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Seventh Circuit Finds Plain Error Where Guilty Plea Accepted Without Rule 11 Colloquy

by Christopher Zoukis

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit reversed a conviction pursuant to a guilty plea that the district court accepted, but was not accompanied by a Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 11 colloquy. The January 25, 2018, opinion remanded the case for entry of a new plea.

Ricky Olson was indicted on charges of distributing sexually explicit photographs of his minor daughter in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 2252(a)(2). He initially pleaded guilty on April 6, 2016, pursuant to a plea agreement in which the government agreed to dismiss several charges and to recommend a sentence of not more than 180 months. Before accepting the plea, the district court conducted a Rule 11 colloquy.

Olson changed his mind soon after pleading guilty, however. On August 26, 2016, he moved to withdraw his guilty plea, and his attorney moved to withdraw from representation. Olson explained to the court that he hadn’t understood the plea agreement and that his attorney had given him bad advice. The district court granted both motions.

With a new attorney on board, Olson changed his mind again. On September 9, 2016, he appeared in court and said he would plead guilty and “throw [him]self at the mercy of the court.” His attorney suggested that the district court deny the (already granted) August 26 motion to withdraw the guilty plea. The court did so, but it did not hold a Rule 11 colloquy. On September 26, 2016, Olson was sentenced to 180 months imprisonment.

Once again, Olson changed his mind. He appealed, arguing that the district court plainly erred when it dispensed with a Rule 11 colloquy at the September 9 hearing.

Given the fact that Olson truly seemed to not understand the conduct or charges to which he pleaded guilty, the Seventh Circuit took the opportunity to explain the importance of the Rule 11 colloquy requirements. The district court must address the defendant personally, in open court, and must ensure that the defendant understands his rights and the consequences of the plea. The judge must also ensure that the guilty plea is voluntary and that it is supported by a factual basis. “Rule 11,” wrote the Court, “helps to ensure compliance with the constitutional rule that a guilty plea must be knowing and voluntary.”

The Court applied plain error review to the district court’s failure to comply with Rule 11. In order to successfully show plain error, Olson needed to establish: “(1) an error, (2) that is plain or obvious, (3) that affects his ‘substantial rights,’ and (4) that ‘seriously affect[s] the fairness, integrity, or public reputation of judicial proceedings.’” Puckett v. United States, 556 U.S. 129 (2009).

The error itself was easily established. The government argued that no Rule 11 colloquy was necessary because Olson had already pleaded guilty on April 6 and had received the proper colloquy then. The Court disagreed, finding that the April 6 plea could not have been “reinstate[d]” by the district court. The September 9 plea was therefore a change from the August 26 plea of “not guilty” to “guilty,” triggering the requirement for a Rule 11 colloquy. Dispensing with the colloquy on September 9 was plain and obvious error, according to the Court.

The Seventh Circuit also found that this failure prejudiced Olson’s substantial rights. The government argued that the April 6 colloquy was enough to demonstrate that the September 9 plea was voluntary and intelligent, and thus the error did not prejudice Olson. Looking at the entire record, the Court disagreed. Even at the April 6 hearing, where the Rule 11 colloquy was properly given, Olson demonstrated that he may not have understood what he was pleading guilty to. And Olson most likely did not understand the consequences of his various pleas, because as of September 9, the government could have considered the original plea breached and pursued all charges.

Indeed, the Court was not even sure about what might have happened and said, “When we as judges cannot determine the legal consequences of Olson’s plea, we decline to conclude that he could.” Thus, the district court’s failure to provide a Rule 11 colloquy was plain error that required reversal.

Accordingly, the Seventh Circuit reversed Olson’s conviction and remanded his case to the district court for further proceedings consistent with this opinion. See: United States v. Olson, 880 F.3d 873 (7th Cir. 2018). 

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Related legal case

United States v. Olson



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