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A Plea for Plea Bargains in a Child Porn Case

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By Peter Clarke, JD on June 12, 2015 12:55 PM

Convicted for child pornography charges, Timothy Vanderwerff wanted to make a plea agreement. The prosecution was on board with the deal. Everything was fine until the trial court decided to use this case to make a point about the evils of plea bargains. And so the court flat-out denied the agreement, emphasizing its distaste for plea bargains in general.

Why did the district court hate plea bargains so much? It offered a few reasons. For example, the court noted that unfortunate circumstance of too many guilty pleas and not enough trials. Also, it cited the Supreme Court case in Lafler v. Cooper, which "suggested that a sentencing court should be a participant in the plea-bargaining process."

The Trial Court Abused Its Discretion

The Tenth Circuit didn't seem to appreciate the trial court's crusade against plea bargains. Although a district court holds "substantial discretion" for whether or not to accept a plea agreement, under United States v. Crowe, a court can abuse its discretion if its "adjudication of a claim is based upon on error of law."

That's what happened here: the lower court based its decision on an error of law. Specifically, the trial court knocked down the plea bargain because it contained an appellate waiver. The Tenth Circuit didn't have a problem with this, determining that a charge bargain is "primarily a matter of discretion for the prosecution."

Back to Basics Plea Agreements

In standing up for plea agreements, the circuit court noted that courts shouldn't overstep their role during the plea bargaining phase; otherwise, they may risk second-guessing the choices that rightfully belong to the prosecution.

The Tenth Circuit even went back to basics, citing the Rule 11 in the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure, which provides that attorneys on both sides are free to discuss and decide upon plea agreements.

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