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Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Ind. Decisions - "Creating a split, 7th Cir. says magistrate judges not permitted to accept felony guilty pleas"

h/t to Michael A. Scarcella, @MikeScarcella

The 7/14/14, 11-page opinion is U.S. v. Harden, out of the SD Ill. Judge Tinder writes:

Pursuant to a written plea agreement, Defendant-Appellant Stacy Lee Harden pled guilty to possession with the intent to distribute cocaine. With Harden’s consent, the district court instructed a magistrate judge to conduct a Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 11 plea colloquy under a local rule allowing for magistrate judges to accept felony guilty pleas. The magistrate judge accepted Harden’s guilty plea, and the district court then conducted a sentencing hearing and imposed sentence. Harden now appeals the magistrate judge’s acceptance of his guilty plea, arguing that the magistrate judge’s acceptance of a felony guilty plea, instead of preparing a report and recommendation to the district court, was a violation of the Federal Magistrates Act, 28 U.S.C. § 636; Rule 59 of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure; and the United States Constitution. * * *

Because we find that the magistrate judge’s acceptance of Harden’s guilty plea violated the Federal Magistrates Act, we reverse. Although Harden has not shown that he suf-fered prejudice from the role the magistrate judge played in this case, and although nothing has been suggested to criticize the magistrate judge’s performance, the statute simply does not authorize a magistrate judge to accept a felony guilty plea. * * *

We note that our reasoning places us in conflict with several of our sister circuits. * * *

The desire to make more efficient the district courts’ management of large criminal caseloads is understandable. These days, over 97% of criminal convictions are the result of guilty pleas. See “Statistical Tables for the Federal Judiciary,” Table D-4 (June 2013), available at http://www.uscourts.gov/uscourts/Statistics/StatisticalTablesForTheFederalJudiciary/2013/june/D04Jun13.pdf (visited July 14, 2014) (finding that of 84,060 total criminal convictions in a twelve-month period, 81,955 were the result of guilty pleas). Truly, “criminal justice today is for the most part a system of pleas, not a system of trials.” Lafler v. Cooper, 132 S. Ct. 1376, 1388 (2012). Yet, the prevalence of guilty pleas does not render them less important, or the protections waived through them any less fundamental. A felony guilty plea is equal in importance to a felony trial leading to a verdict of guilty. And without explicit authorization from Congress, the district court cannot delegate this vital task. The authority to experiment set forth in Peretz is bounded; the Court has never suggested that magistrate judges, with the parties’ consent, may perform every duty of an Article III judge, regardless of the duty’s importance.

The judgment of the district court is REVERSED.

Posted by Marcia Oddi on July 15, 2014 10:02 AM
Posted to Ind. (7th Cir.) Decisions