Saturday, March 10, 2018

Seventh Circuit Holds that Attorney Advising Client to Plead Guilty Without Discovery from the Government Was Strategic Decision Rather than Ineffective Representation (3/10/18)

In United States v. Jansen, 2018 U.S. App. LEXIS 5755 (7th Cir. 3/7/l8), here, Jansen pled to "to one count of wire fraud and one count of tax evasion."  He later sought to withdraw the plea, "arguing it was not 'knowing and voluntary' because of ineffective assistance of counsel."  In the plea agreement, the Government agreed to recommend the U.S.S.G. § 5K1.1 sentence reduction but only if he provided "substantial assistance."  Thereafter, Government determined that he had not provided substantial assistance and did not recommend the reduction.  That apparently caused Jansen to seek to withdraw his plea.  The district court took testimony sporadically over a long period and then concluded that his attorney at the time of the plea agreement -- Jansen had several attorneys over the course of the relevant events -- had not given ineffective assistance.

As I read the opinion, the principal factor which caused Jensen to seek to withdraw the plea was the Government's notice that it would not recommend the 5K1.1 sentence reduction.

In any event, the most interesting claim of ineffective assistance related to his attorney's failure to pursue discovery or other investigation before the plea agreement.  Jansen claimed that, had the attorney done so, Jansen would have had information that would have persuaded him not to plead guilty.  The larger background is that, in the course of legal representation in a criminal case, it is not uncommon for attorneys to advise clients to take certain action based on incomplete information.  Actually, that phenomenon is true of all of life.  The issue is when do we take action -- or recommend a course of action -- on the basis of information that we know is not complete?

That is what happened in the case.  To simplify the more complex facts, the attorney negotiating the plea had been substituted into the case after Jansen had decided to plead guilty and had, indeed, engaged the attorney to negotiate the plea.  That attorney apparently felt himself competent to negotiate the plea but not to handle the trial if a plea agreement were not reached.  The attorney, based on all the facts he knew and his discussions with the prosecutor, believed that Jansen was at significant risk for significant additional prosecutions and, for the wire fraud count to which he pled, a potentially higher sentence because of a change in the law.  Indeed, because of that change in the law, applicable to later years for which Jansen was at risk absent the plea, Jansen waived the statute of limitations on the fraud count year.  The attorney advised Jansen to accept the plea agreement based upon (i) the expectation that other charges which could be charged if the Government investigated would not be charged, and (ii) the Government would not assert that other conduct as relevant conduct.  Basically, the attorney felt it in Jansen's interest to truncate the Government's focus on the case, which if it continued may result in  greater damage.  In short, as the Court noted, the attorney's advice was "strategically motivated" and was not ineffective representation. 

The facts are more complex than that, but the case does set up the issue of just how much investigation is required.  This case appears to have its principal focus on the wire fraud count, with the tax count not being the main focus.  In pure tax cases, of course, given the timeline from investigation by CI or even with a grand jury if that is where it starts, the defendant's attorney will -- at least should -- in most cases know pretty much all of the relevant background and be able to reach a plea deal even without access to the discovery the Government would make in the criminal case if the criminal case proceeded without a plea deal. Should the attorney thus not recommend an early plea simply because there might be something in the discovery or further investigation that could influence the recommendation or can the attorney make his recommendation to forgo that discovery and investigation.  When is what is known enough even though the attorney cannot absolutely exclude the possibility of some exculpatory or mitigating evidence or just evidence that might influence the recommendation or decision under consideration?

Something to think about here.

There is also a reversal because the district court ordered tax restitution as a penalty.  The Court of Appeals reversed in order for the sentencing court to order tax restitution as a condition of supervised release.  (Apparently tax restitution was not agreed to in the plea agreement.)

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