Pursuant to a written plea agreement, Defendant-Appellant Stacy Lee Harden pled guilty to possession with the intent to distribute cocaine. With Harden's consent, the district court instructed a magistrate judge to conduct a Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 11 plea colloquy under a local rule allowing for magistrate judges to accept felony guilty pleas. The magistrate judge accepted Harden's guilty plea, and the district court then conducted a sentencing hearing and imposed sentence. Harden now appeals the magistrate judge's acceptance of his guilty plea, arguing that the magistrate judge's acceptance of a felony guilty plea, instead of preparing a report and recommendation to the district court, was a violation of the Federal Magistrates Act, 28 U.S.C. section 636; Rule 59 of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure, and the United States Constitution.In examining the importance of the guilty plea, the court stated:
“[A] guilty plea is a waiver of important constitutional rights designed to protect the fairness of a trial.” Johnson v. Ohio, 419 U.S. 924, 925 (1974). It is “more than an admission of past conduct: it is the defendant’s consent that judgment of conviction may be entered without a trial—a waiver of his right to trial before a jury or judge.” Brady v. United States, 397 U.S. 742, 748 (1970). In addition to waiving these core rights and protections afforded by our system of criminal justice, defendants often waive their appellate and habeas corpus rights as well. In such cases, accepting a guilty plea is even more final than a guilty verdict. Consequently, when a judge accepts a guilty plea, the judge is required to conduct a long, searching colloquy, as required by Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 11(b), to ensure that the defendant’s waivers of his important rights are “voluntary ... knowing, intelligent acts done with sufficient awareness of the relevant circumstances and likely consequences.” Brady, 397 U.S. at 748.The court then went on to rule that just as a magistrate may not conduct a felony trial, even with the consent of the parties, a magistrate may not accept a guilty verdict in a felony case.
That same limiting principle (that magistrate judges may not conduct felony trials) leads us to our conclusion that the acceptance of a guilty plea in a felony case, a task no less important, is also not authorized by the statute. In accepting Harden’s guilty plea, even with his consent, the magistrate judge violated the Federal Magistrates Act.
We note that our reasoning places us in conflict with several of our sister circuits. There is widespread agreement that a magistrate judge may conduct a Rule 11(b) colloquy for the purpose of making a report and recommendation. See, e.g., United States v. Reyna-Tapia, 328 F.3d 1114, 1119–22 (9th Cir. 2003) (en banc); United States v. Torres, 258 F.3d 791, 796 (8th Cir. 2001); United States v. Dees, 125 F.3d 261, 263, 265 (5th Cir. 1997); United States v. Williams, 23 F.3d 629, 631– 34 (2d Cir. 1994). We agree that this is a permissible practice (and are told that that the district court for the Southern District of Illinois now delegates the conduct of a plea colloquy to a magistrate judge only when a report and recommendation on the plea is sent back to the district judge). Several circuits go further and authorize magistrate judges to accept felony guilty pleas with the parties’ consent. See United States v. Benton, 523 F.3d 424, 431–32 (4th Cir. 2008); United States v. Woodard, 387 F.3d 1329, 1332–33 (11th Cir. 2004); United States v. Ciapponi, 77 F.3d 1247, 1250–52 (10th Cir. 1996). Those courts place great import on the statement in Peretz that “Congress intended to give federal judges significant leeway to experiment with possible improvements in the efficiency of the judicial process....” 501 U.S. at 932.The case then concludes by noting the importance of plea bargaining today and the need to protect defendant's rights during this stage of the proceedings.
The desire to make more efficient the district courts’ management of large criminal caseloads is understandable. These days, over 97% of criminal convictions are the result of guilty pleas. See “Statistical Tables for the Federal Judiciary,” Table D-4 (June 2013) (finding that of 84,060 total criminal convictions in a twelve-month period, 81,955 were the result of guilty pleas). Truly, “criminal justice today is for the most part a system of pleas, not a system of trials.” Lafler v. Cooper, 132 S. Ct. 1376, 1388 (2012). Yet, the prevalence of guilty pleas does not render them less important, or the protections waived through them any less fundamental. A felony guilty plea is equal in importance to a felony trial leading to a verdict of guilty. And without explicit authorization from Congress, the district court cannot delegate this vital task. The authority to experiment set forth in Peretz is bounded; the Court has never suggested that magistrate judges, with the parties’ consent, may perform every duty of an Article III judge, regardless of the duty’s importance. (some internal citations omitted)