(The Return of) Ignatz, by Sam Heldman

Tuesday, October 29, 2002

A guy named Michael Peter pleaded guilty to a federal indictment, and served his time. Then, after he got out, the U.S. Supreme Court held (in somebody else's case) that the acts that he was alleged to have done -- and that he admitted doing, in his plea -- weren't even a crime under the statute that he was charged with violating. So naturally, he wants to have the conviction deleted from his record, presumably so that he can vote, etc. Sounds reasonable, right? But the Government opposed it, even though the Government agreed that his activity turns out not to have been a crime after all. Think about it: why would the U.S. Government think it good law or good policy to oppose a guy's effort to have his conviction expunged, when the thing to which he pleaded guilty turns out not to have been a crime? I suppose it's just the elevation of procedural fetishism over substantive justice; the same thing that drives much of criminal law in the appellate courts these days. Fortunately, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit rejected the Government's position in this opinion yesterday. Interesting case, I think; and we will now see whether the U.S. tries to take it to the Supreme Court.

FURTHER THOUGHTS: It is conceivable that there were other facts, not mentioned by the Court of Appeals, that would have shown that the government's position was at least arguably fair and reasonable, not just procedurally fetishistic. For instance, what if the defendant had also been facing other charges that he was almost certain to be convicted on (say, hypothetically, some tax evasion charges), and this plea deal resulted in the dropping of those charges in exchange for his guilty plea on the other (now legally-unsupportable) count. Then, in that hypothetical situation, you might say that it wouldn't be fair to let the guy back out of the plea deal, having taken advantage of its good aspects by getting the tax counts dropped. But again this is all hypothetical, so far as the Eleventh Circuit's opinion shows -- though it is always a good idea to remember, as I did when thinking further about this, that courts don't always mention in their opinions the facts and arguments that weigh against the decision.

posted by sam 6:50 AM 0 comments


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