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Federal Court of Appeals Remain Split on Magistrate Judge's Authority to Accept a Felony Guilty Plea

On July 14, 2014, the 7th Circuit in United States v. Harden, No.131323, held that magistrate judges are not permitted to accept guilty pleas in felony cases and adjudge a defendant guilty.

In reaching this holding, the 7th Circuit determined that the task of accepting a guilty plea is a task too important to be considered a mere "additional duty" permitted under §636(b)(3), and is more important than the supervision of a civil or misdemeanor trial, or presiding over voir dire.


As noted in Harden, there is widespread agreement that a magistrate judge may conduct a Rule 11(b) colloquy for the purpose of making a report and recommendation to the District Court Judge regarding acceptance of the guilty plea as shown in the following decisions:

· 9th Circuit - United States v. Reyna-Tapia, 328 F.3d 1114 (9th Cir. 2003);
· 8th Circuit - United States v. Torres, 258 F.3d 791 (8th Cir. 2001);
· 5th Circuit - United States v. Dees, 125 F.3d 261 (5th Cir. 1997); and
· 2nd Circuit - United States v. Williams, 23 F.3d 629 (2nd Cir. 1994).


Although there are no 6th Circuit decisions on the matter, several circuits authorize magistrate judges to accept felony guilty pleas with the parties' consent:


· 4th Circuit - United States v. Benton, 523 F.3d 424 (4th Cir. 2008);
· 11th Circuit - United States v. Woodard, 387 F.3d 1329 (11th Cir. 2004); and
· 10th Circuit - United States v. Ciapponi, 77 F.3d 1247 (10th Cir. 1996).


The 3rd Circuit in Carter v. United States, 517 F.2d 1397 (3rd Cir. 1975), held that a magistrate judge is authorized under §636(b)(3) "additional duties" to conduct post-indictment arraignments and to accept pleas of not guilty in felony cases.


The Federal Magistrates Act (hereinafter "FMA"), 28 U.S.C. § 636, defines the scope of the duties that United States magistrate judges are permitted to undertake.


28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(3) provides that "A magistrate judge may be assigned such additional duties as are not inconsistent with the Constitution and laws of the United States."


In Peretz v. United States, 501 U.S. 923 (1991), the Supreme Court concluded that a magistrate judge may oversee jury selection in a felony case with the parties' consent, because "with the parties' consent, a District Judge may delegate to a magistrate supervision of entire civil and misdemeanor trials" and "these duties are comparable in responsibility and importance to presiding of voir dire at trial."


Because the acceptance of a guilty plea in a felony case is not a described power or duty, courts have interpreted it under the "additional duties" clause of the FMA to determine whether it permits magistrate judges to accept pleas in felony cases.


The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Ohio's local rules all in line with the cases that authorize Magistrate Judge's to accept felony guilty pleas, holding that they have the authority under §636(b)(3).


Local Rule 5.2 entitled "Assignment and Referral of Matters to United States Magistrate Judges" provides in pertinent part,


"(b) Felony Cases. Upon the return of an indictment or the filing of an information, all felony cases may be referred by the Court to a Magistrate Judge for the conduct of an arraignment and such other conferences or hearings as are necessary as provided in Local Criminal Rule 5.1(c)."


Local Criminal Rule 5.1(c) entitled "Authorized Duties" is silent regarding Magistrate Judges accepting felony pleas.


However, Local Criminal Rule 5.1(g) entitled "Additional Duties - 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(3)" provides in pertinent part,


"A Magistrate Judge of this Court is also authorized to:
(19) Perform any additional duty as is not contrary to the law of this District and Circuit or inconsistent with the Constitution and laws of the United States."


If you or someone who cares about you has any questions regarding criminal charges in Federal Court, please contact Attorney Michael C. Hennenberg to schedule a consultation.

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