In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court held last month in United States v. Davila that a guilty plea does not need to be automatically vacated, regardless of whether there has been prejudice to the defendant, when a magistrate judge improperly advises a defendant to plead guilty.
In 2009, Anthony Davila was charged with conspiracy to defraud the United States by filing false income tax returns. While the charges were pending, Davila requested new court-appointed counsel, complaining that his current public defender was telling him to take a guilty plea without advising him about alternative strategies. The Magistrate Judge held a private, closed hearing at which Davila and his attorney, but no representative of the prosecution, appeared. At the hearing, the Magistrate Judge told Davila that the court would not appoint a different lawyer and that, given the strength of the prosecution’s case, it would be wise for him to take a guilty plea. The magistrate offered this advice in violation of Rule 11(c)(1) of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure, which states that “[t]he court must not participate in [plea] discussions.”
Three months later, Davila entered a guilty plea before a U.S. District Judge. Before the sentencing hearing, however, Davila backtracked and moved to vacate his plea and dismiss the indictment. He did not mention the magistrate judge’s advice in his motion to vacate, instead stating that he agreed to plead as a “strategic move” that ultimately backfired. Finding that Davila’s plea had been knowing and voluntary, the District Judge denied the motion.
On his appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, for the first time Davila raised the issue of the magistrate’s improper participation in plea discussions. The Court of Appeals found that the court’s error in weighing in on the plea affected Davila’s substantial rights. This was a key finding, as errors that do not affect substantial rights are considered “harmless” under Rule 11(h) and cannot form the basis for vacating a plea. The Court of Appeals concluded that the magistrate judge’s violation of Rule 11(c)(1) required Davila’s guilty plea to be automatically vacated, without any inquiry into whether the error was prejudicial.
On appeal, however, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled otherwise. In a ruling released on June 13, 2013, the high court found that under Rule 11(h), the court is not required to automatically vacate a guilty plea if the record does not show that the defendant was prejudiced by the violation of Rule 11(c)(1). The Supreme Court concluded that a violation of Rule 11(c)(1) would not undermine the fairness of the entire criminal proceeding such that it would trigger automatic reversal. Rather, in reviewing Rule 11 errors the court must consider the full circumstances of the individual case.
Here, the Supreme Court noted that Davila’s guilty plea was entered three months after the magistrate judge advised him to plead guilty and that the District Judge thoroughly examined and provided Davila the opportunity to raise any questions before accepting his plea. Therefore, in light of the full record, it is possible that a court would not determine it necessary to vacate the plea. The Supreme Court remanded the case to the Eleventh Circuit to review the surrounding circumstances and determine whether it was probable that, but for the Magistrate Judge’s advice, Davila would have decided against entering a guilty plea and would have instead elected to go to trial.
The Supreme Court is generally reluctant to recognize new “structural errors” in trials that require an automatic reversal without an inquiry into the surrounding circumstances. This is understandable, as structural errors are generally fundamental constitutional errors that involve issues such as denial of choice of counsel, denial of self-representation, and denial of a public trial.
While the Supreme Court made the right call in refusing to find that this error required automatic reversal, on remand the Eleventh Circuit must recognize the massive influence that a judge’s words could have on a defendant who is deciding whether to go to trial or take a plea, and weigh that heavily in an analysis of the surrounding circumstances leading to the plea.