Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals - Published Opinions

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Davila: Magistrate Judge's "Highly Improper" Comments did not pressure guilty plea

In U.S. v. Davila, Nos. 10-15310 & 11-10224 (April15, 2014), on remand from the Supreme Court, see U.S. v. Davila, 133 S.Ct. 2139 (2013) (a court’s improper participation in plea discussions does not by itself demand automatic vacatur of a plea), the Court held that in light of the “full record” Davila had not established prejudice from a Magistrate Judge’s comments encouraging him to plead guilty, and therefore affirmed the conviction. The Court noted that it was reviewing the issue for plain error because Davila did not object to the Magistrate Judge’s comments. The Court noted that it applied the contemporaneous objection rule even in situations where counsel may have no desire to object. Further, TDavila did not object during the months when he represented himself pro se. The Court noted that the Magistrate Judge’s remarks encouraging Davila to plead guilty constituted error, and the error was plain. But the Court found that the error did not affect Davila’s substantial rights. Citing its recent decision on a similar issue in U.S. v. Castro, the Court determined that Davila pled guilty “to shorten the duration of his inevitable sentence.” Davila stated at his change-of-plea hearing that no one pressured him to plead guilty. The Court found some merit in Davila’s claim that his plea was a “desperate gambit” when everyone seemed aligned against him, but ultimately found that he pled guilty “simply because he had negotiated a better deal” than was initially offered. The Court also noted the lapse of time between the Magistrate Judge’s comments and the guilty plea. Though recognizing that the Magistrate Judge’s comments regarding the desirability of a guilty plea were “emphatic and highly improper,” the Court found that this was not enough to show prejudice, in light of the full record.