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Judge crossed line in plea talks

A federal trial judge nudged a little too hard to get a defendant to agree to a plea deal, prompting an appeals court to vacate the defendant’s drug conviction.

Oluwaseun Sanya, accused of running a large-scale credit card fraud scheme, faced two rounds of charges in a Maryland federal court. Sentencing on a guilty plea to his first fraud offense was postponed to allow the government and Sanya’s defense lawyer to negotiate a plea that would cover all charges.

But when Sanya appeared before Greenbelt Senior U.S. District Judge Peter J. Messitte, his lawyer informed the court that Sanya had rejected the government’s offer.

Messitte began expressing his “strong preference” for Sanya to plead to the second set of charges so both matters could be consolidated for sentencing, according to Judge Diana Gribbon Motz’s Dec. 17 published opinion.

Messitte said a plea could “stand your client a lot better,” and spoke of the benefits of a “global resolution” or “global settlement.” The judge “strongly suggested that Sanya would receive a more favorable sentence” if he agreed to the plea deal. Otherwise, “who knows where the numbers go” if the defendant has “got a trial where he is going to face another package,” Motz quoted.

“Better to get this all wrapped in one” piece, instead of two pieces, the district judge told the defendant.

After hearing the trial judge’s “exhortations,” Sanya’s lawyer said his client was coming around to the idea of a “global resolution.” Five days later, Sanya pleaded guilty to access-device fraud and aggravated identity theft, and Messitte sentenced him to 212 months in prison.

Rule 11(c) says a court must not participate in plea discussions, and Messitte went over the line, the appeals court said, by repeatedly intimating that a plea was in Sanya’s best interests.

This was plain error that affected Sanya’s substantial rights, the panel said, “notwithstanding the district court’s good intentions.” The plea agreement Sanya ultimately signed “afforded him little in the way of benefits or concessions” from the government, Motz said. The court vacated the sentence and remanded for further proceedings before a different district judge.

In a concurring opinion, Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson III said Sanya’s case “is a close one, because the record hints at the kind of defendant gamesmanship that often masquerades as change of heart both on whether to proceed to trial” or to proceed pro se. But he agreed the defendant should be given the benefit of the doubt.

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