues that the sheer number of omissions should affect the Courts review, he primarily emphasizes the omission of the advice that he had a right to counsel at every stage of the proceedings. He points to the appearances before the court in which his counsel informed the court that Pattee could not afford to retain counsel for the trial as evidence that Pattee may have been concerned that if he did not plead guilty, he would be forced to trial without the assistance of counsel.

In the context of the entire record, however, the contention that Pattee was not aware of his right to counsel is unpersuasive, Pattee was represented by retained counsel throughout the proceedings. The district court later granted an extension of time to file the financial affidavit, because the interest of justice and the defendant having counsel for this matter outweighs the interest of the public in a speedy trial, Transcript of Proceedings at 12 (Docket No. 61).

The obligation to ensure that a defendant who elects to plead guilty does so knowingly and voluntarily is at the heart of Rule 11. As noted above, the original version of Rule 11 required only that the court determine that the plea was made voluntarily with understanding of the nature of the charge, Fed. R. Crim. P. 11 (1945). That concern remains fundamental. In sum, although the district court did not strictly comply with Rule 11, that deviation from proper procedure did not affect substantial rights because the full record demonstrates that Pattee was aware of the essence of those rights of which he was not specifically advised at the time of his plea, such that the failure to repeat that advice could not reasonably have affected Pattee’s decision to plead guilty. There was thus no plain error that would require us to vacate the plea. The judgment of the district court is affirmed.


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