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Plea agreements are supposed to be negotiations between prosecutors and the defendant, in which the parties (who have equal bargaining power, of course) come to an understanding enforceable by the court as a contract.
Normally, the court isn't supposed to get involved in plea negotiations; it's just supposed to make sure a plea is knowing and voluntary. Yesterday, though, a panel of the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals vacated a plea agreement after finding that the district court stuck its nose a little too far into the matter.
Savino Braxton, who apparently was the inspiration for a character on the TV series "The Wire," was all set to go to trial on a federal charge of possessing heroin with the intent to distribute, which carries a mandatory minimum of 10 years. But because he had a prior felony drug conviction, Braxton instead faced a mandatory minimum sentence of 20 years. Braxton's court-appointed lawyer urged him to plead guilty rather than go to trial and run the risk that the government would introduce the prior conviction to ratchet the sentence upward.
Braxton was unfazed and moved for new counsel, as his lawyer was "not interested in taking the case to trial." At a hearing, the district court declined to substitute new counsel and life went on -- until the morning of the trial. That day, the district court noted in the record that Braxton had rejected a plea agreement in which Braxton would receive the minimum of 10 years but the government would ask for no more than 15 years total.
Braxton still wanted to go to trial on the brilliant theory that, even though he was guilty of possessing some amount of heroin, he could successfully dispute the weight of the heroin. Once again, Braxton said he wanted new counsel, or in the alternative, that he be allowed to represent himself. The court said no to both.
Here's where things get dicey. The court was apparently exasperated that Braxton wouldn't take what really looked like a good deal just so he could dispute the weight of the drugs. The judge offered that it would be in Braxton's best interest to take the deal, and that he would be "hurting [his] own interest" by going to trial. He said Braxton's decision was both like "put[ting] [your] head in a buzz saw" and "put[ting] his head in a vice." Eventually, Braxton took the plea, though then attempted to withdraw it on the ground that he was coerced by the judge.
The Fourth Circuit had little trouble finding that the district court judge overstepped his bounds in urging Braxton to take the deal. In fact, just last year, the court found error where the district court urged a defendant to take plea agreement that it felt would be in the defendant's best interests. While well intentioned, the trial court's editorializing crossed the line from neutral arbitrator to legal advisor, a role judges must never perform. The circuit court remanded the case -- to a different judge this time -- so that Braxton could get the (probably worse) outcome he desired.
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