The vast majority of federal criminal cases are resolved through plea agreements.
There are a lot of advantages to pleading guilty, among them: the sentencing guidelines level will be lower under section 3E1.1 of the sentencing guidelines; a person can sometimes avoid a charge with a mandatory minimum; and the government will often offer some concessions in what it seeks at sentencing.
It makes sense that a person facing a federal crime would want to put herself in a better position for sentencing.
But only if she’s guilty.
The Eighth Circuit reversed a conviction and vacated a guilty plea where the factual record did not support a conclusion that the person pleading guilty committed the crime that she was pleading guilty to.
The case is United States v. Heid.
Ms. Heid wanted to help her son – what mother wouldn’t. When her son was arrested, she wanted to bail him out. She made some calls, collected some money, and took the money to the courthouse – with two bailbondsmen. She posted the bond and her son was released.
The federal government became convinced that Ms. Heid used drug money to secure her son’s bond. She was indicted, along with the two bailbondsmen and someone who contributed the money, for conspiracy to commit money laundering.
Ms. Heid pled guilty. She wanted to accept responsibility. She did not enter into a plea agreement – she just went to court and said she was guilty.
The district court judge accepted her plea, even though he said he didn’t know that she met the intent requirement in the statute. You see, to be guilty of money laundering, you have to both know that the money came from something illicit, and you have to know that the point of the transaction you’re entering into is to disguise that the cash came from something illicit.
But, because the bailbondsmen were going to trial soon, the district court thought he’d probably learn a lot more soon, so he was willing to accept the plea, subject to hearing about how the bailbondsmen were guilty later.
A funny thing happened on the way to the bailbondsmen’s conviction though. They were acquitted at trial.
Ms. Heid tried to withdraw her plea. The district court said no. The Eighth Circuit, reviewing the record, determined that there was no evidence in the record that Ms. Heid was actually factually guilty.
Specifically, there was no evidence about what she knew about the money’s source or that the point of giving the money to the bailbondsmen was to launder it.
Because there was no factual support for her plea, the plea was vacated.
It’s nice that her conviction was vacated because there’s no evidence that she was guilty. It would have been better if it happened sooner than six months before she’s set to be released from prison.