Thursday, May 30, 2013

Speedy Trial Issues: Notice of Intent to File Guilty Plea Tolls Clock

United States v. Dignam, No. 12-30262 (May 28, 2013) (Davis, Graves, Higginson)

Notice of Intent to File Guilty Plea Tolls Speedy Trial Clock
The Fifth Circuit joined six other circuits by finding that the delay prompted by the parties’ notice of intent to file a guilty plea was excludable under 18 U.S.C. § 3161(h)(1)(D). Section 3161(h)(1)(D) excludes "delay resulting from any pretrial motion, from the filing of the motion through the conclusion of the hearing on, or other prompt disposition of, such motion." Why is a Notice of Intent to File a Guilty Plea considered a motion? Well, the panel reasoned, notice of intent to change a plea to guilty triggers Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 11, which requires the court to hold a hearing to accept that plea. So, such a notice is a pretrial motion per § 3161(h)(1)(D).

The panel rejected the district court’s conclusion that the notice of intent to file a guilty plea tolled the Speedy Trial clock pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 3161(h)(1)(G), which excludes "delay resulting from consideration by the court of a proposed plea agreement." In this case, the parties never filed the proposed plea agreement with the court, so the court could not have been probably considering it. The district court’s error, however, was harmless since the time was excludable under § 3161(h)(1)(D).

Successor Judge’s Articulation of Predecessor Judge’s Reasoning Satisfies Findings for "Ends of Justice" Continuance 
The panel also rejected Dignam’s arguments that turned on the fact that the original district judge passed away before he ever stated on the record the exact reasons for granting the defense attorney’s unopposed motions for continuances. The district judge who later took over the case made written findings as to why the deceased judge granted the continuances—"because of defense counsel’s need for additional preparation time following his total hip replacement surgery." The panel found that "[a] successor judge’s later articulation of a predecessor judge’s reasoning does not frustrate the ‘two-fold’ purposes of the [Speedy Trial] Act’s requirement that the court set forth its reasons for granting a continuance. Those purposes are, first, to establish ‘that a clear record will exist for appeal,’ and second, to ensure ‘that the trial court will carefully consider all relevant factors.’"

Open-Ended Continuance Resulting in 7-Month Delay Permissible
At one point, the district court granted a continuance due to defense counsel’s need to recover from hip surgery without setting a new trial date. The Fifth Circuit allows a district court to continue a trial indefinitely under § 3161(h)(7) "when it is impossible, or at least quite difficult, for the parties or the court to gauge the length of an otherwise justified continuance." Since the motion did not specify the amount of time the attorney needed to recover, the panel found that it was "quite difficult" to gauge the necessary length of the continuance, that the seven-month delay was not extreme, and that did not prejudice Dignam. Her conviction was affirmed.

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