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United States v. Garcia

United States Court of Appeals, Tenth Circuit

September 4, 2019

OSCAR GARCIA, also known as "O", Defendant-Appellant.


          Deborah L. Roden, Woodhouse Roden Nethercott, LLC, Cheyenne, Wyoming, for Appellant.

          Finnuala Tessier, United States Department of Justice, Appeals Section, Criminal Division, (John C. Anderson, United States Attorney, and C. Paige Messec, Assistant United States Attorney, United States Attorney Office, Albuquerque, New Mexico, with her on the brief), Washington, D.C., for Appellee.

          Before TYMKOVICH, Chief Judge, BACHARACH, and McHUGH, Circuit Judges.


         This case requires that we resolve whether federal magistrate judges can accept and enter guilty pleas in criminal proceedings where the parties have consented to appearing before the magistrate judge. Longstanding precedent says they can do so. In United States v. Ciapponi, 77 F.3d 1247, 1251 (10th Cir. 1996), we held that "with a defendant's express consent, the broad residuary 'additional duties' clause of the Federal Magistrates Act authorizes a magistrate judge to conduct a Rule 11 felony plea proceeding, and such does not violate the defendant's constitutional rights." But in this case, Mr. Oscar Garcia argues that this precedent has been abrogated by subsequent changes to the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure, and that only district court judges can accept pleas we deem to be dispositive. He contends these changes to the Rules allow him to withdraw his previously accepted plea of guilty as a matter of right.

         While Garcia's argument is persuasive, we are bound by our prior precedent. For that reason, we affirm the district court.

         I. Background

         Garcia was charged by indictment with money laundering, conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute a controlled substance, and possession with intent to distribute a controlled substance. Following plea negotiations, the government filed an information, charging Garcia with only two counts: conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute a controlled substance and money laundering. The parties entered into a plea agreement with a stipulated sentence of 180 months.

         Garcia consented to appearing before a federal magistrate judge for his change of plea hearing the same day. After Garcia's change-of-plea hearing before the magistrate judge, but prior to his sentencing before the district judge, Garcia moved to withdraw his plea. The magistrate judge did not make a written recommendation nor did the clerk of court file a notice as to any objections to the magistrate judge's recommendation.

         In support of his motion to withdraw, Garcia argued that the Federal Magistrates Act of 1968 does not authorize a magistrate judge to accept a felony guilty plea if the plea is considered a "dispositive matter" under Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 59. This rule states that a "district judge may refer to a magistrate judge for recommendation of a defendant's motion to dismiss or quash an indictment or information, a motion to suppress evidence, or any matter that may dispose of a charge or defense." Fed. R. Crim P. 59 (emphasis added). Thus, Garcia contended he should be permitted to withdraw his guilty plea as a matter of right under Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 11(d)(1), which allows withdrawal "for any reason or no reason" before the court accepts the plea.

         The government, in response, relied on Ciapponi, 77 F.3d at 1251, where we held that the Federal Magistrates Act authorizes a magistrate judge to accept a felony guilty plea with the defendant's consent. The district court agreed and concluded Garcia was not entitled to withdraw his plea as a matter of right. The district court also determined that there was no fair or just reason to allow Garcia to withdraw his guilty plea.

         In an unusual turn of events, the government then moved the district court for reconsideration of the defendant's motion, and urged that it be granted. The government argued a magistrate judge cannot accept a felony guilty plea under the language of Rule 59 of the Rules of Criminal Procedure, which had been adopted after we decided Ciapponi. The government thus disavowed its previous reliance on Ciapponi and other Tenth Circuit cases that predated the promulgation of Rule 59.

         Relying on our precedent in Ciapponi, the district court denied the parties' request to allow Garcia to withdraw his guilty plea.

         II. Analysis

         The Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure outline two ways for a criminal defendant to withdraw a guilty plea. If the court has not yet accepted the plea, the defendant can withdraw it "for any reason or no reason." Fed. R. Crim. P. 11(d)(1). But if the court has accepted the plea, the defendant may only withdraw it if he "can show a fair and just reason for requesting the withdrawal." Fed. R. Crim. P. 11(d)(2)(B). Garcia contends the magistrate judge lacks the authority to accept a felony guilty plea in the first place, so no plea can be accepted by a magistrate judge for purposes of Rule 11. Thus, he seeks to withdraw his guilty plea as a matter of right under Rule 11(d)(1).

