Wake Forest Law Review

By Ali Fenno

On October 25, 2016, the Fourth Circuit issued a published opinion in the criminal case of Dingle v. Stevenson. In Dingle, the Fourth Circuit addressed whether the Supreme Court’s holding in Roper v. Simmons, which invalidated the use of capital punishment against juvenile offenders, should apply retroactively to undo a guilty plea made by Ronald Donald Dingle (“Dingle”). After examining the scope of the holding in Roper and the nature of plea bargains, the Fourth Circuit held that Roper cannot apply retroactively to undo a guilty plea and affirmed the lower court’s dismissal of Dingle’s petition.

Lower Courts Repeatedly Dismiss Dingle’s Petitions

In 1993 the state of South Carolina (the “State”) charged Dingle with murder, assault and battery with intent to kill, first degree burglary, kidnapping, pointing a firearm, two counts of possession of a weapon during a violent crime, and two counts of possession of a sawed-off shotgun. Because the State intended to pursue the death penalty, Dingle plead guilty in exchange for life imprisonment with the possibility of parole.

When it was later discovered that the consecutive nature of Dingle’s sentences precluded parole, an integral part of the plea bargain, Dingle filed an application for post-conviction relief (“PCR”). The PCR court vacated his sentences and remanded for sentencing consistent with the intent of the plea agreement or for a new trial.

Several years later, a hearing still had not been held, so Dingle filed a motion for a speedy trial. The hearing was then held on July 28, 2005, and Dingle contended that his guilty plea should be withdrawn. He argued that the benefit of his plea bargain, avoiding the death penalty, was removed by the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Roper, which held that it was a violation of the Eighth Amendment for the death penalty to be used against juvenile offenders. The Court of General Sessions disagreed, rejecting Dingle’s request for a new trial and holding that pleas should be evaluated based on the law that existed in 1995. The South Carolina Supreme Court affirmed this decision, finding that Roper did not remove the benefit of the plea bargain.

Dingle again filed an application for PCR in 2009, arguing that Roper retroactively applied to his case and, as such, his guilty plea was involuntary because it was made to avoid cruel and unusual punishment. However, the PCR court found that Dingle’s claim was barred by res judicata. Dingle’s subsequent appeal and third petition were unsuccessful.

Dingle also filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus under 28 U.S.C. § 2554 in the United States District Court for the District of South Carolina. He raised four claims of error, but the district court dismissed the claims without prejudice.

On September 13, 2013, Dingle filed the instant § 2554 petition. The petition contested Dingle’s conviction on six grounds, but the district court adopted the magistrate judge’s recommendation to deny the petition in its entirety.

Issues on Appeal

The Fourth Circuit granted a certificate of appealability to determine the single issue of whether Roper may be applied retroactively to invalidate Dingle’s guilty plea. Dingle argued that the holding in Roper invalidated his guilty plea because (1) it was a substantive rule so applied retroactively to his case, and (2) if it would be improper for the state to seek the death penalty against him now, then it was also improper in 1995. Thus, his plea was invalid because it was attempt to avoid cruel and unusual punishment. However, the Fourth Circuit disagreed, concluding that (1) plea bargains are outside the scope of the Roper holding, and (2) the nature of plea bargains support upholding their validity.

Plea Bargains Are Outside the Scope of Roper

The Fourth Circuit first concluded that the holding in Roper was never intended to apply to plea bargains. Although the court conceded that Roper was indeed a substantive rule that could be applied retroactively, it found that the scope of the rule was limited to the actual sentence delivered in a case. Because Dingle did not actually receive the death penalty, attempting to apply the holding in Roper to his own case was “compar[ing] apples and oranges.” The court further noted that the Supreme Court had never before allowed “a substantive rule to stretch beyond the proscribed sentence to reopen guilty pleas with a different sentence.”

