Worth your read-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.