Articles Posted in Pretrial agreements

Military law and practice requires that any pretrial agreement discussions be conducted between the defense, the prosecutors, and the convening authority.  The military judge is not allowed to be involved.  The military judge’s involvement is during trial when she reviews a PTA with the accused to ensure it is all transparent and that it’s terms do not offend law or significant policy considerations.  Historically, courts have been reluctant to permit agreements to incorporate terms that deprive an accused of basic fundamental rights. See e.g., United States v. Callahan, 22 C.M.R. 443 (A.B.R. 1956); United States v. Cummings, 38 C.M.R. 174, 177 (C.M.A. 1968); and United States v. Schmeltz, 1 M.J. 8 (C.M.A. 1975).  R.C.M. 705 specifically lists examples of permissible and impermissible terms in a pretrial agreement.

  • The Court of Military Appeals in United States v. Schaffer, 12 M.J. 425, 428 (C.M.A. 1982) opened the door to non-traditional bargained for PTA provisions when it expressly acknowledged a judicial willingness to accept more complex PTAs, especially when the proposed term is proposed by the accused and his defense counsel.  For some odd terms the courts don’t like:
  • An agreement providing for a reduction of the accomplice’s confinement sentence by one year for each occasion that the accomplice testified against his co-accused. The court in United States v. Scoles, 33 C.M.R. 226, 232 (C.M.A. 1963) held that the agreement “offered an almost irresistible temptation to a confessedly guilty party to testify falsely in order to escape the adjudged consequences of his own misconduct.”
  • In United States v. Spriggs, 40 M.J. 158, 162 (C.M.A. 1994), the PTA provided for a suspension of confinement and punitive discharge until such time as appellant completed a sexual offender program at his own expense. Appellant experienced financial difficulties resulting from his non-pay status and was not able to complete the program. Consequently, the CA vacated his suspension and the appellant was placed in confinement. The court held the term to be fundamentally unfair as it was an “unreasonably long” period of time for the appellant to comply with the offenders program and follow-up.
  • See United States v. Dawson, 51 M.J. 411 (C.A.A.F.1999) and United states v. Pilkington, 51 M.J. 415 (C.A.A.F. 1999). Both cases stand for the proposition that post-trial agreements will be affirmed if the new agreement was entered into voluntarily and knowingly by the accused. However, it is imperative that post-trial agreements be reached at arms-length.

Now along comes one of my favorite evidence Prof’s – Colin Miller.  Recently, the New York Times published, “Why Adnan Syed of ‘Serial’ Should Have Pleaded Guilty.”

Prof Miller observes: “I can’t say that I agree that Adnan should have pleaded guilty, but I do agree with the plea bargaining proposal mentioned in the op-ed. In fact, it’s the same argument I made in back in 2013 in my article, Anchors Away: Why the Anchoring Effect Suggests that Judges should be able to Participate in Plea Discussions, 54 B.C. L. Rev. 1667 (2013).”

A New York federal judge, Jed Rakoff, has proposed one reform: plea-bargaining conferences. In sealed proceedings, judges would examine each party’s position and recommend a nonbinding plea bargain. The plan needs to be refined . . .

The point under discussion is Judge Rakoff’s piece, “Why Innocent People Plead Guilty,” from The New York Review ofBooks, November 2014.  Here’s the nub of the argument.

I am driven, in the end, to advocate what a few jurisdictions, notably Connecticut and Florida, have begun experimenting with: involving judges in the plea-bargaining process. At present, this is forbidden in the federal courts, and with good reason: for a judge to involve herself runs the risk of compromising her objectivity if no bargain is reached. . . . [U]nlike the criminal plea bargain situation, there is no legal impediment to doing so [in civil cases]. But the problem is solved in civil cases by referring the settlement negotiations to magistrates or special masters who do not report the results to the judges who handle the subsequent proceedings. If the federal rule were changed, the same could be done in the criminal plea bargain situation.

