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8th Circuit: Judge Telling Defendant That Federal System “Sucks" Was Plain Error

Witness swearing on the bible telling the truth in the court room or pleading no contest
By Joseph Fawbush, Esq. on September 16, 2020 9:28 AM

Trial court judges are meant to stay neutral. They do this with varying degrees of success. A judge can sometimes sway a jury, even inadvertently, based on body language and demeanor. Usually, this isn't grounds for vacating a conviction or getting a new trial. But one thing a judge is clearly not supposed to do is blatantly tell a defendant whether a plea deal is good or not. The Eight Circuit recently vacated a defendant's felony possession charge sentence because the district court judge told the defendant that the federal court system “sucks" and he could likely get a better sentence if he went to trial.

The judge was wrong to become so involved in the process. Unfortunately, the judge was also just plain wrong. After taking the judge's advice, the defendant was ultimately sentenced to more time than he would have served if he had accepted the plea bargain to begin with. 

A Bad Night Gets Worse and Worse

The case arose when the defendant, who had a criminal record, was pulled over for drunk driving. The police officer noticed a shotgun in the backseat. Criminal charges ensued. Ultimately, the government offered the defendant a minimum of 70 months in exchange for pleading guilty for felon-in-possession charges.

The defendant was not happy with this offer and complained to the judge about his lawyer. The judge apparently agreed, telling the parties that ““[t]hat's probably worse than if he got convicted, right? I mean, because if he gets convicted, he can argue for less, right?"

Well, he could argue for less, but prosecutors could also argue for more. And under federal sentencing guidelines, he lost the “acceptance of responsibility points" by going to trial. Because of this, the minimum sentence was 92 months, which the district court gave him after a short bench trial. Absent the judge's comments, the defendant argued, he would have accepted the plea deal and received a lighter sentence.

Plain Error

“We have no doubt that the court was trying to help, but it was not its job to advise [the defendant], and its comments were inappropriate" wrote the unanimous Eighth Circuit panel. The panel found that the defendant could very reasonably have accepted the plea deal if it wasn't for the judge's comments.

In order to remedy the plain error, the Eighth Circuit vacated the sentence and sent the case back down to lower court – but to a different judge. The new judge in the case, the Eighth Circuit advised, could weigh “the procedural history of the case" and mentioned that acceptance of responsibility points could still be given to the defendant considering the factors in the case. “Making disparaging remarks about the federal system harms the public reputation of judicial proceedings," Circuit Judge David Ryan Stras reminded lower court judges - and us all.

Fair enough. Not being a district court judge myself, however, I can safely relay that the district court judge may have a point. Even if the judge didn't look closely enough at the federal sentencing guidelines in this case.

Related Resources

8th Circuit: Judges Can Make Staying Off Facebook a Condition of Release (FindLaw's Eighth Circuit)

Missourians Have a Right to Know Just How Cheap the Drinks Are, 8th Circuit Says (FindLaw's Eighth Circuit)

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