Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Old debate pops up again

Jay Weaver is reporting that Judge Lenard didn't accept the plea deals in a health-care fraud case in which patient files were sold to personal injury lawyers. Judge Lenard is concerned that the punishment agreed to does not fit the crime:

Ruben E. Rodriguez, the ringleader, would face up to 12 years in prison. His wife, Maria Victoria Suarez, 52, would face up to five years.
``These charges are much too serious -- much too serious for our community,'' Lenard said. ``Violations of the law in the healthcare industry have become too much the norm [in Miami-Dade]. There are real victims here.''
Rodriguez, 62, who attended the hearing in a wheelchair because of poor health, has pleaded guilty to two conspiracy offenses and aggravated identity theft.
He admitted he stole Jackson records of patients' names, addresses, telephone numbers and medical diagnoses and sold them to several attorneys in exchange for kickbacks. He also admitted stealing records from an ambulance company dating back to 1995.
In exchange for the confidential information, lawyers paid Rodriguez hundreds of thousands of dollars after settling injury claims on the patients' behalfs, prosecutors say. One unidentified personal-injury attorney wrote 27 checks totaling $85,250 to a shell company incorporated by Rodriguez between 2006 and 2009.
On Tuesday, Lenard said she could not decide whether to accept Rodriguez's guilty plea until she reviewed sentencing guidelines for his offenses to make sure the penalties were tough enough.

We've discussed before the issue of whether judges should be able to reject plea deals -- the last time it came up was in the Robles case:

Query -- does a federal judge have the power to reject this sort of deal? Because this is a charge bargain deal, can't the government just dismiss the other counts on its own, leaving only the ten year maximum count? I think the real question is whether the government will have the heart to do this after Judge Gold has said he will not approve the deal. If in our adversarial system of justice the prosecution believes that a deal is fair, should a judge step in?

From another post on the subject:

The Louis Robles case has pitted prosecutors against the judiciary. The government and the defense had worked out a deal for Robles -- 10 years in prison plus restitution -- and that deal had the blessing of the receiver and almost all of the victims.Judge Gold, however, won't accept the deal, saying it's too lenient. The government recently filed a 16 page motion for reconsideration explaining why the plea made sense. Judge Gold denied that motion, which now leaves the government with two choices. It can try a case that neither party wants to try. Or it can dismiss the counts that carry more than a 10 year maximum, leaving Judge Gold with no choice but to sentence Robles to 10 years, even after a trial.Oftentimes, defense lawyers complain that sentencing is driven by prosecutors and that it should be left to judges to sentence, not executive officers. In this case, prosecutorial discretion is important in capping the sentence.Any thoughts on what the U.S. Attorney's office should do? Should they defer to the judge or stand up for their position?

What do you all think of this issue?


Anonymous said...

I think the judge has a right to reject the deal - but she seems a bit off by saying there are true vicitms...the victims are the attorneys who yet again have to deal with another public reason for being percieved as unethical. But are persons who were injured in accidents, who likely would have settled thier claims directly with insurance companies on thier hospital beds for much less than they ultimately recieved victims?

I don't think so.

Rumpole said...

Doesn't every plea colloquy include the Judge telling the client that the final sentence is up to him/her? or is that just in my colloquies because I can't get a good deal over there?

I believe the judge has the right to reject a specific plea deal. The government has the right to add or dismiss charges as they see fit. Lets face it- this situation exists on the extreme edges of a system that 99% of the time does not encounter this problem. Of course the best way to examine a system philosophically is to stretch it to the extremes to see if it holds up.

Anonymous said...

Fed Court does have a provision for specified sentences that can be rejected. But really, isn't it the right thing for the judge to do to say "guys, I ain't going with your recommendation in this agreement" rather than lulling defendant into the plea?

Bob Becerra said...

I don't think the Judge should reject a plea deal between the parties. The Judge's role is different from the prosecutor in our system of justice. The Judge is there to insure the fairness of the proceedings and that they are conducted in accordance with the law. The prosecution's job is to prosecute people. If the prosecution, which has brought the case, has agreed to a certain deal with the defendant, it should be enforced by the Court under ordinary contract principles. Just as the Court cannot decide which charges are brought, it should not be involved in how the government chooses to resolve those charges.

Rumpole said...

But the problem with your argument is that it leaves out the last part- it is the Judge's role to determine a proper sentence. I think Judge's exercise this role in rejecting plea offers very rarely and as such when they do it is usually for a good reason. That being said, it does appear there needs to be some codification of rules on this point.

Anonymous said...

Reading Rules 11(c)(3),(4),(5), it's clear that a Judge has the authority to reject the plea agreement.

The plan for Florida said...

The Florida Plan.