Should a Judge Have a Limited Participation In the Plea Bargaining Process ?

In State v. Warner, 762 So. 2d 507 (Fla. 2000), the court considered whether it was permissible for the trial judge to participate in plea negotiations and, if so, what restrictions apply. The specific question before the Court was whether a sentence was "per se invalid where the trial court, over the State's objection, advised a defendant regarding what sentence would be imposed pursuant to a plea of guilty, and accepted the defendant's subsequent guilty plea." Warner, 762 So. 2d at 509. The court held: Judicial involvement in the plea bargaining process must be limited to minimize the potential coercive effect on the defendant, to retain the function of the judge as a neutral arbiter, and to preserve the public perception of the judge as an impartial dispenser of justice. The trial court must not initiate a plea dialogue; rather, at its discretion, it may (but is not required to) participate in such discussions upon request of a party. Id. at 513. Under Warner, while judges may have limited participation in the plea bargaining process, they may not be a party to the actual plea the defendant must weigh. Judges are to act as information centers only. The limited Warner holding was intended to allow a judicial officer to provide information to a defendant and answers to his or her questions. Clearly, the judge may not initiate the bargaining process or make statements that could in any way be construed as actual negotiation. The judge must, at all times, remain a neutral arbiter of justice.