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The Importance of Plea Bargaining without Judicial Interference in Internet Crime Cases

For defendants charged with Internet-related crimes, the issue of plea bargaining is an important one. When it looks like the government has a strong case, a defense attorney’s role is often to guide you through the plea-bargaining process and try to ensure that you get the most lenient sentence possible. This can be a delicate undertaking, involving many stages of negotiation. And often, only you and your lawyer really understand the position you’re in, which changes as pre-trial motions go on, such that you may be forced to make a decision about whether to accept a plea bargain on the eve of trial. For this reason, the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure have included a safeguard for the plea-bargaining process in the form of Rule 11, which prohibits the judge in the case from having any involvement in your plea negotiations with the government.

You might wonder why a judge ever would become involved in plea discussions. For one thing, judges — especially those who’ve been on the bench for a while — might develop opinions about which defendants should and shouldn’t accept plea bargains. These opinions may or may not be right, but in any event they aren’t formed with the advice of counsel, nor does the judge have any fiduciary responsibilities to you the way your lawyer does. In addition, the judge might have an interest in not having the case go to trial, and your accepting a plea bargain would prevent the trial from happening. And although Rule 11 strictly prohibits this kind of interference, sometimes it happens anyway.

An Example Case from Florida’s Federal Courts

The 2012 case of US v. Tobin provides an interesting illustration of this kind of judicial interference with plea bargaining in an Internet crime case. In Tobin, a number of Florida-based defendants were charged with operating a fraudulent prescription drug company through the Internet. Their company, which owned a significant number of online affiliates, allowed patients to simply complete a medical history questionnaire and then receive a doctor-signed prescription for almost any prescription drug. These included a number of illegal controlled substances. One of the defendants, however, elected to plead guilty.

On two occasion during the trial, the district court judge made comments about the level of sentence that the pleading defendant might or might not receive under the sentencing guidelines, and suggested that his purpose was to help the defendant decide whether or not to accept a plea deal. Although the trial judge evidently had good intentions — he explained on the record that he simply wanted to make sure all parties had complete information in making a decision — the law under Rule 11 is extremely strict. As the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals (which handles Florida) ultimately explained, the rule draws a “bright line” that judges may not cross. Comments on the plea-bargaining process, no matter how well intentioned, are categorically impermissible.

Experienced Counsel Will Protect Your Rights

If you’re facing charges for a similar Internet crime to the one the defendants faced in Tobin, you need effective representation who can ensure that, if there’s a plea bargain to consider, it will be negotiated fairly — without “helpful” remarks from the judge. Miami Attorney JeffreyS. Weiner, P.A. has the experience necessary to help you navigate the process.

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