Sunday, February 09, 2014

Case o' The Week: Guilty, but Innocent, Not Guilty Enough - Williams and Supervised Release

   Conceded: a standard condition of supervised release prohibits committing a new crime.
  (But it doesn’t prohibit being convicted of a new crime!)
United States v. Williams, 2014 WL 350078 (9th Cir. Feb. 3, 2013), decision available here.

Players: Decision by District Judge Rakoff, joined by Judges McKeown and Clifton. Admirable win by AFD Alison Guernsey, ED Wa. & Idaho Federal Defender.   

Facts: Williams had a three year term of supervised release after completing his federal sentence. Id. at *1. While on supervision, he was charged in Washington state with assault and unlawful possession of a firearm. Id. He maintained his innocence, but plea bargained down to third-degree assault and entered an Alford plea. Id. (With an Alford plea, “a defendant may plead guilty even while maintaining factual innocence.”) Id. Williams was then charged with violating his supervised release, for committing “another federal, state, or local crime” while on supervision. Id. Williams argued the Alford plea was not alone sufficient evidence of a violation and asked for an evidentiary hearing. Id. The district court rejected that request, and found that Williams had committed a state crime because he had plead guilty. Id. The court held that an evidentiary hearing would be “a waste of judicial resources and redundant.” Id. He was revoked, sentenced to eighteen months, and he appealed. Id.

Issue(s): “The narrow legal issue presented by this appeal is whether a defendant’s Alford plea to a state charge is sufficient in itself to warrant a finding of violation of the condition of federal supervised release prohibiting commission of a new state crime when the state itself does not treat the Alford plea as evidence of commission of the crime.” Id. at *1.

Held: “We hold that it is insufficient.” Id.

Of Note: Williams is a thoughtful opinion that brings the Ninth in line with the Third Circuit in rejecting (some) nolo contendre pleas as the sole bases to revoke supervised release. Id. at *2 (discussing United States v. Poellnitz, 372 F.3d 562 (3d Cir. 2004)). 
  As Judge Rakoff points out, the condition of supervised release prohibits a defendant from committing a new crime. Id. The standard S.R. condition doesn’t say the defendant shall not be convicted of a new crime – and a Washington State nolo plea is a just conviction, not an admission of guilt. Id.

How to Use: Advise your clients to enter their nolo pleas in Washington, not California. The Ninth in Williams relies heavily on Washington law, which prohibits using an Alford plea as probative evidence. Id. at *3. In less-enlightened California, unfortunately, a nolo plea carries the same legal effect as a plea of guilty. Id. So the take-away of Williams is to first look at the state law: if the state involved treats nolo pleas as the same as guilty pleas, this new rule won’t help.
For Further Reading: Last week we wrote of the Judiciary’s new initiative to quantify the work of everyone in the Federal Defender system – and tie our funding to this new statistical model. Our representatives are in D.C. this week, struggling with how to distill our complex and diverse work into a handful of “event codes.”
   Turns out that Pretrial and Probation are equally enthused about statistics, and are exploring “risk assessment instruments” in their respective recommendations. For a good introductory article on PTRA and PCRA, start with Denise Barrett, Determining Your Client’s Likelihood of Success Under Community Supervision and Improving the Odds for a Non-Prison Sentence, available here

Steven Kalar, Federal Public Defender N.D. Cal. Website at


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