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U.S. v. TORRES

November 18, 2005.

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
v.
MARIA TORRES, Defendant.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: VICTOR MARRERO, District Judge

DECISION AND ORDER

This case was transferred from the Southern District of Florida to the Southern District of New York under Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 20 (a) ("Rule 20 (a)") for a guilty plea and sentencing. As required by Rule 20 (a), the defendant, Maria Torres ("Torres"), stated in writing that she wished to plead guilty, consented to transfer of the case, and waived trial in the district where the indictment was pending. (See Consent to Transfer of Case for Plea and Sentence, dated April 28, 2005, Docket No. 1.) Also as required by Rule 20 (a), U.S. Attorneys from both districts approved the transfer in writing. (See id.) The Southern District of New York received the transfer on September 9, 2005. (See Docket No. 2.) After the transfer, Torres was appointed a new CJA attorney, who by letter dated October 28, 2005 requested that this Court order a mental examination to evaluate Torres's competency to appreciate and understand the consequences of entering the proposed plea. By letter dated October 31, 2005, the Government opposed such an order, arguing that if Torres is not entering a guilty plea, then the Court lacks jurisdiction over the matter and the case must be transferred back to the Southern District of Florida. According to the Government, under Rule 20, this Court has jurisdiction over the matter only for purposes of taking a guilty plea and for sentencing. The Government points out that under Rule 20 (c), if a defendant pleads not guilty after a case is transferred under Rule 20, the case must be returned to the docket of the transferor court.

The Court granted Torres's request for a conference on November 10, 2005 for discussion of the issue. At the conference, Torres's counsel stated that he did not oppose transferring the case back to the Southern District of Florida should the results of the exam indicate that Torres was not competent to plead guilty, but that, based on conversations with his client, he had legitimate concerns about her ability to so plead. According to Torres's counsel, he had become aware of longstanding mental health problems with Torres, including a history of bipolar disorder, anxiety, and depression. He also stated that there seemed to be a defense in the case, and since the charges had a mandatory minimum of five years imprisonment, he felt it was a triable case with no downside. He therefore became concerned with why Torres would plead guilty, and stated that he was not sure of her level of understanding at the time she signed the agreement consenting to the transfer. He also expressed concern that a transfer back to Florida would pose extreme hardship on Torres, who resides in New York and receives mental health treatment in New York, and who was in Florida at the time of her arrest for the underlying offense only as the result of a stopover on a flight from the Dominican Republic to New York.

  After consideration of Rule 20 and case law interpreting it, as well as oral argument presented by the Government and Torres on November 10, 2005, the Court concludes, for the reasons elaborated below, that it should not order a mental examination of Torres prior to acceptance of her guilty plea. Instead, as it became apparent to the Court during the hearing that Torres is not in a position to proceed with a guilty plea at this time absent further medical inquiry, the Court must order that the case be returned to the docket of the transferor court in the Southern District of Florida.

  I. DISCUSSION

  A. FEDERAL RULE OF CRIMINAL PROCEDURE 20

  Under Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 20 (a), "[a] prosecution may be transferred from the district where the indictment or information is pending, or from which a warrant on a complaint has been issued, to the district where the defendant is arrested, held, or present if:
(1) the defendant states in writing a wish to plead guilty or nolo contendere and to waive trial in the district where the indictment, information, or complaint is pending, consents in writing to the court's disposing of the case in the transferee district, and files the statement in the transferee district; and (2) the United States attorneys in both districts approve the transfer in writing."
Fed.R.Crim.P. 20 (a) (emphasis added).

  Under Rule 20 (c), "[i]f the defendant pleads not guilty after the case has been transferred under Rule 20 (a), the clerk must return the papers to the court where the prosecution began, and that court must return the proceeding to its docket." Fed.R.Crim.P. 20 (c) (emphasis added).

