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October 9, 2004

More fun(fun) from judge who decided Fanfan

Proving that certain judges have all the fun, US District Court Judge Brock Hornby — who is already famous for being the judge who sentenced Fanfan — earlier this week addressed in US v. Perez, 2004 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 20133 (Oct. 5, 2004), a request of a defendant in a drug case "who wants to plead guilty to the charge of conspiracy, but wants a jury trial on the drug quantities and on the scope of the conspiracy."

The whole opinion in Perez is a great and significnt read. Here are just a few highlights:

As a result of Blakely, the active judges in this District have ruled that a defendant is entitled to a jury trial and proof beyond a reasonable doubt as to all sentence-enhancing factors except criminal history. But there remains widespread disagreement and uncertainty across the country on what Blakely demands for federal sentences....

Since "an indictment must set forth each element of the crime that it charges," Almendarez-Torres v. United States, 523 U.S. 224, 228 (1998), a guilty plea traditionally admitted all the "elements" of the crime. A defendant had to plead guilty to the entire offense or not at all, and a court could not, over the government's objection, accept a plea to a lesser included offense.... The defendant here says that pleading guilty to conspiracy covers the "elements" in this case. I do not believe that "scope" of the conspiracy can be extracted from the elements of the offense as that term has been used conventionally and therefore I would not entertain a partial plea that contested the scope of the conspiracy. Drug quantity is more difficult. Before Apprendi we were certain that drug quantity was merely a sentencing issue, not an essential part of the conviction. Apprendi taught us that where drug quantity elevated the statutory maximum sentence, it had to be proven beyond a reasonable doubt to the jury. But judges could still make all other drug quantity determinations at sentencing. In the post-Blakely world, however, all sentence-enhancing factors (other than criminal history) must be proven to a jury beyond a reasonable doubt. Have they thereby become "elements of the offense"? Since drug quantity now must be proven to a jury beyond a reasonable doubt regardless of what it is called, the old debate over whether it is an "element" seems to have lost significance. It certainly does not help resolve the issue before me. Therefore, I consider other factors.

It will be difficult for the government to try the issues of conspiracy scope and drug quantity without simultaneously presenting a good deal of evidence about the conspiracy itself. Permitting a plea of guilty to the conspiracy, but not the scope or quantity, therefore, will produce disputes at the resulting trial over what is material versus what is unduly prejudicial evidence. The appellate cases generally have said that defendants cannot stipulate their way out of the government's right to try a case the way it was charged.... This background counsels in favor of sustaining the government's objection to the partial plea as it affects both scope and drug quantity.

I cannot see any prejudice to the defendant in declining his partial plea. The primary benefit to the defendant in the proposed partial plea is the possibility of obtaining a reduced sentence for acceptance of responsibility under Guideline 3E1.1. That of course will depend on what the jury and I conclude about relevant conduct after trial. But if the defendant elects at trial to admit the conspiracy (as he proposes to do in his partial guilty plea), and contests only the drug quantity and scope of the conspiracy before the jury, he should be able to make the same arguments about acceptance of responsibility to me at sentencing. True, there may be somewhat more work for his lawyer in preparing for a broader trial (practically speaking the dimensions of the trial will probably not vary a lot) but, since the defendant has a court-appointed lawyer, this factor is an expense to the taxpayer, not the defendant.

After all is said and done, a defendant has a right to a jury trial, but he has no absolute right to plead guilty. Santobello v. New York, 404 U.S. 257, 261-62 (1971). "A court may reject a plea in exercise of sound judicial discretion." Id. at 262. I conclude that the defendant cannot enter a partial plea of guilty while reserving the issue of conspiracy scope for a jury trial. The ability to reserve drug quantity is a closer question. But I also conclude in the uncertain state of post-Blakely federal sentencing that the prudent course is to reject the partial plea on that score as well.

October 9, 2004 at 02:56 AM | Permalink

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