Criminal Law Blog

Seeing Co-Conspirators Receive Better Plea Deals Is Not A Valid Reason To Withdraw A Guilty Plea

Long v. United States (decided Sept. 14, 2017)

Players: Chief Judge Blackburne-Rigsby, Associate Judges Fisher and Easterly. Opinion by Judge Blackburne-Rigsby. Charles E. Wagner for Mr. Long. Trial Judge: Anita Josey-Herring.

Facts: Mr. Long plead guilty to one count of conspiracy to defraud the District of Columbia and Office of Campaign Finance (OCF) in violation of D.C. Code § 22-1805(a)(1). The plea letter informed him that the charge carried a maximum sentence of five years imprisonment, a fine of $10,000, and a maximum of three years of supervised release. The agreement stated that Mr. Long “conspired with others, Jeffrey Thompson and Eugenia Harris, to defraud the District and OCF ‘by funding and concealing and by attempting to fund and conceal contributions to MAYORAL CAMPAIGN A for purposes of electing MAYORAL CANDIDATE A in excess of those permitted,’ ‘thereby obstruct[ing] and imped[ing] the due administration of the campaign finance laws.” Mr. Long signed a Statement of Offense, which explained the conspiracy in “great[] detail,” and, during the Rule 11 colloquy, acknowledged that the government’s proffer as to the facts of the crime was “correct.” Also, during the Rule 11 colloquy, Mr. Long said he understood that the maximum prison sentence he was facing was five years, his plea was in exchange for his cooperation in related cases, and that he was waiving certain constitutional rights. He also said he was “satisfied” with the performance of his counsel. The court then accepted his plea.

Nearly eighteen months later, but before sentencing, Mr. Long sought to withdraw his guilty plea, arguing that he was factually innocent of the conspiracy, that the Rule 11 inquiry was defective, and that he should be allowed to withdraw in the interest of justice because he received ineffective assistance of counsel due to co-conspirators receiving better plea deals. The trial court denied his request, ruling that while Mr. Long asserted his innocence generally he did not dispute any of the underlying facts, he was properly advised of the maximum prison term he faced, and the mere fact co-conspirators received better deals did not render his attorney ineffective as “every circumstance is obviously different.”

Issue 1: Did the trial court err in refusing to permit Mr. Long to withdraw his guilty plea when his request was made prior to sentencing?

Holding: No. The Court stated that whether to permit the withdrawal of a guilty plea is left to the discretion of the trial court and a defendant may withdraw a plea prior to sentencing by showing either a fatal defect in the Rule 11 proceeding or by showing that justice demands withdrawal under the circumstances of the case. The Court determined Mr. Long failed to make either showing.

First, Mr. Long contended there was a defect in the Rule 11 proceeding because he was only subject to a maximum of six months imprisonment for conspiracy, and not five years as was stated in the plea agreement, and because the trial court failed to confirm whether the factual proffer was sufficient. The Court disagreed with both contentions. The Court explained that because Mr. Long pled guilty to conspiring to defraud the District of Columbia, and not conspiring to commit a specific offense, he was subjected to the default five-year maximum prison term of conspiracy contemplated by the statute. See D.C. Code §22-1805a(a)(1). The Court also found there was a sufficient factual basis for the plea because the proffer alleged that Mr. Long worked with Harris and Thompson to defraud the District and OCF by concealing campaign contributions and he understood the intent was to conceal the payments, and that he knowingly worked with Harris and Thompson to convince “Mayoral Candidate C to drop out of the race and endorse Mayoral Candidate A ‘in exchange for a thing of value.’”

Second, Mr. Long contended it was fair and just to set aside his guilty plea because he asserted his actual innocence and because his counsel was ineffective. Again, the Court disagreed with both contentions. Mr. Long asserted his innocence by contending he did not personally contribute money to the campaign, but the Court agreed with the trial court’s reasoning that Mr. Long did not have to personally contribute money to be guilty of conspiracy and Mr. Long did not dispute any of the facts in the proffer that did establish conspiracy. Also, the Court added that “even assuming [Mr. Long ] made out a true assertion of innocence, the trial court was free to discredit [his] assertion of innocence in light of ‘the proffer made by the government, [his] sworn adoption of the facts contained in that proffer, and [his] own sworn admissions made at the time the plea was entered.”Also, the Court found no abuse of discretion in the trial court’s ruling that the nearly eighteen-month delay before Mr. Long sought to withdraw his plea—even though it did occur prior to sentencing—weighed against allowing him to withdraw it. Lastly, the Court saw no merit in Mr. Long's contention that his counsel was ineffective because other conspirators received better plea deals. The Court explained that “even assuming that they did” receive better plea deals, “everybody had different circumstances and the government was free to take into account the various considerations they did in making an appropriate offer.” The Court noted it is “not appropriate to compare the plea deals of [Mr. Long's] co-conspirators with his own, especially given the fact that their cases were held in federal District Court.”

Of note:  The Court’s opinion reinforces the uphill battle to withdraw a guilty plea, even when the request occurs prior to sentencing. The Court agreed that there was no abuse of discretion in a trial court weighing a delay of eighteen months, despite it still being prior to sentencing, against allowing a person to withdraw a guilty plea. Similarly, the Court wrote that even if a person asserts innocence, a trial court is within its discretion to discredit it. It thus remains critical that when seeking to withdraw a plea, more than a general claim of innocence is likely needed, but an assertion of innocence that, at minimum, would negate the elements at issue (or a key provision of any proffer that was agreed to during the Rule 11 colloquy). BM

Read the full opinion here.