United States v. Nicholson, No. 11-4531

Decided: April 18, 2012

Lester Nicholson appealed the District Court’s ruling that he could not withdraw his guilty plea two months after his plea hearing where a Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure Rule 11 colloquy was conducted.  The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the lower court’s ruling.

Lester Nicholson was employed by the United States Postal Service and suffered a job-related injury for which he received payments by the Federal Employment Compensation Act (“FECA”).  FECA recipients are required to fill out a form which attests that they have not been self-employed or involved in any business enterprise for the last 15 months.  In June 2008,  Nicholson started a for-profit restaurant; on July 10, 2008, he attested  he had not been self-employed in the last 15 months.  He admitted to Department of Labor agents that he had falsified his answers on the form in November 2008.  Nicholson was indicted for the use of false statements or fraud to obtain federal employees’ compensation.  At his plea hearing, he plead guilty and the District Court engaged in the Rule 11 colloquy to determine whether he was entering his plea freely, voluntarily, knowingly, and intelligently.

Nicholson alleges that the District Court did not adequately inform him that his FECA benefits would be terminated as a result of his guilty plea.  The Fourth Circuit reviewed this for plain error because the issue was not raised contemporaneously at the plea hearing.  The issue of whether federal benefits may be terminated is a collateral consequence because it is not within the District Court’s control.  Therefore, the District Court did not err in not advising Nicholson about his benefits.  Nicholson further alleges the District Court did not make a sufficient inquiry into his competence related to the medication he was taking.  This Court held that the record showed the District Court asked questions sufficient to determine he was competent to enter his plea, and that the Court gave the government and defense counsel opportunity to raise the issue of his competency, but they did not.  Nicholson’s final claim is that the District Court erred in not allowing him to withdraw his guilty plea.  Here, the inquiry is mostly related to the Rule 11 colloquy which was sufficient.  Finding a sufficient colloquy, a defendant has very narrow grounds to withdraw the plea.  There is no fair and just reason to overturn his plea and conviction, and therefore the Fourth Circuit affirmed.

Full opinion

-Jennifer Routh

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