Published on: Monday, November 8, 2021

A defendant who pleaded guilty to a drug charge can’t withdraw his plea, even though he said it wasn’t knowing and voluntary, the Second Circuit held Thursday (article available here).

Rule 11 of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure says that a defendant can withdraw a plea before sentencing if he “can show a fair and just reason for requesting a withdrawal.” The court clarified that the government, not the defendant, must show that an error in the pleading process was harmless, and therefore appropriate for withdrawal.

Rico Freeman sought to withdraw his plea because the judge misstated the applicable mandatory minimum term of supervised release. The judge said it was five years, when it was 10. Freeman was ultimately sentenced to 15 years’ imprisonment and 10 years supervised release.

Freeman argued that because of the misstatement, his plea wasn’t knowing and voluntary, and that the error wasn’t harmless. The government said that Freeman had to show that the district court abused its discretion.

Both parties were wrong, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit said, noting that its past “decisions reviewing the denial of a defendant’s motion to withdraw based on an alleged Rule 11 error have not always been consistent or a model of clarity.”

The court held that the record here showed that Freeman would have pleaded guilty even if he knew the correct minimum for supervised release, and thus the error didn’t affect his substantial rights.