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Rule 11 Violations Result in Vacatur of Guilty Plea

The guilty pleas and convictions for Goliday's cases were overturned, even under a plain error review.

In Goliday, the Seventh Circuit vacated the guilty plea because of Rule 11 violations.

United States v. Goliday, No. 21-1326 (7th Cir. 2022)

History of Goliday's Case

Goliday was charged in a superseding indictment with three counts of possession with intent to distribute fentanyl, methamphetamine, and cocaine base, in violation of 21 U.S.C. 841(a)(1). He was also charged with conspiracy to distribute heroin, in violation of 21 U.S.C. 846. The government filed a notice of enhanced penalty pursuant to 21 U.S.C. 851 based on a prior felony drug conviction.

Plea Hearing

During Goliday’s plea hearing, the district court began by following the procedures set forth in Rule 11 of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure. The court described the charges to which Goliday was pleading guilty to and attempted to ensure an adequate factual basis for each offense.

Beginning with the conspiracy charge for heroin, the court explained that the elements of the offense required

  1. the government prove that a conspiracy existed
  2. it involved 1,000 grams or more of heroin
  3. Goliday “knowingly and intentionally became a member of that conspiracy.”

Goliday acknowledged his understanding of these elements. However, when the government presented its factual basis for Goliday’s plea to the conspiracy charge, the court questioned Goliday to confirm the statements were true. That is when the following exchange occurred:

COURT: Well, let me ask you this, do you agree that the government would be able to prove those facts that [it] just read into the record at a trial beyond a reasonable doubt if this case were to go to trial?

GOLIDAY: I don’t see how . . . I didn’t have that much drugs. I only had 80 grams of dope in my house at the time . . . .

COURT: Okay. Well, the question, then, is that there is no allegation that you had 1,000 grams or more of a mixture or substance that contained a detectable amount of heroin. It alleges that there was a conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute and to distribute heroin and the conspiracy involved 1,000 grams or more.

GOLIDAY: Yes, sir.

COURT: And is that true?

GOLIDAY: Yes, sir.

COURT: Okay. And the facts otherwise set forth in the factual basis [the government] read are accurate and true?

GOLIDAY: Yes, sir.

Based on this exchange, the district court found a sufficient factual basis to support Goliday’s guilty plea to conspiracy as charged. Goliday was sentenced to four concurrent terms of 180 months imprisonment, the statutory minimum for the conspiracy charge. Goliday appealed his conviction and sentence to the Seventh Circuit.

Appeal of Conspiracy Charge Due to Rule 11 Violation

On appeal, Goliday argued the district court never should have accepted his plea to the conspiracy charge. Goliday contended the district court erred by not ensuring that he understood the nature of the conspiracy charge and by not confirming the existence of facts sufficient to demonstrate a conspiracy.

Rule 11 requires “the court must inform the defendant of, and determine that the defendant understands,” the “nature of each charge” to which he is pleading guilty. Fed. R. Crim. P. 11(b)(1)(G). According to the Seventh Circuit, this step is a necessary requirement to ensure due process and that the defendant’s guilty plea is truly voluntary.

Further, Rule 11(b)(3) mandates that a court may not enter judgment on a guilty plea until it has made an independent determination “that there is a factual basis for the plea.” Fed. R. Crim. P. 11(b)(3). Failure to substantially comply with either requirement under Rule 11 could be grounds for vacating a guilty plea if the error was not harmless.

Review Under Plain Error

Here, however, Goliday never objected to the factual basis nor moved to withdraw his guilty plea in the district court. As such, the Seventh Circuit reviewed Goliday’s claim under the plain error analysis. As always, to succeed on a claim of plain error, the defendant must show that the error was clear or obvious, prejudiced the defendant’s substantial rights, and “seriously affected the fairness, integrity, or public reputation of the judicial proceeding.”

The district court explained to Goliday that the first element of a 846 conspiracy is that the conspiracy existed. The Seventh Circuit found this statement may have sufficed if, in the totality of the circumstances, other portions of the plea colloquy demonstrated that Goliday understood the charge against him.

But reviewing the entirety of the proceeding, it was clear that Goliday had significant confusion regarding the key element of the conspiracy charge: an agreement to commit a crime other than the crime that consists of the sale itself.

Misunderstanding Revealed

Once the government read its proposed factual basis, Goliday told the court he did not understand how he could be liable for 1,000 grams involved in the alleged conspiracy since he only possessed 80 grams himself. The appellate court found Goliday’s statement reflected a two-fold misunderstanding.

  1. First, he did not appreciate that he faced charges for entering into a more wide-reaching partnership beyond an agreement to buy particular quantities of heroin.
  2. Second, he did not understand the consequences of conceding that point, that he would be legally responsible for all drug amounts under the agreement and not just the quantities he possessed.

Further, the court of appeals determined that there was an insufficient factual basis to accept Goliday’s guilty plea to the conspiracy charge. The government’s proffered factual basis only represented that Goliday had a buyer-seller relationship. The court held that a prosecution based “only on evidence that a buyer and seller traded in large quantities of drugs, used standardized transactions, and had a prolonged relationship” leaves the jury to “choose between two equally plausible inferences” of a conspiracy and an ordinary buyer-seller relationship. In such a situation, the jury must acquit where the two inferences are equally likely. The Seventh Circuit found no reason that these same principles should not apply to a factual basis for a plea under Rule 11.

Evidence in Support of Plain Error

To demonstrate that the error affected Goliday’s substantial rights, he must show a reasonable probability that, but for the errors, he would not have plead guilty to the conspiracy charge. The court found that had Goliday understood the elements of the conspiracy, he would have known what the government would be required to prove at trial to obtain a conviction. But the court found no evidence from the factual basis for the plea that showed how the government could meet its burden.

As to the last prong, the Seventh Circuit determined that the errors were ones that affect the fairness, integrity, or public reputation of the judicial proceedings. The district court failed to ensure that Goliday had notice of the true nature of the charges against him, and its failure to ensure an adequate factual basis means the court may have allowed Goliday to plead guilty to an offense of which he is actually innocent.

Seventh Circuit Vacated Guilty Plea and Sentence

Accordingly, the Seventh Circuit vacated Goliday’s conspiracy conviction and remanded for further proceedings. And because the mandatory minimum sentence for the conspiracy conviction increased Goliday’s statutory minimum, his remaining sentences were vacated and the case remanded for resentencing.

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