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Supreme Court to Address Judicial Participation in Plea Discussions

On Friday, January 4, the Supreme Court granted certiorari in United States v. Davila (No. 12-167), in which it will decide: "Whether the court of appeals erred in holding that any degree of judicial participation in plea negotiations, in violation of Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 11(c)(1), automatically requires vacatur of a defendant’s guilty plea, irrespective of whether the error prejudiced the defendant."

According to the opinion of the Eleventh Circuit, during an in camera hearing before a magistrate judge, Davila requested a new attorney because counsel had not discussed defense strategies with him, other than pleading guilty. The magistrate judge responded that "there may not be viable defenses to these charges," and that pleading guilty sometimes was the best advice an attorney could provide his client. The magistrate judge proceeded to inform Davila that "The only thing at your disposal that is entirely up to you is the two or three level reduction for acceptance of responsibility. That means you've got to go to the cross. You've got to tell the probation officer everything you did in this case regardless of how bad it makes you appear to be because that is the way you get that three-level reduction for acceptance, and believe me, Mr. Davila, someone with your criminal history needs a three-level reduction for acceptance."

Davila later pleaded guilty.  On appeal he argued that the magistrate judge's comments at the in camera hearing amounted to improper participation in his plea discussions, requiring that his conviction be vacated, despite his failure to object to the magistrate judge's comments, because the comments clearly  violated his substantial rights and undermined the integrity of the proceedings.

The Eleventh Circuit held that magistrate judge's comments amounted to judicial participation in plea discussions and that Davila need not show any individualized prejudice.

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