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Lies Don't Lay Groundwork to Withdraw a Guilty Plea

By Robyn Hagan Cain | Last updated on

When Fleetwood Mac cooed “tell me lies, tell me sweet little lies,” they were referring to lies that can spare feelings in a relationship, not lies to support a defendant’s request to withdraw a guilty plea.

This week, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals attempted to clarify that point, holding that a district court need not allow a defendant to withdraw a guilty plea when the defendant’s request is based on a lie.

Admit it. You’re curious to find out what the sweet little lie in question was.

Cesar Osbaldo Armendariz Soto was indicted for his involvement in a drug distribution conspiracy. In an effort to show his cooperation and reduce his sentence, Armendariz Soto initially pleaded guilty to the charges without a plea agreement. Before his sentencing hearing several months later, he tried to reverse course, asking the court to allow him to withdraw the plea he had entered after the court had accepted it.

At a hearing to consider the request, Armendariz Soto argued his plea wasn't entered knowingly or voluntarily. He testified that Thomas Telthorst, his counsel at the time of the plea, promised him a 15-year sentence if he agreed to admit his guilt, but his counsel had no basis for making such a promise.

When called upon to explain why he repeatedly agreed during his plea colloquy that his plea guaranteed him no specific sentence, Armendariz Soto used the always-popular my-lawyer-made-me-do-it excuse.

The lawyer claimed to have done no such thing.

Telthorst testified that he had a sentencing strategy aimed at "laying the groundwork for a comprehensive biographical sentencing memorandum that would give us credibility to ask for the statutory minimum 15-year sentence," but he never promised any sentence to his client.

Instead, Telthorst testified that he explained fully and clearly to Armendariz Soto that he could guarantee no sentencing outcome. He also swore that he never remotely suggested that his client should answer yes to every question during the plea colloquy.

The district court thought Armendariz Soto was lying, and refused to allow him to retract his plea.

At sentencing, the district court held that the false testimony Armendariz Soto had given in his effort to undo his plea warranted the imposition of a sentencing enhancement for obstruction of justice and the denial of a potential sentencing reduction for acceptance of responsibility under the Sentencing Guidelines. The court then imposed a sentence of 420 months, the bottom end of the Guidelines range. Armendariz Soto appealed, and the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the sentence.

While the Tenth Circuit recognized that a different judge could have reached a different choice in sentencing, it refused to say the choice this district judge made was irrational.

The Tenth Circuit seems unwilling to reign in a district court that punishes a defendant for questionable statements in his attempt to withdraw a guilty plea; if your client takes liberties with the truth, advise him to keep quiet.

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