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Univ. of South Carolina School of Law

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Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Caveat Accused?: Supreme Court of Iowa Botches Roberston Analysis in Plea Baragaining Appeal

State of Iowa v. Boggs, 2007 WL 3407331 (Iowa 2007), is a complicated case with many issues recently resolved by the Supreme Court of Iowa, but in terms of the issue I want to address, only a few basic facts need to be mentioned.  On January 10, 2003, law enforcement officers executed a search warrant at the residence of David Boggs and discovered a large quantity of methamphetamine and marijuana in his basement.  Boggs was then arrested, transported to jail, and given his Miranda warnings.  Boggs was then interviewed by a police officer.  At some point during the interview, Boggs and the officer discussed a possible plea bargain in excahange for helpful information, and the officer called the county attorney on the phone to discuss the matter.  At another point during the interview, Boggs acknowledged ownership of the methamphetamine and marijuana found in his basement.

However, while a plea bargain was discussed, no plea agreement was actually reached.  After a complicated adjudicative history, Boggs was eventually found guilty of possession of marijuana and possession of methamphetamine with intent to deliver after the prosecution had the officer testify concerning the admissions Boggs made to him.  Boggs thereafter appealed, claiming, inter alia, that the trial court erred in admitting his admissions because statements made during plea discussions are inadmissible pursuant to Iowa Rule of Criminal Procedure 2.10(5), which states that "[i]f a plea discussion does not result in a plea of guilty,...the plea discussion...shall not be admissible in any criminal or civil action or administrative proceeding." 

This Rule, however, only applies to statements made while defendants seek to negotiate pleas, not to statements made by defendants merely hoping to achieve leniency by agreeing to talk to law enforcement.  The Supreme Court of Iowa thus properly held that statements made by Boggs before the county attorney was contacted would not be covered by the rule whereas statements made after the county attorney was contacted would be covered because "[p]lea discussions that take place during the course of a general police interview of a suspect do not transform the entire interview into a plea discussion so that all statements made during the interview become privileged under Rule 2.10(5)."

The Supreme Court of Iowa then cited to United States v. Robertson, 582 F.2d 1356 (5th Cir. 1976), which most courts have found supplies the test for whether statements were made during plea discussions and thus inadmissible.  Under the Robertson test, a statement is inadmissible because it is made during a plea discussion if (1) the defendant subjectively believed that he was negotiating a plea when he made the statement, and (2) that belief was reasonable given the totality of the objective circumstances.  The Supreme Court of Iowa then found that Boggs did not satisfy this test because he failed to produce any evidence to reveal that point during the interview when the plea discussions first occurred and that point when the incriminating statements were made.  The court noted that Boggs' counsel was given an opportunity to elicit this evidence and failed to do so.

The Supreme Court of Iowa's decision constitutes one of the worst misreadings of Robertson I have ever seen.  Immediately after setting forth the two part test I mentioned above, the Robertson court made clear that "the government apparently bears the burden of proving that the discussion was not a plea negotiation once the issue has been properly been raised...." Robertson, 582 F.2d at 1366 n.21.  As I argued in my article Caveat Prosecutor, 32 New. Eng. J. on Crim. & Civil Confinement 209 (2006), courts have often failed to mention who bears the burden of proof in failed plea discussion cases and have made some odd evidentiary rulings, but I'm not sure that I have ever come across a case before the Boggs case where a court has so clearly and improperly placed the burden of proof on the defendant.  Simply put, the Supreme Court of Iowa's decision is an improper application of the Robertson decision, in effect creating a "caveat accused" approach to plea discussions rather than the proper "caveat prosecutor" approach, where the government bears the burden of proving that an accused's statements were not made during plea discussions.

-CM

http://lawprofessors.typepad.com/evidenceprof/2007/11/caveat-accused.html

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