Thursday, April 12, 2012
Last week, in a blog entitled "DOJ's Lafler/Frye Motion Goes Too Far," I expressed a strong objection to that prong of the DOJ application that requests that the defense lawyer submit an ex parte document signed by him and the defendant explaining defense counsel's reasoning for rejecting a plea. See here.
I, however, found "generally unobjectionable" the request that the defense lawyer report the plea offer and its rejection in open court. I have, upon reconsideration, changed my mind somewhat and come to the conclusion that plea offers and rejections should not be announced in front of the judge. Rather, any necessary record should be made in writing and not made public, if at all, until the case has been concluded. Such a procedure should amply satisfy DOJ's desire to avoid or minimize post-conviction attacks based on a failure to advise (but admittedly not a failure to give adequate advice).
I fear that if plea offers were to be publicly announced, it could affect the severity of some offers, put arguably inappropriate material before the court, and lead to occasional posturing by both prosecutors and defense lawyers. A prosecutor who is concerned about the legal sufficiency of her case might be hesitant to offer a seemingly lenient plea because she fears that a low plea offer might signal the weakness of her case to the judge, who in the event of a trial, will rule on sufficiency, and perhaps even be the trier of fact. Indeed, she might make an exceedingly harsh offer or no offer at all in the hope that the judge be led to believe she feels she has a strong case. Somewhat similarly, a defense lawyer's announced rejection of a lenient plea, especially if unaccompanied by commentary about the lack of merit of the prosecution, might convey to the triers of fact, the judge or in highly-publicized cases potential jurors, a message that the prosecution case is weak.
Additionally, a prosecutor's failure to offer what a judge believes is a reasonable plea offer or a defendant's rejection of such a plea might well have an adverse effect on a judge with an especial concern in processing cases quickly or keeping his workload in check.
For these and other reasons, most, perhaps all, federal courts prohibit a judge from engaging in plea discussions. (See Fed.R.Crim.P. 11(e)(1): "An attorney for the government and the defendant's attorneys . . . may discuss and reach a plea. The court must not participate in those discussions . . . .") Arguably, a judge's silent awareness of a plea offer and rejection may not be considered "participation," but that is a thin distinction.
Of course, in some jurisdictions, such as New York state courts, judicial involvement in plea bargaining is the norm.