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Eighth Circuit Vacates Sentence After District Judge 
Interfered With Plea Negotiations and Made Disparaging 
Remarks About Federal Judiciary

by Douglas Ankney

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit vacated Seneca Harrison’s sentence because the judge for the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Missouri interfered with plea negotiations and made disparaging remarks about the federal judiciary.

The Government offered Harrison a deal where, in exchange for his guilty plea, both sides could argue for a sentence between the recommended Guidelines range of 70 to 87 months on a charge of felon in possession of a firearm. At the plea hearing, Harrison stated “we can, like, get this out of the way, like, right now today” because he did not “even [want to] go to trial.”

But upon hearing that a Guidelines-range sentence was all that the Government was offering, the district judge said “[t]hat’s probably worse than if he got convicted right? I mean, because if he gets convicted, he can argue for less, right?” The judge excused the prosecutor from the courtroom and then told Harrison that the federal system “sucks” and is “really harsh.”

The judge then offered advice that if Harrison were to plead guilty he would be sentenced by a less lenient judge, but if Harrison chose to go to trial that other judge would be out of the picture.

Harrison listened to the judge’s advice and proceeded with a bench trial. The judge convicted him. Because Harrison chose to go to trial, he did not get a deduction in Guidelines points for acceptance of responsibility. U.S.S.G. § 3E1.1 cmt. n.2. This subjected Harrison to a new Guidelines range of 92 to 115 months. The judge sentenced him to 92 months. Harrison appealed, arguing, inter alia, he would have pleaded guilty if not for the judge’s advice.

Because Harrison never objected to the district court’s comments, the Eighth Circuit reviewed for plain error. United States v. Thompson, 770 F.3d 689 (8th Cir. 2014). To prevail, Harrison had to show there was a plain error that affected his substantial rights. Id. Even then, the Court may exercise its discretion to correct the error only if it seriously affected the fairness, integrity, or public reputation of judicial proceedings. United States v. Pirani, 406 F.3d 543 (8th Cir. 2005). That plain error occurred was easily shown because it was a bright-line rule established by the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure, Rule 11(c)(1), that a district court cannot participate in plea negotiations or plea discussions. United States v. Washington, 109 F.3d 459 (8th Cir. 1997).

To demonstrate that the error affected his substantial rights, Harrison had to show a reasonable probability that, but for the district court’s error, the result of the proceeding would have been different. United States v. Dominguez Benitez, 542 U.S. 74 (2004). A reasonable probability is one that “is sufficient to undermine confidence in the outcome of the proceeding.” Id. The Court reasoned that Harrison’s remarks about not wanting a trial and settling the matter that day were sufficient to establish a reasonable probability that he would have pleaded guilty and been subjected to a term of imprisonment below the one he actually received after going to trial.

Consequently, Harrison’s substantial rights were affected, the Court concluded.

Having found plain error, the Court chose to exercise its discretion to correct the error, determining that commenting on the sentencing practices of another judge and stating the federal system “sucks” harmed the “public reputation of judicial proceedings.” Further, offering advice that actually exposed Harrison to a higher sentencing range raised serious questions about fairness.

The Court concluded that Harrison’s sentence should be vacated and the case remanded for resentencing before a different judge. United States v. Rogers, 448 F.3d 1033 (8th Cir. 2006). Accordingly, the Court vacated the sentence and remanded for resentencing before a different judge. See: United States v. Harrison, 974 F.3d 880 (8th Cir. 2020). 

Related legal case

United States v. Harrison

 

 

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