48 F.3d 555 (D.C. Cir. 1995), 93-3172, United States v. Maddox

Docket Nº:93-3172, 93-3178.
Citation:48 F.3d 555
Party Name:UNITED STATES of America, Appellee, v. Danny MADDOX, Appellant. UNITED STATES of America, Appellee, v. Norman L. ROBINSON, Jr., Appellant.
Case Date:March 07, 1995
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit
 
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Page 555

48 F.3d 555 (D.C. Cir. 1995)

UNITED STATES of America, Appellee,

v.

Danny MADDOX, Appellant.

UNITED STATES of America, Appellee,

v.

Norman L. ROBINSON, Jr., Appellant.

Nos. 93-3172, 93-3178.

United States Court of Appeals, District of Columbia Circuit

March 7, 1995

Argued Jan. 19, 1995.

Rehearing Denied in No. 93-3172

May 12, 1995.

Page 556

Tracy A. Thomas, appointed by this Court, argued the cause, for appellant Maddox. With her on the briefs was Carol E. Bruce.

David P. Sutton argued the cause and filed the briefs, for appellant Robinson.

Timothy J. Heaphy, Asst. U.S. Atty., argued the cause, for appellee. With him on the brief were Eric H. Holder, Jr., U.S. Atty., John R. Fisher and Roy W. McLeese, III, Asst. U.S. Attys.

Before: EDWARDS, Chief Judge, WALD and BUCKLEY, Circuit Judges.

Opinion for the Court filed by Chief Judge EDWARDS.

HARRY T. EDWARDS, Chief Judge:

Appellants Danny Maddox and Norman L. Robinson challenge their convictions on a variety of drug-related charges stemming from their participation in a series of drug transactions with a police informant in 1992. Officers of the federal Drug Enforcement Administration ("DEA") arrested Maddox as he attempted to sell crack cocaine to the informant for the third time, and later arrested Robinson for supplying crack cocaine to Maddox. After a five-day trial, a jury convicted both men of conspiracy to distribute crack cocaine, distributing crack cocaine, and aiding and abetting the distribution offenses. The jury also convicted Maddox of possession of crack cocaine with intent to distribute, and ordered both appellants to forfeit $3500 in cash as the proceeds of their drug activity, along with two automobiles used to facilitate that activity.

Although appellants raise a number of issues on appeal, we need not address most of them because we agree with appellants that the District Court erred in rejecting their guilty pleas. Appellants twice sought to plead guilty prior to trial. The District Court rejected their first attempt after Maddox, in responding to questions posed by the trial judge, appeared to deny factual guilt of the relevant crime. Because the Government conditioned Robinson's plea agreement on the successful entry of Maddox's plea, the District Court's rejection of Maddox's guilty plea effectively precluded Robinson from pleading guilty. Subsequently, in the wake of this aborted plea proceeding, Maddox sent a letter to the District Court explaining that he misunderstood the judge's questions and still wished to plead guilty. The District Court rejected Maddox's renewed plea based solely on doubts about the voluntariness of the plea in view of the court's earlier colloquy with the defendant.

We hold that the District Court abused its discretion in rejecting Maddox's guilty plea the second time it was offered. While district courts must exercise discretion in deciding whether to accept or reject a guilty plea, that discretion is not unfettered. On the record before us, the trial judge was free in the first instance to reject Maddox's plea, because the appellant appeared reticent and seemed to deny guilt. But Maddox's subsequent explanation for his actions obligated the court to reconsider his plea when it was offered again. Instead, the District Court summarily rejected the renewed plea based solely on the judge's earlier observations of Maddox. Accordingly, we remand

Page 557

the case to the District Court with instructions to conduct new plea proceedings. If the pleas offered are satisfactory, the original plea agreements between the appellants and the Government should be accepted and the verdicts rendered by the jury should be vitiated.

I. BACKGROUND

Maddox and Robinson twice sold crack cocaine to a DEA informant during March and April of 1992. On each occasion, Maddox acted as an intermediary, arranging for Robinson to supply the drugs involved in the transaction. On July 30, 1992, Maddox again agreed to sell crack cocaine to the informant. Although Robinson was not present during this transaction, Maddox told the informant that Robinson had supplied the drugs to be sold. DEA agents arrested Maddox before the final transaction was completed, and later arrested Robinson.

On December 15, 1992, a grand jury indicted appellants on one charge of conspiring to distribute cocaine base, in violation of 21 U.S.C. Sec. 846 (1988), and two charges of distributing and aiding and abetting the distribution of cocaine base, in violation of 21 U.S.C. Secs. 841(a)(1), (b)(1)(A)(iii), (b)(1)(B)(iii) (1988) and 18 U.S.C. Sec. 2 (1988). In addition, the grand jury charged Maddox with two counts of unlawfully using a communication facility to facilitate the distribution of cocaine base, in violation of 21 U.S.C. Sec. 843(b) (1988), and one count of possessing 50 grams or more of cocaine base with intent to distribute, in violation of 21 U.S.C. Secs. 841(a)(1) and 841(b)(1)(A)(iii). Finally, the indictment sought the criminal forfeiture of $3500 representing the alleged proceeds of appellants'...

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