Friday, June 28, 2019

Court of Appeals joins eight other Circuit Courts in finding legal innocence to be a valid basis for motion to withdraw guilty plea. But in doing so, affirms denial of motion because there was no credible evidence presented of innocence. Assertions alone are insufficient.

In United States v. James, No. 18-2569 (June 27, 2019), the Court of Appeals, through an opinion by Judge Jordan, affirmed the denial of defendant's motion to withdraw his guilty plea. 

The defendant was charged with two drug counts.  Pursuant to a plea agreement he entered a guilty plea.  During the colloquy, it was discussed that he had a third grade education, but also that he could read and write.  Months after the plea hearing he filed a pro-se motion to dismiss counsel for ineffectiveness.  In it, he argued he pled guilty to a crime he did not commit because 1) he was afraid  the judge and jury would not believe he was innocent; 2) his lawyer told him the judge was corrupt; 3) his lawyer did not explain the plea agreement; and 4) he did not understand the plea agreement due to his education level.  In response to the motion, defense counsel withdrew.  New counsel filed a motion to withdraw guilty plea but added it should be granted because the defendant was entrapped.  The district court found the defendant failed to demonstrate factual innocence, that his assertion of innocence alone was insufficient.  The court also found that an entrapment defense was an argument of legal innocence, not factual innocence - that only claims of factual innocence should be considered in this context.  The motion was denied and the defendant was sentenced to prison.

Preliminarily, the Court of Appeals considered the merits of the appeal despite an appeal waiver in the plea agreement - the language of waiver prohibited appealing a sentence but did not address appealing a conviction.  On appeal, the defendant first argued a claim of legal innocence is sufficient to withdraw a guilty plea.  Second, the defendant argued that the district court abused its discretion in weighing the withdrawal factors - i.e. "(1) whether the defendant asserts his innocence; (2) the strength of the defendant’s reasons for withdrawing the plea; and (3) whether the government would be prejudiced by the withdrawal."

As for his first argument, the Court of Appeals agreed that legal innocence is a basis to withdraw a guilty plea.  In doing so, the Court joined eight other Circuit Courts who ruled similarly.  It found,     "[i]f a defendant is not legally culpable, it stands to reason that he should be able to withdraw his guilty plea before sentencing because he is exempt from any punishment for the alleged acts constituting the crime, regardless of whether he committed them."  The Court continued however, that the defendant's assertion of entrapment, without factual support, was insufficient - that the defendant had to "present a credible claim of legal innocence."  So while the Court of Appeals found the district court's finding legally incorrect, they also found it to be harmless. 

As for his second argument, the defendant gave three reasons why he should have been allowed to withdraw his guilty plea.  First, he felt threatened and under duress if he didn't take the plea.  Second, his plea was not entered knowingly.  Third, his counsel was ineffective.  The Court of Appeals addressed each argument individually and found either they were assertions without factual support or were contradicted by the transcript of his guilty plea hearing.  Again, the Court of Appeals found the denial of the motion to withdraw was therefore within the district court's discretion.

The panel was Smith, Jordan, and Rendell.

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