Sunday, March 20, 2005

Case o' The Week: Edward Garcia, Withdrawing a Plea

In another great Judge Betty Fletcher opinion, the Ninth announces a fairly liberal standard for withdrawing one's plea in light of newly discovered evidence. United States v. Edward Garcia, __ F.3d __, 2005 WL 602959 (9th Cir. Mar. 16, 2005), available here.

Players: Judge Betty Fletcher, god bless her. Losing her in California cases would be one of the worst parts of the impending Circuit split.

Facts: Garcia pleaded guilty to manufacturing meth and a § 924(c) count, in return for the government dropping two other gun charges and agreeing to a ten year sentence. Garcia, 2005 WL 602959, *1. Interestingly, the defendant entered an Alford plea. He then tried to withdraw the plea before he was sentenced. Id. at *2. Garcia asserted two grounds for withdrawing the plea; first, because an intervening case would have affected the Career Offender exposure, and second, because of newly discovered evidence from witness Crystal McClurg. Id. The district court refused to permit withdrawal of the plea, and he was sentenced to 114 months. Id. at *2.

Issue(s): "We consider first whether Garcia’s claim of newly discovered evidence, specifically the McClurg declaration, provides a ‘fair and just’ reason for withdrawal." Id. at *3.

Held: "While newly discovered evidence wholly unrelated to a defendant’s case would surely not entitle him to withdraw his guilty plea, the generous ‘fair and just reason’ standard does not require that the defendant show that the new evidence exonerates him or that there is a reasonable probability he would not have been convicted had the case gone to trial." Id. "It is sufficient that this evidence was relevant evidence in Garcia’s favor that could have at least plausibly motivated a reasonable person in Garcia’s position not to have pled guilty had he known about the evidence prior to pleading. McGlurg’s statement therefore constitutes newly discovered evidence that is sufficient to justify the withdrawal of Garcia’s plea under the ‘fair and just reason’ standard." Id. "[W]e conclude that a defendant’s failure to proclaim his innocence should not count against him when he seeks to withdraw his plea under the ‘fair and just reason’ standard." Id. at *4.

Of Note: After the district court refused to permit to withdraw the plea, but before this case, the Ninth Circuit decided United States v. Ortega-Ascanio, 376 F.3d 879 (9th Cir. 2004). Read Ortega-Ascanio in conjunction with Garcia for the current Ninth Circuit standard on withdrawal of a plea. It is interesting that the defendant managed to get this deal despite an Alford plea – in the Northern District of California, that plea would probably not have been accepted by the Court, and definitely would not have been accepted by the government as part of a plea agreement.

How to Use: Ortega-Ascanio and Garcia considerably liberalize a defendant’s ability to withdraw a plea. Theoretically, it may now be possible to withdraw a plea based on newly discovered evidence during, for example, a co-defendant’s trial or a sentencing investigation. Withdrawing a plea at this stage will certainly be easier than prevailing on a later habeas. Of course, that may, at times, not be what a public defender would want: query whether this makes it easier for a disgruntled defendant to withdraw from a plea agreement that is very much in his interest. It is also interesting to consider how the waivers in the typical written plea agreements would hold up to Ortega-Ascanio and Garcia. Although there was apparently a plea agreement in the Garcia case, see id. at *1, there is no discussion in the opinion about the agreement’s prohibitions on withdrawing a plea.

For Further Reading: Judge Betty Fletcher took senior status in 1998, as part of a brokered deal to permit her son’s – William Fletcher’s – confirmation to the Ninth Circuit. See story here. She is now taking on Congress -- or at least, some Congressmen -- in opposing the proposed Ninth Circuit split. See article here.

Steve Kalar, Senior Litigator N.D. Cal.


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