EvidenceProf Blog

Editor: Colin Miller
Univ. of South Carolina School of Law

Friday, November 27, 2009

Black Friday Felony: Court Precludes Defendant From Withdrawing Guilty Plea To Charges In Connection To Black Friday Robbery Of Wal-Mart

Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, is the biggest shopping day of the year, with merchants and the media now referring to it as the start of the period in which retailers go from being in the red to being in the black (for more on the origins of the term, click here). It thus seems like a day that criminals, like consumers, could mark on their calendars because retailers coffers will be clogged with customers' cash. That certainly seemed to be the case in United States v. Young, 2008 WL 163045 (E.D. Pa. 2008). In Young, Christopher Young pleaded guilty to crimes in connection with the robbery of a Wal-Mart in Philadelphia (where the phrase Black Friday was coined) in the early morning hours after Black Friday. He then tried to withdraw that plea but was faced with a problem faced by many Black Friday customers: a "no return" policy.

In Young, Christopher Young was charged with Hobbs Act robbery, conspiracy, using a firearm during or in relation to a crime of violence, and aiding and abetting in connection with the robbery of $334,763 from a Wal-Mart in Philadelphia in the early morning hours following Black Friday in 2006. Young first pleaded not guilty but eventually pleaded guilty on all counts pursuant to a plea agreement with the government. Young thereafter sought to withdraw his guilty plea.

The United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania found that the issue was governed by Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 11(d)(2)(B), which provides that

[a] defendant may withdraw a plea of guilty or nolo contendere:...

(2) after the court accepts the plea, but before it imposes sentence if:...

(B) the defendant can show a fair and just reason for requesting the withdrawal.

The court then noted that courts in the Third Circuit apply a three part test for determining whether a defendant can withdraw a guilty plea under these circumstances, under which

The Court must consider: “(1) whether the defendant asserts [his] innocence; (2) whether the government would be prejudiced by the withdrawal; and (3) the strength of the defendant's reason to withdraw the plea."

Young's argument under the first factor was that "two witnesses to the robbery did not identify him as the person who robbed them." The problem for Young was that this evidence was disclosed to Young before he pleaded guilty, leading the court to conclude that

Young's bald claim of innocence [wa]s insufficient. First, although Young generally direct[ed] the Court to discovery that was provided to him, he d[id] not point to the specific evidence justifying his defense. Moreover, Young offer[ed] no reason to explain why he took a contradictory position before the Court, despite having possessed the evidence allegedly supporting his innocence before changing his plea to guilty.

Under the second factor, the court first noted generally that if Young were allowed to withdraw his guilty plea "'the government would be prejudiced by having to reschedule the trial, to provide once again protection for the endangered witnesses, and to expose these witnesses to further risk.'" More specifically, the court then found that

Young [wa]s one of four co-defendants who were to be tried together. One co-defendant pled not guilty, and, after a trial, was convicted on all counts. The other two co-defendants pled guilty and have been sentenced. Therefore,...Young...improperly previewed the Government's case against him, and the Government may [have] face[d] significant difficulty in obtaining the cooperation of the co-defendants who ha[d] been sentenced. Moreover, at the earlier trial of a co-defendant, one key witness was visibly apprehensive about testifying in this case, and another witness was threatened. Under these circumstances,...the Government would [have] be[en] prejudiced by having to once again protect these potential witnesses from danger.

Finally, under the third factor, the court indicated that Young's argument was that 

his attorney erroneously advised him that he was a Career Offender under the Guidelines and thus subject to a sentencing enhancement. Young contend[ed] that, had he known that he was not a Career Offender, and thus of his reduced sentence exposure, he would not have pled guilty, but rather would have gone to trial.

The court found, though, that Young's argument was meritless because he was, in fact a Career Offender. Thus, the court precluded Young from withdrawing his guilty plea.



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