Friday, September 26, 2008

More Like This

A couple weeks ago Scott Greenfield wrote about a Ninth Circuit case, Garcia-Aguilar v. U.S. Dist. Court, (link to opinion).

I remembered the judge's bold description that the case "show[s] why the ten most terrifying words in the English language may be, “I’m from the government and I’m here to help you.” In fact, I find myself repeating the phrase out of frustration often, so often, in fact, that I went back to read the case. Since there's no way to improve on Judge Kozinski's introduction, here it is in full:

We consider the district court’s refusal to accept defendants’ unconditional guilty pleas.

These consolidated cases show again why the ten most ter-
rifying words in the English language may be, “I’m from the government and I’m here to help you.”
Defendants pled guilty to re-entering the country illegally after having been previously removed, in violation of 8 U.S.C. § 1326. Their guilty
pleas were taken by magistrate judges, who conducted the plea colloquies required by Rule 11(b) of the Federal Rules of
Criminal Procedure, and who thereafter recommended that the district court accept the pleas.

When the cases came before the district court for acceptance of the pleas, the U.S. Attorney objected on the ground
that the magistrate judges had erred in conducting the Rule 11(b) colloquies. The district judges agreed and refused to
accept any of the defendants’ guilty pleas.

We consider the district court’s refusal to accept defendants’ unconditional guilty pleas.

Rule 11(b) is there for the defendant’s benefit, so it seems quite noble at first for the U.S. Attorney to stick up for defendants’ rights. But this generosity comes at a steep price: The
U.S. Attorney has already arraigned defendants on superseding indictments that specifically charge a violation of 8 U.S.C. § 1326(b)(2), which is punishable by twenty years in prison.

This is eighteen years more than the two-year maximum sentence available under defendants’ original indictments, which
did not charge any conduct that could increase the maximum penalty above two years. Defendants reject the government’s help and petition for writs of mandamus directing the district court to accept their unconditional guilty pleas.

After that excellent introduction, the opinion ends like this;

Due to the U.S. Attorney’s oversight, defendants may well avoid the enhanced sentences to which they may have been subject under section 1326(b)(2). “So be it.” United States v. Velasco-Heredia, 319 F.3d 1080, 1087 (9th Cir. 2003). The district court shall accept defendants’ unconditional guilty pleas to the original indictments.

One role of the defense lawyer is to educate the judge about the necessity of ensuring that the law is applied to the government as it prosecutes people for breaking it. It's much easier when judges grasp the necessity of this role and so much more enjoyable when they demonstrate it so eloquently.

One other phrase I often think of is that bureaucracy and justice are like oil and vinegar: If not constantly agitated, they naturally separate.


Glen Graham said...
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Glen Graham said...

The American system is about "checks and balances." It is a balance of power between competing interests and different branches of government. As Justice Brandeis once pointed out:

"The doctrine of the separation of powers was adopted by the convention of 1787 not to promote efficiency but to preclude the exercise of arbitrary power. The purpose was not to avoid friction, but, by means of the inevitable friction incident to the distribution of the governmental powers among three departments, to save the people from autocracy." Myers v United States, 272 US 52 at 293 (1926).
Yours in Defense of Fellow Human Beings,
Glen R. Graham, Tulsa Criminal Defense Lawyer