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Eighth Circuit Rejects Defendant's Motion to Withdraw Guilty Plea

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By Robyn Hagan Cain on November 18, 2011 3:02 PM

The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals has greater tolerance for misstatements from courts than it does for misstatements from criminal defendants.

Michael Buck pleaded guilty to participating in a commercial sex trafficking operation in Missouri. Under the operation, Buck forced female victims to engage in sex acts by threatening them with physical harm. By way of a telephone service, Buck would sell the services of the women in strip clubs, motels, apartments, and houses to his customer base.

Buck was ultimately charged with 18 counts, including commercial sex trafficking, attempted commercial sex trafficking, attempted production of child pornography, witness tampering, and document servitude.

At the plea colloquy, the district court asked Buck a series of questions confirming his desire to waive rights and plead guilty. Buck acknowledged that he understood, that he was satisfied with his attorney's representation, that he had received no promises other than those in the plea agreement causing him to plead, and that no one had tried to force him to plead.

Buck also confirmed he understood he would be unable to withdraw his guilty plea if he were sentenced to a term of imprisonment of 15 years or less, as stated in the plea agreement.

Five months later, Buck filed a pro se motion to withdraw the guilty plea, claiming that he had been unhappy with his attorney, that his attorney had "worked in tandem" with the government against him, and that his attorney told him he wouldn't get more than five years. He also claimed that he was innocent.

The court refused to let him withdraw his guilty plea.

After sentencing, Buck appealed his sentence to the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals based on the district judge's misstatement that he rejected the recommendation that Buck's sentence run consecutively to his imprisonment for a previously-adjudicated crime. Buck claimed that the judge's statement indicated that his sentences should run concurrently.

The Eighth Circuit denied the request, finding that the judge clearly misspoke.

So what's the difference between Buck's misstatement that he was guilty and understood the plea agreement, and the district judge's misstatement that Buck's sentences should not run consecutively?

Buck's plea colloquy statements were made under oath, and he waited five months to indicate that he had made a mistake. The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals distinguished that the district judge made a single misstatement during the oral pronouncement at Buck's sentencing, and clarified the error in the written judgment, which noted the prior statement regarding a consecutive sentence was in error.

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