Future Legal Developments Cannot Invalidate Plea Bargains

The Fourth Circuit next concluded that the holding in Roper could not invalidate Dingle’s guilty plea because plea bargains are “a bet on the future,” whereby defendants accept both the benefits of a lighter sentence and the risks of losing out on future favorable legal developments. A defendant’s remorse at missing out on those favorable legal developments is not enough to rescind an entire bargain.

The court found support for this contention in Brady v. United States, where the Supreme Court held that a defendant who entered into a plea agreement to avoid capital punishment could not later withdraw his plea agreement when subsequent legal developments made him ineligible for the death penalty. The Supreme Court suggested that defendants who are offered plea bargains must weigh the benefits and risks of such bargains, and the fact that they did not anticipate certain legal developments could not “impugn the truth or reliability of [their] plea.” Accordingly, the Fourth Circuit concluded that when Dingle entered his guilty plea, he accepted the trade-off between present benefits and future risks that is “emblematic” of plea bargains, and his inability to anticipate the favorable outcome in Roper could not invalidate his plea.

Conclusion

The Fourth Circuit concluded that (1) Roper, even applied retroactively, could not invalidate Dingle’s plea, and (2) precedent and policy argued against setting aside Dingle’s plea bargain. Accordingly, it affirmed the district court’s dismissal of Dingle’s petition and held that Roper could not be applied retroactively to invalidate Dingle’s guilty plea.

file000371802493

By Eric Jones

On April 28, 2015, the Fourth Circuit issued a published opinion in the criminal case United States v. Braxton.  The Circuit Court held that Fed. R. Crim. P. 11(c)(1) explicitly prohibits district courts from participating in discussions about plea agreements in any way.  Because the United States District Court for the District of Maryland impermissibly made repeated comments about the benefits of accepting a guilty plea to Braxton just before he elected to plead guilty, the Fourth Circuit vacated the proceedings and remanded for further proceedings.

Background and Proceedings Below

In 2012, Savino Braxton was charged with possession with intent to distribute one kilogram or more of heroin, in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 841(a) (2012).  This charge carries a minimum ten-year sentence if convicted.  Braxton, however, has a prior felony drug conviction, which allows the government to file a prior felony information that would effectively double the mandatory minimum to twenty years’ imprisonment.  Braxton’s court-appointed counsel repeatedly expressed concern that if he did not plead guilty, the prosecutor would file a prior felony information.  Braxton nevertheless insisted that he desired to go to trial, where he planned to test the validity of the weight of the drugs.  On November 19, 2012, the government elected to file a prior felony information and establish a minimum twenty-year sentence if Braxton was found guilty at trial.  Prior to trial, the government formally offered Braxton a plea agreement wherein he would face a minimum of ten years and a maximum of fifteen.  The morning the trial began, the court dutifully memorialized for the record that Braxton had received and rejected the plea agreement, and wished to proceed to trial.  The district court went on to admonish Braxton repeatedly for electing to forgo the plea agreement, saying “I am not favorably inclined towards having you go to trial and trigger a mandatory minimum of 20 years, as opposed to a plea offer that’s down in the 10 to 15 year range in terms of years of your life” and compared going to trial to “put[ting] [your] head in a buzz saw that makes absolutely no sense.”  The district court then ordered a ten-minute recess, advising Braxton to “talk to your lawyer.”  After that recess, the district court again admonished Braxton that a “defendant shouldn’t put his head in a vice [sic] and face a catastrophic result just over a dispute over drug quantity. That’s the point.”  The court then dismissed for lunch.  During that lunch, Braxton changed his mind and elected to plead guilty.  Braxton later attempted to withdraw his guilty plea, arguing it had been involuntary.  Nevertheless, Braxton was sentenced to eleven and one-half years, and this appeal followed.

Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 11(c)(1)

Under Fed. R. Crim. P. 11(c)(1), an “attorney for the government and the defendant’s attorney…may discuss and reach a plea agreement.  The court must not participate in these discussions.”  As the Fourth Circuit explained, this prohibition serves three primary goals.  First, it diminishes the possibility of judicial coercion of a guilty plea.  Second, it protects against unfairness and partiality in the judicial process.  Third, it eliminates the impression that the judge is an advocate for the agreement and not a neutral arbiter.  Although well-intentioned, the district court repeatedly suggested that the plea agreement was in Braxton’s best interests, which is in direct conflict with this rule.  Furthermore, the Fourth Circuit explained that the close proximity in time between when the comments were made and when the plea was accepted heightened the probability that Braxton was unduly influenced by the district court.

Braxton’s Statement That the Plea Was Given Voluntarily Was Insufficient

The Fourth Circuit was unconvinced by the government’s argument that Braxton’s guilty plea was voluntary.  Although the district court asked if Braxton felt “forced or threatened or pushed” to accept the plea agreement and Braxton replied “No, sir,” the Fourth Circuit held that his response was inconclusive.  The district court created “an unacceptable risk” that Braxton involuntarily entered his guilty plea in order to avoid offending the court, and thus his flat statement that he was not coerced was ineffective.

The District Court Cannot Remark Upon the Advantages of a Plea Agreement

The government also argued that, under Missouri v. Frye, the court must remark upon the advantages of the plea agreement and the disadvantages of trial in order to ascertain whether the defendant’s understanding of the decision is sufficient.  As the Fourth Circuit explained, however, the district court’s duties under Frye extend only to memorializing the terms of the plea agreement, and ensuring that the defendant understands them.  Thus, it was improper for the district court to advocate for the plea agreement at all, and the requirements of Frye do not make the comments of the district court in this case permissible.

Conclusion

The Fourth Circuit held that, although it did not appear that the district court intended to coerce Braxton, there was nevertheless a reasonable risk that Braxton had been influenced by the court.  Thus, because the district court’s plain error affected Braxton’s substantial rights, the Fourth Circuit vacated Braxton’s sentence and guilty plea, and remanded for further proceedings in front of a different judge.

By Diana C. Castro

Today, in the criminal case United States v. Adonte Young, the Fourth Circuit affirmed in an unpublished opinion the decision of the District Court for the Western District of North Carolina, holding Young’s guilty plea was supported by an adequate factual basis.

 Defendant Questions Whether His Guilty Plea Was Adequately Supported

Under Anders v. California, the defendant does not argue that there are meritorious issues for appeal; however, he questions whether his guilty plea was supported by an adequate factual basis.  386 U.S. 738 (1967).

Defendant Pled Guilty to Aiding and Abetting of a § 924(c) Violation

To establish the aiding and abetting of a § 924(c) violation, the Government must prove “that the defendant actively participated in the underlying… violent crime with advance knowledge that a confederate would use or carry a gun during the crime’s commission.”  Rosemund v. United States, 134 S. Ct. 1240, 1243 (2014).

Here, Young and a codefendant robbed a bank teller at gunpoint and fired two rounds as they left the bank. Even though Young denied firing the shots, he admitted he gave the codefendant the gun.  Moreover, the police found Young’s DNA on the firearm when the gun was recovered after the robbery.

A Plea Court Must Conduct a Colloquy Prior to Accepting a Guilty Plea

Under Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 11(b)(1), before accepting a guilty plea, the plea court must inform the defendant of, and determine he understands, the nature of the charge to which he is pleading guilty, any mandatory minimum sentence, the maximum possible penalty applicable, and the various rights the defendant surrenders by pleading guilty.  United States v. DeFusco, 949 F.2d 114, 116 (4th Cir. 1991).

Additionally, the district court must also confirm that the defendant’s plea is voluntary, supported by an independent factual basis, and not a result of coercion in the plea agreements.

The Magistrate Judge Conducted a Thorough Plea Colloquy

Because Young did not move to withdraw his guilty plea or otherwise preserve any allegation of Rule 11 error, the Fourth Circuit determined it would review for plain error.  Accordingly, the Fourth Circuit held the magistrate satisfied the requirements of Rule 11 and ensured that Young’s plea was knowingly and voluntary.