As I envision it, shortly after an indictment is returned (or perhaps even earlier if an arrest has occurred and the defendant is jailed), a magistrate would meet separately with the prosecutor and the defense counsel, in proceedings that would be recorded but placed under seal, and all present would be provided with the particulars regarding the evidence and issues in the case. In certain circumstances, the magistrate might interview witnesses or examine other evidence, again under seal so as not to compromise any party’s strategy. He might even interview the defendant, under an arrangement where it would not constitute a waiver of the defendant’s Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination.

The prosecutor would, in the meantime, be precluded from making any plea bargain offer (or threat) while the magistrate was studying the case. Once the magistrate was ready, he would then meet separately with both sides and, if appropriate, make a recommendation, such as to dismiss the case (if he thought the proof was weak), to proceed to trial (if he thought there was no reasonable plea bargain available), or to enter into a plea bargain along lines the magistrate might suggest. No party would be required to follow the magistrate’s suggestions. Their force, if any, would come from the fact that they were being suggested by a neutral third party, who, moreover, was a judicial officer that the prosecutors and the defense lawyers would have to appear before in many other cases.



The military SVC programs have been ongoing for a little while.  So some signs of the good and bad are starting to show.  It is too early to tell if the issues are start-up issues or long term fixes, or cavitations or super-cavitations.  One aspect to be expected and not wholly rejected is alleged victims having more of a say in what happens in a case.  But how far can a victim and the SVC go in dictating what happens.

My good friend Dew_Process brought an Indiana professional discipline case to my attention and it is worth noting.  The issue for the prosecutor In re Flatt-Moore, No. 30S00-0911-DI-535 (Ind. January 12, 2012), was an allegation that she surrendered her discretion as a prosecutor during pretrial negotiations, to the victims money demands. The chief prosecutor had an established policy that they would not agree to a pretrial agreement unless both the police and victims agreed.

During a disciplinary hearing the IO found that the policy did not require or give the victim the right to dictate any restitution amount.  The IO found that the prosecutor had engaged in conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice.  That is found in Rule 8.4(d) of the Indiana rules of professionalism. The military Services follow the ABA Model Rules of professionalism, as published in Service regulations.  The ABA rule 8.4(d) is the same as that in Indiana. The Indiana court found the prosecutor had erred and violated the rule, and the issued a public opinion.

Interesting . . . The court agreed that there is largely unfettered discretion between the parties to negotiate an agreement so long as it does not violate the law, in not unconstitutional, and is truly voluntary.  And the court found that the agreement reached in the particular case was not unlawful and was approved. The issue was – for the prosecutor – that they gave all the power and negotiating decisions to the victim.  So how does that translate to a military sexual assault prosecution? You and your military defense lawyer are free to negotiate a pretrial agreement for just about anything.  The Supreme Court itself has stated that an accused can waive fundamental constitutional requirements of a trial.  United States v. Mezzaatto, 513 U.S. 196 (1995).

There are some matters that cannot be bargained away and the military appellate courts have been alert to unconscionable terms in a pretrial agreement.  For example, by executive order the President has declared that certain matters may not be bargained away.  R.C.M. 705(c)(1)(B).  An acceptable term is restitution.  As a military defense lawyer representing clients prosecuted under the UCMJ, I have negotiated such terms, including in sexual offense cases.

There is no “punishment” of restitution in the current UCMJ or Manual for Courts-Martial.  That doesn’t preclude creative lawyering.

The Indiana Supreme Court agreed that crime victims have and should have substantial input into the pretrial negotiation process, but they don’t and shouldn’t have is a veto.  To allow a veto usurps the prosecutor’s discretion to act on behalf of the state and the people. So if you and your military defense counsel are trying to negotiate a pretrial agreement and the prosecutor tells you that the CA would be willing but the victim says no, and they are bound by that no, mention this case to them. The interesting issue is whether you can make a pretrial motion on the issue – not sure about that.  Or do you take a deal and then bring it up with the military judge when she is doing the on the record inquiry as to the voluntariness of the deal.  For samples of prior appellate cases dealing with pretrial agreements, check here at the Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces (CAAF), or talk with your military defense lawyer.  It is far better to enter negotiations informed, rather than have a potential problem on appeal.