Thursday, June 11, 2009

Carr Factors: "Close Assistance of Counsel" Not the Same Thing as "Ineffective Assistance of Counsel"

United States v. McKnight, No. 08-30229 (5th Cir. June 5, 2009) (O'Connor, Wiener, Stewart)

This case involves the appeal of a district court's denial of a motion to withdraw a guilty plea. Given the fact-intensive nature of the issue, a case like this ordinarily wouldn't be worth discussing here. But two aspects of the case merit mention: 1) the eyebrow-raising circumstances of the offense, and 2) the court's clarification of one of the factors relevant to the analysis.

What's eyebrow-raising about the case? DEA agents used a confidential informant to set up a man undergoing treatment for severe mental illness:
Before the arrest that led to the proceedings below, McKnight was diagnosed with and treated for paranoid schizophrenia, delusions, and major depression at the East Jefferson Mental Health Center (“Center”) in New Orleans, Louisiana. On June 1, 2005, while McKnight was undergoing treatment at the Center, agents with the Drug Enforcement Administration (“DEA”) arranged a purchase of two and one-fourth ounces of cocaine base from McKnight through cooperation with a confidential source (“CS”). On June 2, 2005, McKnight met the CS and an undercover agent in a parking lot located at a Walgreens. McKnight handed the undercover agent a package containing 61.6 grams of cocaine base and the agent handed McKnight $1,500.
McKnight was charged with, and pleaded guilty to, possessing more than 50 grams of crack with the intent to distribute it. "In exchange for McKnight’s guilty plea, the Government promised not to file a 21 U.S.C. § 851 recidivist bill and McKnight waived certain rights to appeal." The day after his rearraignment, "McKnight sent a letter to the district court where he expressed doubts regarding his decision to plead guilty." To make the rest of a long and troubling story short,
  • McKnight was found incompetent by two doctors.
  • The district court appointed new counsel for McKnight.
  • McKnight was sent to Butner for restoration of competency, where doctors concluded he was malingering.
  • McKnight "moved to withdraw his guilty plea based on lack of competency at the time he pled guilty and ineffective assistance of counsel."
  • McKnight was sent back to Butner, where doctors again concluded he was malingering, and that he was competent at the time of his plea.
  • The district court held a hearing on the ineffective assistance claim, denied McKnight's motion to withdraw his guilty plea, and sentenced him to 292 months' imprisonment.
McKnight appealed the district court's denial of his motion to withdraw his guilty plea. In determining whether the district court abused its discretion in doing so, the court of appeals considers the seven "Carr factors." And therein lies the second reason for discussing this case. One of the Carr factors is whether the defendant received "close assistance of counsel." Both in the district court and on appeal, "McKnight framed his argument that he lacked close assistance of counsel as a 'claim' of 'ineffective assistance of counsel.'" Incorrect, said the court:
Close assistance of counsel under Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure (“Rule”) 11(d)(2)(B) and constitutionally ineffective assistance of counsel under the Sixth Amendment are distinct issues. The former is to be considered by a district court in the exercise of its discretion to allow or to disallow a defendant to withdraw his guilty plea. The latter presents a basis for invalidating a conviction (or sentence) secured in violation of a defendant’s fundamental right to counsel. McKnight moved to withdraw his guilty plea under Rule 11(d)(2)(B). He has not sought to invalidate his conviction under the Sixth Amendment or any other provision of law. Thus, McKnight erred in framing his close assistance of counsel claim before the district court and this Court as a Sixth Amendment inquiry.
The court went on to consider the facts under correct standard at length, and concluded that McKnight received close assistance of counsel. On another Carr factor—whether the guilty plea was knowing and voluntary—the court held in conclusory fashion that the district court did not clearly err in relying on the Butner doctors' reports declaring McKnight a malingerer. Most of the rest of the Carr factors weighed against an abuse of discretion, so the court of appeals ultimately affirmed McKnight's conviction.

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Blogger Texas Lawyer said...

I found this case sort of disgusting. Respectfully speaking, sometimes it feels like the other side is cheating. And by the other side I mean the court.

6/12/2009 09:02:00 AM  

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