8th Circuit Decision - Failure to Inform Defendant of Maximum Sentence Spoiled Plea

The 8th Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that a district court's failure to inform a defendant of the maximum sentence he faced when pleading guilty is not harmless error, even where the defendant was apprised of the lighter sentence the court ultimately imposed. According to the Court, harmlessness in this context turns on whether the defendant would have pleaded guilty had he been completely informed, not whether he actually received a sentence within the range of which he was informed.

United States v. Gray, 8th Cir., September 21, 2009:
The government’s argument fails, however, because the test for harmless error is whether the defendant's knowledge and comprehension of the omitted information would likely have affected his willingness to plead guilty. Gillen, 449 F.3d at 903. Thus, the question is not whether Gray was sentenced within the range of which the court did make him aware; rather, the question is, had Gray known of the full range to which he could be sentenced, would he have pled guilty in the first place. When a district judge simply understates a maximum penalty by a relatively small amount and a defendant is sentenced within that range, it is possible, maybe even probable, the slight understatement of the maximum sentence did not affect the defendant’s decision to plead guilty. In this case, however, the "judge did not understate the maximum penalty; rather, []he omitted mention of any maximum penalty." UnitedStates v. Jaramillo-Suarez, 857 F.2d 1368, 1372 (9th Cir. 1988) (holding the district court's failure to inform the defendant he could face a maximum of twenty years in prison was not harmless error, even though he was sentenced to the mandatory minimum, of which he was made aware). A complete failure to inform Gray of the maximum sentence is far different from the type of trivial understatement of a maximum sentence identified as harmless in the advisory committee’s notes to Rule 11. Given the complete failure to inform Gray he could be sentenced up to life in prison should he be found to be an armed career criminal, as well as Gray’s vociferous complaints upon learning the same, we cannot say with certainty that had Gray known of the accurate range of imprisonment he faced by pleading guilty, he would have pled guilty anyway.


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