The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals ruled this week that lack of education and the language barrier can’t trump a waiver of appeal.
Hipolito Alcala was charged with conspiracy to possess with the intent to distribute cocaine and heroin. Though he initially pleaded not guilty, Alcala decided to change his plea after the trial began. Alcala and prosecutors agreed that he would plead to a reduced charge of unlawful use of a communication facility to further a drug trafficking offense. Alcala later attempted to withdraw his guilty plea, but a three-judge panel ruled that withdrawing the plea counted as appealing the conviction.
Alcala, however, claimed that he could not understand the appellate waiver provision as a native Spanish-speaker with an eighth grade education. As a result, he argued that he did not knowingly and voluntarily give up his right to appeal the district court's judgment. The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed.
During the plea colloquy, the district court asked Alcala about the extent of his education, whether he had ever been declared mentally incompetent or institutionalized, whether he was undergoing psychological or psychiatric care at the time, and whether he was using any medications or other drugs that would affect his comprehension of the proceedings. Alcala answered that he had completed "eight years" in school and "no" to the other questions. Alcala indicated to the court that he didn't have questions about the pleading process or the plea itself, and affirmatively stated that he was satisfied with the plea.
The Seventh Circuit noted that Alcala's alleged language difficulties and level of education might be troubling if he represented himself pro se or if he alleged ineffective assistance of counsel. He made no such charges in his appeal. Furthermore, the district court knew about Alcala's language and education limitations during sentencing. Accordingly, the Seventh Circuit ruled that these elements of Alcala's background did not defeat the presumption that his responses to the court's inquiries were truthful.
The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals views plea bargains through a no-takebacks lens. Before you assist your client in entering a plea subject to an appellate waiver, make sure your client knows that he will not be allowed to withdraw the guilty plea.