Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals - Published Opinions

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Brown: Plea Voluntary Even If Court does not explain essential elements of the offense

In U.S. v. Brown, No. 05-16128 (April 29, 2008), the Court affirmed the conviction and 235 month sentence of a defendant convicted of enticing a minor to engage in sexual activity, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 2422(b).
Reviewing the issue for plain error, the Court rejected the argument that Brown’s plea was involuntary because the district court did not explain the elements of the offense. The Court noted that the omission, while "not ideal," was not plain error, since the elements of the offense were not difficult to understand from the indictment and the factual description of his conduct. The Court recognized that a less than full explanation of the elements of the offense could impair a defendant’s understanding of possible defenses, and thereby undermine the voluntariness of his plea (an understanding of possible defenses being, the Court appeared to assume, just as essential to the nature of the offense as the elements that constitute it). However, no realistic offense could have made Brown forego a plea of guilt, given their "significant weaknesses."
The Court also rejected the argument that the plea was involuntary because Brown was not told he would eventually be sentenced as a career offender. The Court decline to reach, on direct appeal, the merits of Brown’s claim that the prosecutor misled him into believing that he would not be sentenced as a career offender.
The Court also rejected an Ex Post Facto challenge to the sentencing court’s reliance on an intervening Eleventh Circuit interpretation of "crime of violence" as a basis for making Brown’s § 2422(b) conviction qualify for punishment under the harsher career offender guidelines. The Court noted that the maximum sentence set forth in the U.S. Code provides a person with sufficient notice, for Ex Post Facto purposes, as to the possible punishment, and intervening caselaw interpreting the Guidelines is therefore "immaterial" to the analysis.
The Court further rejected the argument that the sentencing court violated his constitutional rights when it relied on Ohio docket sheets for the purpose of determining the nature of a prior conviction. The Court noted that the rule limiting the types of information a court can consider to determine the nature of prior convictions is not constitutional. Further, the docket sheets here were not unclear as to the nature of Brown’s prior convictions.
Turning the reasonableness of the sentence, the Court found that the district court’s failure to discuss mitigation evidence did not mean if failed to consider this evidence. The Court found the within-Guideline sentence "reasonable." Finally, the Court rejected the argument that "pervasive bias" infected the sentencing court’s sentencing.