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December 12, 2007

Fascinating plea reversal from the Fourth Circuit ... and Seventh, too

The Fourth Circuit has a notable ruling in a case with remarkable facts today in US v. Mastrapa, No. 06-4512 (4th Cir. Dec. 12, 2007) (available here).  Here is how it starts:

After Jose Alejandro Mastrapa agreed with two other men to transport several bags of groceries to a hotel room in Shenandoah County, Virginia, undercover agents in the hotel found five pounds of methamphetamine among the groceries and arrested Mastrapa along with the two others.  Mastrapa claimed that he had agreed to give the two men a ride and help carry their grocery bags but that he did not know them or what they were doing. Nonetheless, claiming that he hoped to minimize his sentence, Mastrapa pleaded guilty to conspiracy to distribute 500 grams or more of methamphetamine, in violation of 21 U.S.C. §§ 846 and 841(a)(1).  At his Rule 11 colloquy, however, Mastrapa refused, despite questioning by the district court, to admit to the factual basis necessary to support the charges against him, and the record included no evidence of Mastrapa’s mens rea.

The district court nonetheless proceeded to accept Mastrapa’s guilty plea and sentenced him to 120 months’ imprisonment.  Because we conclude that Mastrapa did not admit the necessary mens rea before entering his plea and the record contained no factual basis to support that element of the offense, we vacate the judgment entered on May 8, 2006, and remand for a new Rule 11 proceeding.

Among other notable features of this case, Mastrapa does not speak any English and his original attorney filed an Anders brief with the Fourth Circuit.  The Court thereafter appointed the University of Virginia School of Law Appellate Litigation Clinic to file a brief on Mastrapa's behalf, and now he gets a redo.

UPDATE:  As a commentor noted, the Seventh Circuit has a notable split ruling in US v. Sura, No. 05-1478 (7th Cir. Dec. 12, 2007) (available here) vacating a plea, though the case has more to do with an appeal waiver than a substantive misunderstanding of a plea.

December 12, 2007 at 04:54 PM | Permalink


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How bad does a plea colloquy have to be to get the Fourth Circuit to reject an Anders brief and set it aside? Because Mastrapa protested having any knowledge of the conspiracy or the drug crime and the only evidence [Read More]

Tracked on Dec 12, 2007 5:17:45 PM


Working with a case similar to this on appeal now...
Have to make note of this...

Posted by: stiff | Dec 12, 2007 5:27:53 PM

CA7 also has a fascinating plea reversal case today. The lineup of judges is notable: D. Wood (author) and Posner against Easterbrook. I can't remember how to link to CA7 opinions so to get it go to http://www.ca7.uscourts.gov/, click on Opinions and click on Today. It's US v. Sura, 05-1478. Also both the majority and the dissent make offhanded mention of Gall.

Posted by: see also | Dec 12, 2007 6:07:18 PM

Did the criminal justice system all of a sudden become more humane after Gall? First the Supreme Court, then the Sentencing Commision, and now two cases today in favor of the accused.

Would we be seeing more leniency from Judges in the future?

Posted by: EJ | Dec 12, 2007 11:11:05 PM

EJ: No, it's just a hiccup. These happen now and then to keep a patina of legitimacy on the criminal justice system.

Posted by: bruce | Dec 12, 2007 11:44:52 PM

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