Eighth Circuit Reverses District Court's Improper Denial of Government's Motion to Dismiss Counts: Bernard
United States v. Bernard, No. 21-3412 (8th Cir. 2022)
Bernard was charged in a five-count indictment with multiple crimes including robbery under 18 U.S.C. 2111. Bernard was offered a plea agreement wherein she could plead guilty to the one count of robbery in exchange for dismissal of the remaining four charges. Consistent with the plea agreement, Bernard pled guilty. However, when it came time for the prosecutor to move to dismiss the remaining charges, the district court refused to dismiss the other counts.
Instead, the court held an evidentiary hearing to allow victim testimony. After listening to the testimony, the court announced that it would reject the plea agreement because, in its view, the statutory maximum did not adequately reflect the seriousness of the crimes committed.
The court then set a trial date for the remaining four counts. At the start of trial, the government again moved to dismiss the counts consistent with the promises it made in the plea agreement. Once again, the district court dismissed the motion.
Thereafter, both Bernard and the government appealed the district court’s rulings. On appeal, the Eighth Circuit reaffirmed the government’s significant discretion as a part of the Executive branch to make charging decisions. Even so, the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure require a district court grant leave to dismiss any charged counts. Fed. R. Civ. P. 48(a). However, while the district court does have some level of discretion in the matter, it is limited by the separation of powers.
A district court can only exercise its discretion to withhold permission to dismiss counts only in the rarest of cases, such as prosecutorial harassment or where dismissal of the charges “would be clearly contrary to manifest public interest.” But for dismissal to be clearly contrary to public interest, the prosecutor must have had an illegitimate motive in bad faith-such as acceptance of a bribe, personal dislike of the victim, dissatisfaction with the jury.
Ultimately, the Eighth Circuit determined none of these scenarios aptly described the district court’s ruling. Rather, the judge merely disagreed with the prosecutor’s assessment of the penalty the defendant should face. Accordingly, the Eighth Circuit reversed the decision of the district court and remanded with instruction to grant the government’s motion to dismiss the remaining four counts of the indictment.
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