United States District Court, W.D. Missouri, Western Division
RECOMMENDATION TO ACCEPT DEFENDANT'S GUILTY PLEA
ROBERT E. LARSEN, Magistrate Judge.
On April 28, 2015, I held a change-of-plea hearing after this case was referred to me by Chief United States District Court Judge Greg Kays. I find that Defendant's plea is voluntary and therefore recommend that it be accepted.
On October 7, 2014, Defendant was indicted, inter alia, with possession of a firearm in furtherance of a drug-trafficking crime, in violation of 18 U.S.C. §§ 924(c)(1)(A) and (c)(1)(A)(i). A change-of-plea hearing was held on April 28, 2015. Defendant was present, represented by appointed counsel P.J. O'Connor. The government was represented by Assistant United States Attorney Mike Green. The proceeding was recorded and a transcript of the hearing was filed on April 29, 2015 (Doc. No. 37).
II. AUTHORITY OF THE COURT
The authority of federal magistrate judges to conduct proceedings is created and defined by the Magistrates Act, 28 U.S.C. § 636. Besides certain enumerated duties, the Act provides that a "magistrate may be assigned such additional duties as are not inconsistent with the Constitution and the laws of the United States." 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(3).
The Eighth Circuit, following the reasoning of several other circuits, has held that magistrate judges may preside over allocutions and pleas in felony cases, so long as certain procedural safeguards are met. United States v. Torres, 258 F.3d 791, 795-96 (8th Cir. 2001); see also United States v. Dees, 125 F.3d 261 (5th Cir. 1997), United States v. Williams, 23 F.3d 629 (2d Cir. 1994). The reasoning applied by the appellate courts relies upon previous opinions by the United States Supreme Court that conducting jury voir dire falls within a magistrate judge's "additional duties" when the defendant has consented. See Torres, 258 F.3d at 795 (citing Peretz v. United States, 501 U.S. 923 (1991); Gomez v. United States, 490 U.S. 858 (1989)).
In Peretz, the Supreme Court held that when a defendant consents to a magistrate judge's involvement in voir dire, he waives any objection based on his right to have an Article III judge hear his felony case. 501 U.S. at 936. Moreover, the availability of de novo review by a district judge preserves the structural guarantees of Article III. Torres, 258 F.3d at 795. Applying the Peretz holding and adopting the reasoning of Williams, the Eighth Circuit held that the acceptance of guilty pleas bears adequate relationship to duties already assigned by the Magistrates Act in that "[a]n allocution is an ordinary garden variety type of ministerial function that magistrate judges commonly perform on a regular basis." Id . (quoting Williams, 23 F.3d at 633). Plea allocutions are substantially similar to evidentiary proceedings explicitly assigned by the Act. Id. at 796 (citing Dees, 125 F.3d at 265). Even if taking a guilty plea were considered to be of greater importance than those duties already assigned, the consent of the defendant saves the delegation. Id . "Consent is the key." Id . (quoting Williams, 23 F.3d at 633).
The Torres court also addressed the implications of such a delegation for Article III's case and controversy clause. Id . Because plea proceedings are submitted to the district court for approval, the court retains ultimate control over the proceedings and is not bound to accept a plea taken by a magistrate judge. Id . Moreover, the district court's de novo review of the plea proceedings contributes to the ministerial nature of the magistrate judge's role. Id.
Based on the above, I find that, with the consent of the defendant, the District Court may properly refer a felony case to a Magistrate Judge for conducting a change-of-plea hearing and issuing a report and recommendation on whether the plea should be accepted.
III. FINDINGS OF FACT
1. The parties consented to the delegation of the change of plea to the magistrate judge (Tr. at 2-3).
2. On October 7, 2014, Defendant was indicted with possession of a firearm in furtherance of a drug-trafficking crime, in violation of 18 U.S.C. §§ 924(c)(1)(A) and (c)(1)(A)(i). Defendant indicated that he understood the nature of the charge (Tr. at 4).
3. The statutory penalty is not less than five years but up to life imprisonment, a fine of not more than $250, 000, a supervised release term of not more than five years, and a $100 mandatory special assessment fee (Tr. at 5). Defendant was informed of ...