Federal Court of Appeals Reaffirms that Judicial Participation in Plea Negotiations Best Saved for Section 2255 Motion, Not Direct Appeal

Any allegation that a judge was involved in the plea negotiations is very serious. It suggests the judge may have gone outside the bounds of proper judicial conduct by making or saying inappropriate things during the plea-bargaining process. Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 11 (Rule 11) lays out the procedural requirements for accepting guilty pleas, so let’s look into this claim further.

The goal of Rule 11 of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure is to make sure that people who plead guilty do so voluntarily, openly, and after carefully considering all of the potential repercussions of their actions. It lays out the rules for how federal courts should handle accepting pleas of guilt.

Judicial Involvement in Plea Bargaining:

Tucked inside Rule 11 is a short provision that says a judge must not participate in plea negotiations. In this case, Mr. Raheja claimed that his judge participated in the plea negotiations. Here is a summary of his argument:

Counsel indicated that he and the government were communicating with the Judge over the weekend [and, therefore,] the plea was entered under undue coercion and without any discussion of the alternatives to pleading guilty.

The appearance of impartiality is a cornerstone of the judicial system. The role of the judge is one of neutrality, and he or she must not take sides in a case. Their primary responsibility is to uphold the integrity of the judicial system. That’s the reason behind Rule 11’s prohibition on judicial participation in plea negotiations.

Rule 11 says that the judge’s role in plea negotiations should be limited to facilitating discussions, making sure the defendant is aware of his or her rights and the potential outcomes of a guilty plea, and verifying that the defendant is entering the plea knowingly and voluntarily after having received sufficient information about the charges against them.

Judges can ask clarifying questions, but they can’t offer any advice on whether the plea offer is good or bad.  There should be no off-the-record conversations between the judge, the defendant, or the lawyers. This openness aids fairness and allows for review in the event of an appeal.

The Sixth Circuit acknowledged that it had the authority to address a claim of improper judicial participation in plea negotiations on direct appeal, even if it wasn’t raised in the district court.

However, the court held that such claims are best left for a motion under 28 U.S.C. § 2255. The reason? Because the purpose of § 2255 is to develop the record for errors that have some basis in events that occurred outside the record.

The court therefore dismissed the appeal on the government’s request, and Mr. Raheja can now raise his improper judicial participation claim in a § 2255 motion (if he does so within one year).

United States v. Raheja, No. 22-3110, 2023 U.S. App. LEXIS 24146 (6th Cir. Sep. 12, 2023)

Dale Chappell is an expert on federal postconviction relief and the author of hundreds of articles and several books on challenging illegal and wrongful convictions and sentences. He is a former staff writer for Criminal Legal News Magazine and the author of the blog zenlawguy.com.

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