On Saturday October 13, 2007, Grammy award winning rapper T.I., real name Clifford Harris, age 27, was arrested on federal gun charges hours before he was scheduled to perform at the BET Hip Hop Awards in Atlanta. Harris was arrested in a federal sting when his bodyguard-turned-informant delivered three machine guns and two silencers to the hip-hop star. The sting began after Harris' bodyguard was arrested purchasing the machine guns and silencers from an undercover ATF agent. According to the bodyguard, he was buying the machine guns and silencers for Harris. The bodyguard then agreed to cooperate with the ATF and had several recorded phone conversations with the rapper. Harris was videotaped showing up to receive the weapons. He was arrested after inspecting the machine guns. At the time of his arrest there were three other guns in his car. Harris was indicted on three gun charges and faced 30 years in prison.
In March 2008, T.I. pled guilty to two charges of illegally possessing firearms and one count of being a felon in possession of a firearm. He was represented by Attorneys, Dwight Thomas, Steve Sadow, Ed Garland, Don Samuel and Janice Singer. As part of the plea deal, T.I had to perform at least 1000 hours of community service talking to kids about the dangers of crime, drugs, and gangs. At the time of the plea, he said, “I have a long road of redemption to travel … I realize completely I violated the law, and I take it very seriously.”
A year later T.I. received a sentence of one year and a day, but with credit for good behavior the sentence could be a matter of months. Had T.I. not fulfilled the terms of the plea, the judge could have sentenced him up to 57 months. Most criminal cases are disposed of by a plea deal. A plea deal like T.I.’s usually begins when a prosecutor makes a plea offer to the defense. Among the factors a prosecutor considers are the nature of the crime alleged, the defendant’s criminal history, and any input from the alleged victim. In T.I.’s case there was no victim. Prosecutors had served notice that they intended to introduce evidence that on three prior occasions in 2001, 2002, and 2003, T.I. had unlawfully possessed guns, ammunition, and a silencer, all after having been convicted of a felony offense.
Despite his criminal history, his lawyers were able to get a deal for a minimal amount of prison time because he also had a history of good deeds. “He had a lot of good will. He had been helping people for years without any interest in getting public recognition,” says Thomas. However, without the prosecutor in agreement no deal was possible. According to Sadow, T.I.’s defense team began the plea negotiations by submitting a thorough plea proposal drafted by Samuel which was the result of their investigation of the facts and legal issues. Sadow adds that although the defense team felt that they had a defensible case, it was important that T.I.’s career was not jeopardized. Thomas says that he will always give credit to U.S. Attorney David Nahmius for understanding the tremendous benefit a plea deal could have on crime prevention. “He deserves the utmost respect and admiration for recognizing the value T.I. had to stop crime from happening in the first place,” says Thomas. For his part, Nahmius defended the plea deal. “If Mr. Harris performs as expected, his efforts and ability to reach and influence a large number of young people should prevent and deter at least some of them from committing crimes that endanger their communities and ruin their lives,” Nahmius said. Sadow also credits Nahmius for giving T.I consideration for his efforts to get to people before they commit crimes in the same way defendants who become informants are given credit for their cooperation against other defendants. T.I did not become an informant, but Sadow feels he had as great an effect on crime prevention as informants have on future prosecutions.
Once the prosecution makes a plea offer, the defense can make a counter-offer or simply accept the state’s offer. The end result of the discussions between the prosecution and defense is a negotiated plea agreement which is in essence a contract between the state and the accused. Clue v. State, 273 Ga. App. 672 (2005). Thomas said that T.I.’s case was handled no different than any other case. “You analyze the facts and the law to determine what is in the best interest of your client,” says Thomas. The judge cannot participate in the plea negotiations between the prosecution and the defense. However, the prosecution and defense can present a proposed plea agreement to the judge, and the judge is allowed to indicate whether he/she is likely to accept the plea as presented. Uniform Superior Court Rule 33.5.
A defendant entering a guilty plea gives up the right to a jury trial and all defenses the person may have at trial including the right to remain silent and the right to question the witnesses against him. However, a defendant does not have a right to plead guilty, and the judge is not required to accept the guilty plea. Bullard v. State 263 Ga. 682 (1993). Sadow believes that the judge gave the plea deal a chance, because if T.I. did not fulfill the conditions of his plea, he could be stuck with a sentence of several years. If the judge decides not to accept a negotiated sentence, the defendant can take back the plea of guilty, and the fact that the defendant wanted to plead guilty cannot be used against him at trial. Shoemake v. State, 213 Ga. App. 528 (1994). Likewise, a defendant may not mention during trial the prosecutor’s offer of a negotiated plea. Davis v. State, 255 Ga. 598 (1986).
In addition to a negotiated guilty plea, a defendant may enter a non-negotiated plea. In a non-negotiated plea, the prosecutor and defense have not reached any agreement as to sentence. They can make a recommendation to the judge, but once the judge makes a decision, the defendant cannot take his plea back. Skinner v. State, A09A0773. The defendant has essentially thrown himself on the mercy of the court and has to accept the sentence the judge imposes. T.I. admitted that he was in fact guilty and was given credit for accepting responsibility. However, a defendant may enter a guilty plea without admitting that he is in fact guilty of the crime. This plea is called an Alford plea after the case North Carolina v. Alford, 400 U.S. 25 (1970). However, if the plea is a negotiated plea, the state must agree to the Alford plea. Even if the state does not oppose an Alford plea, the judge does not have to accept the defendant’s Alford plea. Jackson v. State, 251 Ga. App. 578 (2001).
A motion to withdraw a guilty plea must be brought within the same term of court that the plea was entered. The terms of court are found in O.C.G.A. § 15-6-3. However, neither the judge nor the prosecutor has to tell the defendant at the time of the plea that he has to ask to withdraw his plea during the term of court. Bennett v. State, A08A0589. A defendant who files a motion to withdraw his guilty plea during the term of court is entitled to have a lawyer appointed to assist him in challenging the guilty plea. Fortson v. State, 272 Ga. 457 (2000). After the term of court, the judge has no authority to withdraw a guilty plea, and the defendant must challenge the guilty plea by a habeas corpus action. Davis v. State, 274 Ga. 865 (2002).
There is no unqualified right to appeal from a guilty plea. An appeal from a guilty plea is only permitted if the issues the defendant wants to raise can be determined by a review of the transcript of the guilty plea. Clayton v. State, S09A0531. There will be no appeal in T.I.’s case. Like most plea deals, each side got something out of the bargain. “Although I am not thrilled about my next year and a day,” said T.I., “I am pleased that I am beginning to put this all behind me.” Thomas adds, “Everyone wants to see this work out the way it is supposed to.” They hope T.I. will continue to inspire the youth to be their best and avoid the criminal justice system.