  Rule 20 (c), therefore, requires that a plea of not guilty result in an immediate return of the case to the transferor court. The Government's position here is that by requesting a mental examination prior to pleading guilty, Torres is in effect withdrawing her guilty plea, so that under Rule 20 (c) the case must be returned to the original court. However, Torres indicated at the hearing that she was not necessarily withdrawing her plea, but rather, as may be indicated by Rule 11, wanted a mental examination prior to deciding whether she is fully competent to proceed with her plea. Theoretically that position does not, yet, manifest a clear indication of an unwillingness to plead. Cf. United States v. Casallas, 59 F.3d 1173, 1178 n. 9 (11th Cir. 1995) ("Once [Defendant] indicated an unwillingness to plead, Rule 20 required that he be returned to Texas for trial."). Torres, therefore, has not pled not guilty, but instead is asking for a mental examination prior to so doing.

  The language of Rule 20 does not address the situation in this case: the transferor court determining mental competency to enter a guilty plea prior to effectuating the transfer of the case. Nor do the Advisory Committee Notes accompanying Rule 20 address the precise issue.

  B. RULE 20 BARS THE TRANSFEREE COURT FROM CONSIDERING THE MERITS OF THE GUILTY PLEA OR INDICTMENT

  Although the language of Rule 20 does not address the situation in this case, case law has made it clear that a court that has received a case pursuant to a Rule 20 transfer may not consider the merits of that case, including the merits of the indictment and the plea. For example, in LaMagna v. United States, the defendant had been transferred from the Eastern District of North Carolina to the Eastern District of New York pursuant to Rule 20, and had pled guilty. Subsequently, he filed a motion to vacate the plea for lack of factual basis and invalid indictment. The district court denied his motion, and the Second Circuit affirmed. 646 F.2d 775 (2d Cir. 1981). In so doing, the Circuit Court observed that since the case came before the court on a Rule 20 transfer "solely for purposes of a guilty plea, there was no occasion to make inquiry sua sponte into facts or circumstances which would invalidate the indictment, as appellant now suggests. Indeed, had appellant then come forward with the allegations he now makes, which would have been tantamount to a plea of not guilty, [the district court] would have had no alternative but to return the case for trial. . . ." 646 F.2d at 777 (emphasis added).

  Similarly, in United States v. Khan, a district court was reversed for improperly delving into the merits of a case after a Rule 20 transfer. 822 F.2d 451 (4th Cir. 1987). After receiving the transfer under Rule 20 for a guilty plea, the district court expressed doubt as to the defendant's guilt, ordered an expanded hearing, received testimony from a character witness for the defendant as well as from the defendant himself, and, upon conclusion of the hearing, sua sponte withdrew the guilty plea, substituted a plea of nolo contendere, and acquitted. Id. at 453-54. The Fourth Circuit reversed, holding that after a Rule 20 transfer, any attempt by defendant to change his plea to not guilty "instantly divests the transferee court of subject matter jurisdiction and requires that the proceedings be returned `to the court in which the prosecution was commenced.'" Id. at 455. (quoting Fed.R.Crim.P. 20 (c)). According to the Fourth Circuit, "[t]he unmistakable assumption underlying Rule 20 is that a transfer will occur only when a defendant first concedes criminal culpability thereby waiving any trial on the charges. The transfer is then purely for the purpose of imposing sentence. Subject matter jurisdiction is, thereby, shifted from the charging district to the transferee district for the narrow purpose envisioned in the rule." Id. The Court further held, in rejecting the defendant's argument that relitigation of the charges would impose double jeopardy, that "[a]ny determinations made by a Rule 20 transferee court beyond those necessary for the acceptance of the plea and the imposition of sentence are without legal effect." Id.

  It is clear from these cases that proceedings in the transferee court after a Rule 20 transfer are to be narrowly limited, and that the district court may not consider the merits of the case, whether by examining the plea or by questioning the validity of the indictment. Framed this way, the question presented ...


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