Yesterday the Second Circuit vacated a conviction because a Northern District court violated the requirements of Rule 11 concerning the acceptance of a guilty plea. The summary order in United States v. Coffin (Walker, Raggi, Hall) is available here.
Mr. Coffin agreed to plead guilty to one count of possessing a firearm in furtherance of a drug trafficking crime, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 924(c)(1)(A) . “Rule 11 requires that the district court, before accepting a plea of guilty, ‘determine that the defendant understands . . . the nature of each charge to which the defendant is pleading.'” Slip op. at 3-4 (quoting Fed. R. Crim. P. 11(b)(1)(G)). The district court, however, did not adduce any facts that would establish such an understanding. Instead, it simply said that the plea agreement contained facts that would support his guilty plea, and asked Mr. Coffin whether those facts were true.
Cautioning that “district courts are well-advised to avoid” this practice, id. at 6, the Second Circuit reversed. Rule 11 requires the district court to ensure that a defendant understands the elements of the charge to which he is pleading. The panel cautioned that “[i]t will be the rare case where a district court’s simple incorporation of the facts contained in the plea agreement, without more, satisfies this strict obligation.” Id. at 5. In this case, Mr. Coffin was “understandably confused” as to which offenses he was pleading guilty. Id. at 6. (The plea agreement and charging documents erroneously referred to a felon-in-possession violation in addition to the. § 924(c) offense.) What’s more, the defendant acknowledged possessing a firearm, but disputed a number of facts relevant to whether the possession was in furtherance of a drug trafficking crime. “It is not apparent that Coffin would have made these assertions if he understood that he already stipulated to the fact that the firearm was used for drug trafficking . . . . Having . . . ‘incorporated’ the facts of the plea agreement into the record, the district court left this ambiguity unresolved, and thereby committed reversible error.” Id. at 5.
The Second Circuit has previously lamented the recurring failure of district courts to follow the requirements of Rule 11. See United States v. Pattee, 820 F.3d 496 (2d Cir. 2016) (discussed here). In a harsh footnote, the panel expressed its dismay that these failures continue:
We take special pause with the district court’s statement on the record that the approach it took here is “routine in the way in which I take a plea.” Reading the elements of a crime to a defendant during the allocution “is not a difficult task.” United States v. Pattee, 820 F.3d 496, 503 (2d Cir. 2016). We have recently expressed our regret that failure to adhere to Rule 11 is a “recurring issue,”id.at 503, and stated that we presume any flexibility district courts have to devise their own allocution procedures assumes that “the essential rights in Rule 11 will be covered in the plea colloquy, and [that] judges can assure that by devising their own scripts.”Id.at 503 n.3. We would avoid issues such as those we resolve today if the elements of the at-issue crime were a standard part of such scripts.
In Pattee, on plain error review, the Second Circuit declined to vacate a conviction based on a Rule 11 violation. Yesterday’s reversal in Coffin suggests that the court may start regulating the Rule 11 process with greater vigor.