8th Circuit says federal judge overstepped authority in refusing to dismiss indictments
U.S. District Judge Charles Kornmann refused to dismiss indictments against a defendant after she entered into a plea deal with the U.S. Attorney’s office. Kornmann said because of the deal, he would not be able to sentence Tiffany Bernard to more than 15 years in prison, even though she was the ringleader of a vicious crime.
The defense attorney and prosecutor took the case to the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, which has now issued its opinion: Judge Kornmann’s ruling went too far.
Judge Kornmann made a written statement to the Eighth Circuit, explaining why he refused to dismiss four of the five indictments charging Tiffany Bernard with violent felonies.
Kornmann said the victim, Josue Alaniz, did not speak English and didn’t know why Bernard induced three men to rob him and beat him almost to death. And the judge noted that Alaniz, who suffers permanent disabilities after the attack and can’t work or get medical insurance, was not consulted before the U.S. Attorney entered into a plea agreement.
At oral arguments in March, Judge David Stras was one of the three Eighth Circuit judges hearing the case and the author of the subsequent opinion.
In this exchange, he questions Bernard’s attorney, Tom Cogley.
JUDGE DAVID STRAS: “Why should we issue relief and say Judge Kornmann was wrong under the law? Because it [dismissal] does require leave of the court.”
TOM COGLEY: “Because of the separation of powers issues. Because of the fact that charging decisions are the province of the executive branch of the government.”
The federal government was represented by Assistant U.S. Attorney Eric Kelderman, who told appellate judges that his office tried a number of times to contact the victim, a fact that Alaniz and his wife later verified.
Kelderman said if Bernard had not agreed to give up information about the three men who assaulted Alaniz, the government wouldn’t have been able to make a case.
“Ms. Bernard was the reason that they were able to prosecute anyone,” he said.
Kelderman said the plea agreement took into consideration Bernard’s criminal conduct as well as her cooperation.
“She didn’t plead to a misdemeanor. She pled to a 15-year maximum felony,” he said.
In the opinion, Stras writes that federal criminal rules allow a judge to reject a plea agreement. But he says Kornmann went too far when he also refused to dismiss indictments.
The Eighth Circuit says Bernard’s culpability and dangerousness are considerations to apply at sentencing, not reasons for the court to interfere with charging decisions.
The case now goes back to U.S. District Court for South Dakota with instructions to grant the government’s motion to dismiss charges against Bernard.