Federal Criminal Defense: Guilty Plea Withdrawn
The overwhelming oppression of the government (especially when federal criminal charges are pending) can sometimes force someone to plead guilty when he or she may not actually feel that s/he has done anything wrong. Criminal Defendants are force to haggle between a lesser sentence and what has become known as a trial penalty: Should s/he decide to goto trial, a prosecutor may seek more charges and/or a larger amount of jail time should the Defendant be found guilty. At issue here in this federal criminal defense was a doctor who plead guilty to conversion, theft, of assets belonging to a health care program. (18 U.S.C. § 669(a)). The federal crime requires that the doctor acted "knowingly and willfully"— i.e., that he knowingly and willfully converted without authority assets belonging to a health care benefit program. See 18 U.S.C. § 669(a).
The Western District of New York Court notes the facts of this case: "Dr. Cheruvu entered a plea of guilty on May 25, 2018, pursuant to a Rule 11(c)(1)(C) plea agreement, to one misdemeanor count of Theft or Embezzlement in Connection with Health Care Matters in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 669(a). (Docket Nos. 221, 222). Sentencing was set for September 5, 2018. Thereafter, upon Dr. Cheruvu's request on August 13, 2018, sentencing was adjourned to November 28, 2018. On November 2, 2018." Interestingly, the guilty is plea is sought to be withdrawn on two grounds. The Court notes the applicable legal principles that set the stage for allowing the doctor-defendant to withdraw the guilty plea:
"A guilty plea should be an intelligent choice among the alternative courses of action open to the defendant." United States v. Adams, 448 F.3d 492, 497-98 (2d Cir. 2006)(internal quotation marks and citations omitted). Accordingly, Rule 11 requires district courts, before accepting a plea, to "inform the defendant of, and determine that the defendant understands," among other things, "the nature of the charge to which the defendant is pleading." Fed. R. Crim. P. 11(b)(1)(G). "The rule is designed to `protect a defendant who is in the position of pleading voluntarily with an understanding of the nature of the charge but without realizing that his conduct does not actually fall within the charge.'" Adams, 448 F.3d at 499-500 (quoting McCarthy v. United States, 394 U.S. 459, 467, 89 S. Ct. 1166, 22 L.Ed.2d 418 (1969)). A defendant may withdraw a plea of guilty "after the court accepts the plea, but before it imposes sentence" if he "can show a fair and just reason for requesting the withdrawal." Fed. R. Crim. P. 11(d)(2)(B). "While this standard implies that motions to withdraw prior to sentence should be liberally granted, a defendant who seeks to withdraw his plea bears the burden of satisfying the trial judge that there are valid grounds for withdrawal." United States v. Doe, 537 F.3d 204, 210 (2d Cir. 2008) (internal quotation marks omitted). "Whether to grant the motion falls within the broad discretion of the trial court." United States v. Fernandez, 734 F. Supp. 599, 602 (S.D.N.Y. 1990), aff'd, 932 F.2d 956 (2d Cir. 1991) (citing United States v. Sweeney, 878 F.2d 68, 70 (2d Cir. 1989)); Adams, 448 F.3d at 498 (a district court's ruling on a motion to withdraw a guilty plea is reviewed for abuse of discretion).
The defendant/doctor makes two principle arguments: "First, under Rule 11(d)(1), he has the absolute right to withdraw his guilty plea because it had not yet been accepted by the Court. Second, even if his guilty plea has already been accepted, he is entitled to pursue the motion for fair and just reasons under Rule 11(d)(2)(B), because his guilty plea did not comply with Rule 11—namely, he did not understand the nature and circumstances of the offense charged and there was no factual basis for the plea."
The Court must utilize the factors set forth by the Second Circuit, in determining [whether a defendant has shown a "fair and just reason" for the withdrawal of his plea:(1) whether the defendant has asserted his or her legal innocence in the motion to withdraw the guilty plea; (2) the amount of time that has elapsed between the plea and the motion (the longer the elapsed time, the less likely withdrawal would be fair and just); and (3) whether the government would be prejudiced by a withdrawal of the plea. Courts may also look to whether the defendant has raised a significant question about the voluntariness of the original plea.] Id. (citing United States v. Schmidt, 373 F.3d 100, 102-03 (2d Cir. 2004) (internal citations and quotation marks omitted)).
In making its analysis, the Western District of New York Court notes that the doctor, twice, inquired about the willfulness when compared to conscious avoidance. The Western District of New York hold that the "Defendant did not fully understand the nature of the charges to which he was pleading." Although there was a long period of time between the guilty plea and the time elapsed between trying to withdraw the guilty plea, the Western District of New York notes that "the Government has not convincingly demonstrated how 'it will be in a worse position than it would have been had [Dr. Cheruvu] proceeded to trial without pleading guilty.' " Id. citing United States v. Alazzam, No. CRIM. 3:08CR127SR, 2009 WL 1941833, at *5 (D. Conn. July 6, 2009). Lastly, and most disconcerting, is that "There is no clear indication from the plea proceeding that 'the conduct which [Dr. Cheruvu] admit[ted] constitutes the offense charged in the indictment or information or an offense included therein to which the defendant has pleaded guilty,' which is required in order for a plea to comport with Rule 11." Id. citing McCarthy, 394 U.S. at 467, 89 S. Ct. at 1171. The doctor admitted that his conduct amounted to "conscious avoidance," but he (and the Court highlights this) misunderstood to be sufficient to support a finding that he acted "willfully."
The case is US v. CHERUVU, No. 14-CR-130S (W.D.N.Y. Mar. 5, 2019). "A lack of a factual basis for a plea is a substantial defect calling into question the validity of the plea. `Such defects are not technical, but are so fundamental as to cast serious doubt on the voluntariness of the plea,' and require reversal and remand so that the defendant may plead anew or stand trial." Adams, 448 F.3d at 502 (quoting Godwin v. United States, 687 F.2d 585 (2d Cir. 1982) (internal citations omitted)). The allocution coupled with the allegations lends support that this Doctor-Defendant did not understand the burden the people carried in this case. The Western District of New York's notes that "there is no sufficient factual basis on the record that Defendant acted willfully" and allows the Defendant to withdraw his guilty plea.
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