April 26, 2013

The Fourth Circuit Holds That A Plea Based on Law Enforcement Fraud Is Invalid, Even If The Person Is Guilty

October 29, 2007 started bad for Cortez Fisher.

He walked out of his house and the Baltimore police approached him (he lived in Baltimore). They asked to talk to him. He said no. He tried to drive away, but backed into a cop car.

He was arrested and searched - they found empty glass vials in his pants pocket.

The officers got a search warrant for Mr. Fisher's house and car, based on an affidavit by Baltimore DEA Task Force Officer Mark Lunsford.

548792_downtown_baltimore.jpgIn the affidavit, DEA Task Force Officer Lunsford said that he had talked to a confidential informant who was reliable and had helped him with a number of prior cases. The confidential informant said that Mr. Fisher sold drugs out of his house. DEA Task Force Officer Lunsford said that after hearing from the confidential informant, he personally had watched Mr. Fisher sell drugs from his car.

Law enforcement searched Mr. Fisher's house and car. They found drugs and a gun.

Mr. Fisher plead guilty to being a felon in possession of a firearm.

He was sentenced to ten years in prison.

One year later, DEA Task Force Officer Lunsford pled guilty to fraud for lying on affidavits in search warrants.

Now former-DEA Task Force Officer Lunsford said that Mr. Fisher's affidavit was one of the ones he lied in.

The District Court Holds That When Police Lie On A Search Warrant Affidavit It Isn't Necessarily A Miscarriage of Justice

Of course, as soon as the U.S. Attorney's Office learned that a man was in prison based on a lie, they immediately moved to vacate his conviction. A prosecutor's ethical mandate, of course, is to do substantial justice and protect the integrity of our system of justice.

No, wait, sorry, my bad. I must have misunderstood what a prosecutor is supposed to do. The U.S. Attorney's Office did exactly nothing.

Mr. Fisher, however, was understandably concerned that he had been convicted based on the word of someone who was now an admitted fraud.

He sent a letter to the district court saying that maybe he should have his plea taken back, since a law enforcement lie is a "but for" cause of his incarceration.

The district court held that this was not a good reason to withdraw a plea:

Unquestionably, if [Defendant] had known of Lunsford's criminal misconduct, he would have filed a motion to suppress, and the motion may well have been successful. Nevertheless, [Defendant] does not deny that he was unlawfully in possession of a firearm (as he admitted under oath during his Rule 11 colloquy). Under these circumstances[,] I cannot find that a failure to allow [Defendant] to withdraw his guilty plea would result in a "miscarriage of justice." Certainly, [Defendant] was denied of an opportunity to pursue a motion to suppress that might have been meritorious, but neither the Government nor his own counsel was aware of Lunsford's criminal misconduct at the time that [Defendant] entered his guilty plea and was sentenced. Therefore, it cannot be said that [Defendant's] counsel was ineffective or that the Government breached any obligation that it owed to him.

I don't understand how the district court could determine that "it cannot be said that . . . the [g]overment breached any obligation that it owed to" Mr. Fisher when it prosecuted him based on evidence obtained from a fraudulent affidavit. Wasn't ex-DEA Task Force Officer Lunsford a part of the government when he made the fraudulent affidavit?

The Fourth Circuit Holds That You Can Withdraw A Plea When It Is Procured By Fraud

The Fourth Circuit, in United States v. Fisher, took a different view:

This . . . is not a case where Defendant sought to withdraw his plea "merely because he discover[ed] long after the plea ha[d] been accepted that his calculus misapprehended the quality of the State's case or the likely penalties attached to alternative courses of action." Rather, Defendant's misapprehension stems from an affirmative government misrepresentation that "strikes at the integrity of the prosecution as a whole."

The Fourth Circuit was also good to note that just because Mr. Fisher was factually guilty doesn't matter - even a guilty person can suffer a miscarriage of justice.

Ultimately, the court of appeals found Mr. Fisher's plea was simply too compromised to stand:

Given the totality of the circumstances of this case--a law enforcement officer intentionally lying in a affidavit that formed the sole basis for searching the defendant's home, where evidence forming the basis of the charge to which he pled guilty was found--Defendant's plea was involuntary and violated his due process rights. Under these egregious circum- stances, Defendant was deceived into making the plea, and the deception prevents his act from being a true act of volition.

Though, as the court of appeal helpfully pointed out, the government can try Mr. Fisher again if want to put ex-DEA Task Force Officer Lunsford on as a witness at trial.

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