We'll Take Your Word for It: Court Upholds Denial of Brady Motion and Motion to Withdraw from Guilty Plea

Plea agreements frequently do not play out the way defendants intended. They do not, however, frequently play out like Rebecca Stampe's plea agreement in United States v. Stampe.

Charged with conspiring with her co-defendant, Michael Loden, to distribute at least 500 grams of methamphetamine, Stampe decided to enter into a "binding" plea pursuant to Fed. R. Crim. P. 11(c)(1)(C) and cooperate with the Government in its case against Loden. After the district court accepted her plea, however, the Government made an abrupt about face and dropped the case against Loden, explaining that "circumstances apart from evidence of. . .guilt" prevented it from moving forward with his case. It told Stampe it was not dropping the charges against her, however, asserting that the dismissal did not affect its case against her and that it related to inappropriate conduct by a confidential informant. 

Stampe filed two motions seeking relief from the district court. First, she moved to compel the Government to disclose the information that led it to dismiss its case against Loden. Her second motion asked the district court to let her withdraw from her plea agreement, arguing that her ability to testify against Loden in exchange for a more lenient sentencing recommendation from the Government was a key part of her agreement. The Government opposed both motions by arguing the dismissal of Loden's case did not impact Stampe's case because she was in custody, and it argued that the Court should not permit her to withdraw from her plea agreement because the agreement did not require the Government to seek a downward variance for cooperation.

During the hearing on both motions, the Government represented it had complied fully with its obligations under Brady, Giglio, and Rule 16. Stating it was satisfied with the Government's representations in open court, the district court denied Stampe's motion to compel. The district court also denied Stampe's motion to withdraw from her plea agreement, agreeing with the Government that she had not satisfied the test for withdrawing a guilty plea under United States v. Bashara.

 Although it noted the unique nature of Stampe's case, and although it questioned the district court's characterization of her arguments, the Court affirmed the district court's decision. It held that, regardless of whether Stampe made a sufficient showing to trigger a Brady or Rule 16 analysis, the district court correctly relied on the Government's representations that it had satisfied its disclosure obligations and that the circumstances surrounding the dismissal of Loden's case were not material to her case. Interestingly, the Court added a footnote explaining that it would not have been an abuse of discretion for the district court to have reviewed the materials in camera before accepting the Government's position.

Applying the Bashara factors, the Court also held the district court did not abuse its discretion in denying Stampe's motion to withdraw from her plea agreement. While it appeared to agree that there was a difference between a request to withdraw from a plea agreement and one to withdraw a guilty plea and that the plain language of Fed.R.Crim.P. 11(d)(2)(B) only applied to the latter, the Court held Stampe had not presented a "meaningful alternative" to the Bashara factors before the district court and on appeal. Applying those factors, the Court concluded that the district court did not abuse its discretion in refusing to let her withdraw from her plea agreement.

The Court closed its opinion with a slight admonition to the Government: perhaps it would be best to produce even immaterial evidence in similar cases "to promote perceptions of fairness." Unfortunately for Stampe, however, the Court noted this was a matter of "prosecutorial policy" and not law.

If anything, this decision highlights the difficulty defendants often have in attempting to withdraw from their plea agreements with the Government, even though the circumstances might change, post-plea, due to the Government's own actions. Stampe must now remain party to an agreement that, in her opinion, did not deliver what it promised.

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