         While Garcia acknowledges our decision in Ciapponi allows magistrate judges to accept pleas, he argues that the promulgation of Rule 59 fatally undercuts Ciapponi's reasoning. Rule 59 allows district courts to refer both dispositive and nondispositive matters to magistrate judges. But the rule requires magistrate judges to issue reports and recommendations to the district judge on all dispositive matters.

         Before turning to the merits, we consider the government's contention that Garcia not only forfeited his Rule 59 argument, but that he affirmatively waived this claim by failing to raise it before the district court.

         A. Forfeiture

         Garcia contends that since the government raised this argument in its motion to reconsider, he implicitly adopted the argument by not objecting, and thus preserved it for appeal.

         As a general matter, arguments not raised before the district court are forfeited on appeal. See Richison v. Ernest Group, Inc., 634 F.3d 1123, 1127-28 (10th Cir. 2011). On appeal, we can only consider forfeited arguments under the plain error standard of review. Id. But if a defendant does not argue for plain error in his opening brief on appeal, he waives any plain error argument. See McKissick v. Yuen, 618 F.3d 1177, 1189 (10th Cir. 2010) (stating that "defendants waive [t]he arguments in this court" if they forfeit an argument below and fail to "explain in [the] opening appellate brief . . . how they survive the plain error standard").

         We acknowledge that Garcia did not explain how he survives plain error in his opening appellate brief. But that is because the issue was preserved below. The question we ask is "whether the district court was adequately alerted to the issue." United States v. Harrison, 743 F.3d 760, 763 (10th Cir. 2014). Although Harrison involved a defendant's objections at a sentencing hearing, rather than objections or new arguments after the hearing, Harrison aims to protect the district court's decision on appeal. That is, the appellate court cannot review issues and arguments that the district court never had an opportunity to consider. But if the district court was "adequately alerted to the issue," and perhaps even responded to the issue, then we are able to review on appeal. In this case, the district court chose to address the government's new Rule 59 argument. Even though the district court denied the motion because the arguments were untimely, the district court rejected the new argument on the merits. The district court, and the parties, were alerted to the new argument, and both parties have continued to address this argument on appeal.

         We also acknowledge that motions for reconsideration are generally not appropriate vehicles in which to raise new arguments. See United States v. Verner, 659 Fed.Appx. 461, 467 (10th Cir. 2016); Braswell v. Cincinnati Inc., 731 F.3d 1081, 1093 (10th Cir. 2013). These motions are not the place to relitigate already-resolved issues but rather to point out errors or newly discovered evidence. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 60(b).[1] The circumstances of this case, however, warrant a departure from the general rule. Here, the government did not simply raise a new theory or argument. In the motion to reconsider, the government entirely changed its position. Whereas initially the government objected to Garcia's motion to withdraw his guilty plea, the government later argued that Garcia should be able to withdraw his guilty plea. Now on appeal, the government has changed positions once again, arguing that Garcia should not be able to withdraw his guilty plea. Perhaps if the government had not objected to Garcia's initial motion to withdraw but had agreed with Garcia from the start, the district court might have granted Garcia's motion.

         As the district court noted, this is a "highly unusual situation," and arguments raised in motions to reconsider are usually forfeited on appeal. But in this case, we are able to consider Garcia's Rule 59 argument. Both parties have, at some point in the proceedings, advocated for this argument, and the district court fully addressed the argument on the merits. Accordingly, Garcia is entitled to challenge the ruling on appeal.

         B. The Authority of Federal Magistrate Judges

         The "Judicial Power" of the United States is established in Article III of the Constitution. It states:

The judicial power of the United States, shall be vested in one Supreme Court, and in such inferior courts as the Congress may from time to time ordain and establish. The judges, both of the supreme and inferior courts, shall hold their offices during good behaviour, and shall, at stated times, receive for their services, a compensation, which shall not be diminished during their continuance in office.

U.S. Const. Art. III, ยง 1 (alteration in original). In addition to creating and expanding circuit and district courts under Article III, since the Founding, Congress has utilized its power to create what we call Article I courts or tribunals. The officers of these courts are statutorily authorized, and they preside over certain types of proceedings. For example, the United States Tax Court oversees federal income tax disputes, the United States Court of Federal Claims ...

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