A Court Has Wide Discretion in Determining Factual Basis of a Guilty Plea and May Rely on Anything in the Record

Under United States v. Ketchum, a court need only be “subjectively satisfied” that the factual basis is sufficient to establish each element of the offense.  550 F.3d 363, 366-67 (4th Cir. 2008).  “The district court must assure itself simply that the conduct to which the defendant admits is in fact an offense under the statutory provision under which he is pleading guilty.”  United States v. Carr, 271 F.3d 172, 178-79 n.6 (4th Cir. 2001).

Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit Court Affirmed

Reviewing the facts of the case, the Fourth Circuit held the District Court did not err in finding a factual basis for the offense.

Applying Anders, the Court found no potentially meritorious issues and affirmed the District Court’s judgment.  Furthermore, the Court required that counsel inform Young, in writing, of his right to petition the Supreme Court of the United States for further review.

By Taylor Ey

Last Friday, November 7th, the Fourth Circuit issued its opinion in United States v. Mendez affirming the sentencing decision of the District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina.

Appellants Mendez, Suarez, and Rodriguez pled guilty to conspiracy to possess counterfeit access devices. Appellant Mendez also pled guilty to aggravated identity theft.  Mendez was sentenced to fifty-four months’ imprisonment, Suarez to forty-six months’ imprisonment, and Rodriguez to thirty-seven months’ imprisonment.  Appellants appealed the district court’s decision, challenging the Sentencing Guidelines calculations and the substantive reasonableness of the sentences.

The District Court Did Not Abuse its Discretion When it Applied a Sentencing Enhancement

Appellants argue that the district court erred when it applied the two-level enhancement for sophisticated means.  When a defendant employs a complex or intricate offense, the sophisticated means enhancement may apply.   Because the appellants obtained nearly 200 stolen credit card account numbers and disguised fraudulent purchases through encoding stored-value cards with stolen account numbers, their scheme was sufficiently complex.

The District Court Did Not Commit Clear Error in Calculating Its Total Loss Figure

In stolen or counterfeit credit cards and access devices cases, special rules govern the calculations of loss.  The loss includes any unauthorized charges made with the counterfeit card or unauthorized access device, up to $500.  The district court did not err because it used the $500-per-device multiplier in accordance with Sentencing Guideline § 2B1.1 cmt. n.3(F)(i), which reflected the loss from the used cards and the reasonably foreseeable loss from unused cards.

Appellants Failed to Meet Their Burden in Establishing that the District Court Committed Plain Error in Calculating the Total Number of Victims

The Fourth Circuit held that Suarez and Rodriguez failed to satisfy their burden, demonstrated that the district court committed plain error.  To establish plain error, an appellant must show (1) that the district court erred, (2) that the error was clear and obvious, and (3) that the error affected appellant’s substantial rights, affecting the outcome of the proceedings.  Even if the court assumed that appellants established that the district court erred, they did not meet their burden of establishing that the error was clear and obvious or that their rights were affected.

The District Court Did Not Err in Applying the Leadership Enhancement

The Fourth Circuit held that preponderant evidence supported the district court’s finding that Suarez and Rodriguez exercised a “degree of control” over the operation and activities of others involved in the acts. Leadership enhancement applies where a defendant has been an “organizer, leader, manager, or supervisor in any criminal activity” that involved fewer than five participants.  Even if Suarez and Rodriguez only exercised control over one other participant, this is sufficient for a leadership enhancement.

The District Court Did Not Err When it Failed to Impose Downward Variant Sentences

Because the district court did not commit any significant procedural error, the Fourth Circuit then considered whether the sentence was substantively reasonable.  There is a presumption of substantive reasonableness if the sentences are within properly calculated Guidelines ranges.  The Fourth Circuit concluded that the district court did not commit any substantive error.

The District Court’s Ruling Was Affirmed