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Eighth Circuit: District Court Erred in Denying Government’s Motion to Dismiss Charges as Part of Plea Agreement

by David M. Reutter

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit held that the U.S. District Court for the District of South Dakota abused its discretion in rejecting the Government’s request to dismiss four charges as part of a plea agreement.

Josue Alaniz was found seriously injured in his car. All he could remember was that he had given a ride to a woman named Tiffany Bernard and that the evening ended with a brutal beating at the hands of several men. The investigation moved slowly at first because Bernard denied involvement. She subsequently changed her story and explained how she had tricked Alaniz to drive her to a lake where three men were waiting to rob him. She gave the names of her accomplices but failed to mention that she put the plan together and set it in motion.

The Government charged each member of the group with five crimes. However, Bernard reached a plea agreement that allowed her to plead guilty to robbery in exchange for dismissal of the other charges. She completed the first step of pleading guilty to robbery, but at the second step, the district court refused to dismiss the other charges.

Instead, it held an evidentiary hearing in which Alaniz and his wife testified. After hearing their testimony, the district court rejected the plea agreement because it believed a statutory-maximum sentence for robbery “d[id] not adequately reflect the seriousness of the crimes committed against” Alaniz.

Nevertheless, the Government remained committed to holding up its end of the bargain. After the district court set a trial date on the remaining four counts, the Government moved to dismiss those charges. The district court denied the motion, explaining a dismissal would be “clearly contrary to the manifest public interest.” Both the Government and Bernard appealed, with Bernard also filing a petition for a writ of mandamus. The Eight Circuit consolidated all three cases and appointed amicus curiae to represent the district court’s position.

First, the Court determined whether it has jurisdiction under the collateral-order doctrine to review the district court’s denial of the Government’s motion to dismiss. See Cohen v. Beneficial Indus. Loan Corp., 337 U.S. 541 (1949). Under that doctrine, an order is both collateral and appealable if it “[1] conclusively determine[s] the disputed question; [2] resolve[s] an important issue completely from the merits of the action; and [3] [is] effectively reviewable on appeal from final judgment.” Will v. Hallock, 546 U.S. 345 (2006). Having found the type of order at issue is one of the few that fits into the category of interlocutory appeals, the Court concluded that it has jurisdiction. See United States v. Dupris, 664 F.2d 169 (8th Cir. 1981).

The Court then turned to the merits. The parties framed the issue around Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 48(a) (“Procedure 48(a)”), which permits the Government, “with leave of court,” to dismiss “an indictment, information, or complaint.” Although the text of that rule appears to cover dismissal of the entire indictment, not just part of it, the Court assumed without deciding that it also covers a partial dismissal.

While the Government is required to get “leave of court” pursuant to Procedure 48(a), that is not a “blank check for the district court to second-guess charging decisions,” the Court explained. To the contrary, “[f]ew subjects are less adapted to judicial review than the exercise by the Executive of his discretion in deciding … whether to dismiss a proceeding once brought.” United States v. Jacobo-Zavala, 241 F.3d 1009 (8th Cir. 2001).

The Court stated that courts “can exercise their discretion to withhold leave in only ‘the rarest of cases.’” In re Richards, 213 F.3d 773 (3d Cir. 2000). One example is where there has been “prosecutorial harassment,” e.g., a pattern of “charging, dismissing, and recharging” the defendant. Rinaldi v. United States, 434 U.S. 22 (1977). But there was clearly no harassment in the present case, only cooperation, the Court observed.

The only other example of the proper exercise of judicial discretion is when the court’s dismissal “would be clearly contrary to manifest public interest,” the Court stated. Id.; see also United States v. Garcia-Valenzuela, 232 F.3d 1003 (9th Cir. 2000). This involves situations in which the prosecutor has an illegitimate motive such as “acceptance of a bribe, personal dislike of the victim, and dissatisfaction with the jury impaneled.” United States v. Smith, 55 F.3d 157 (4th Cir. 1995); see also In re United States, 345 F.3d 450 (7th Cir. 2003) (explaining that district courts do not get to “play[] U.S. Attorney”). 

In the present case, the Court stated that the district court merely “disagreed with the prosecutor’s assessment of what penalty the defendant [] ought to face.” There was no suggestion that the Government acted in bad faith in seeking to dismiss the remaining charges; rather, the district court simply listed the reasons for why it thought Bernard was getting off too easy. The Court stated that those reasons “may be important factors to consider at sentencing, but they are not reasons to interfere with the government’s charging decisions….” Thus, the Court held that the district court erred in denying the Government’s motion to dismiss.

Accordingly, the Court reversed and remanded with instructions to grant the Government’s motion. See: United States v. Bernard, 42 F.4th 905 (8th Cir. 2022). 

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