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United States v. Fisher, No. 11-6781

Decided:  April 1, 2013

The Fourth Circuit reversed the judgment of the district court and held that a Drug Enforcement Agency (“DEA”) officer’s misconduct – deliberately lying on an affidavit for a search warrant that produced the sole basis for a search of the defendant’s home where evidence was uncovered that provided the foundation for the criminal charge – rendered defendant’s guilty plea involuntary and violated his due process rights.

Mark Lunsford, a Baltimore City DEA Task Force Officer, applied for a warrant to search Cortez Fisher’s residence and vehicle for evidence of a crime.  Lunsford provided the sole affidavit to accompany the application for the warrant.  The affidavit provided that Lunsford first became aware of Fisher after a confidential informant indicated that Fisher was distributing narcotics and had a handgun in his residence.  On the basis of this lone affidavit, Lunsford obtained the warrant and executed a search on Fisher’s vehicle and residence.   The search resulted in the discovery and seizure of crack cocaine and a loaded handgun.  Defendant was later charged with possession with intent to distribute cocaine base in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 841 and one count of possession of a firearm by a convicted felon in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 922(g).  Defendant entered into a plea agreement where he plead guilty to the illegal firearm charge and was sentenced to ten years in prison.  Over a year later, Lunsford was charged with various offenses, including “falsely attributing information to a confidential informant with whom he was splitting reward money.”  Lunsford later admitted that the confidential informant that he identified in his affidavit to search Fisher’s residence and vehicle “had no connection to the case” and that someone else was the actual informant.  Following his guilt plea, Fisher filed a pro se motion seeking to have his guilt plea vacated. The district court denied Fisher’s motion to vacate under the reasoning that Fisher did not deny he had, in fact, unlawfully possessed a firearm regardless of Lunsford’s conduct.

On appeal, Fisher argued that Lunsford’s deliberate misrepresentations in the affidavit, which was the sole basis for obtaining the search warrant, “induced” the guilty plea and, as a result, rendered his plea involuntary and invalid under the standard set forth in Brady v. United States, 397 U.S. 742 (1970).  The Fourth Circuit agreed and expanded the application of Brady v. United States as a bar against involuntary pleas to include, not only “prosecutorial promises designed to elicit a guilt plea,” but also “affirmative government misrepresentation” that results in defendant’s misapprehension of the strength of the government’s case and, therefore, affects the defendant’s decision to accept the plea of guilt in order to secure leniency in sentencing.  The Fourth Circuit rejected the government’s good faith prosecution argument and recognized that both parties did not dispute the fact that the evidence presented to Fisher and his counsel during plea deliberations were obtained through a search warrant that was issued solely on the basis of intentional misrepresentation by law enforcement.  As a result, the Fourth Circuit maintained that Fisher was successful in proving that 1) “impermissible government conduct” resulted in the government securing a search warrant that led to collection of evidence against him, and 2) that there was “a reasonable probability” that, but for that misconduct, Fisher would not have plead guilty.  Lastly, the Fourth Circuit held that its decision to vacate Fisher’s plea was supported by the important interest of deterring police misconduct and ensuring public confidence in the judicial system.

Full Opinion

– John G. Tamasitis