Inconsistencies Not Enough to Undo a Guilty Plea

In United States v. Pitts, the Sixth Circuit rejected three plain-error challenges to Demetrius Pitts's guilty plea--the factual basis, his competency, and whether he knowingly agreed to waive his appeal rights. The government charged Mr. Pitts with attempting to provide material support to a terrorist organization, plus other charges. He pleaded guilty, but he also said things in the district court inconsistent with a valid plea. Based on other record evidence, the Sixth Circuit concluded that wasn't enough to vacate his plea, at least on plain-error review.

First, the factual basis. The affidavit supporting the criminal complaint and the PSR both described what Mr. Pitts did, and he signed a plea agreement that detailed the factual basis for his plea. Clear enough--except that the plea agreement was part of Mr. Pitts's second change-of-plea hearing. At his first change-of-plea hearing, he maintained that he didn't attempt to assist al-Qaeda, and the district court refused to accept his guilty plea as a result. And at sentencing, after the second change-of-plea hearing, Mr. Pitts said he was not a terrorist and not part of any organization.

The Sixth Circuit concluded that there was a valid factual basis, regardless of Mr. Pitts's inconsistent statements. He signed the operative plea agreement and acknowledged it was accurate, and it was consistent with the PSR and the affidavit supporting the criminal complaint. All of that overcame any inconsistencies.

Second, competency. Early in the case, a forensic psychologist determined that Mr. Pitts was competent to stand trial. The district court adopted that conclusion without objection. Nothing notable here--except that at Mr. Pitts's second change-of-plea hearing (when the court accepted his guilty plea), he told the court that the prison hadn't provided him several medications that he was taking before his arrest.

The panel concluded that Mr. Pitts failed to show that the district court should have reconsidered his competency. The court reasoned that Mr. Pitts told the district court that he understood and was "clear-headed," and he was "consistently engaged" in the proceedings. Combined with the initial competency determination, Mr. Pitts's statement about his medications didn't require the district court to go back and get a new determination.

Third, the appeal waiver. The plea agreement that Mr. Pitts signed indicated that he was waiving certain appeal rights, and he acknowledged at the second change-of-plea hearing that he understood that provision. As with the factual basis, clear enough--except that he objected to giving up his appeal rights at his first change-of-plea hearing and at sentencing.

Once more, the panel rejected Mr. Pitts's argument on appeal. Mr. Pitts agreed to the appeal waiver at his second change-of-plea hearing. What's more, when he objected at other hearings, the district court and attorneys explained the waiver's scope, and he did not say in response that he wanted to reject the plea agreement or withdraw his plea.

Mr. Pitts also attempted to challenge his sentence on appeal. But because the court rejected his attacks on his plea, it enforced the appeal waiver and refused to consider the issue. 

[Note: my office initially represented Mr. Pitts in the district court. This post is based solely on the Sixth Circuit's opinion.]

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