A Salt Lake City man who admitted to dealing cocaine out of his father's State Street restaurant in 1995 is being allowed to take back his guilty plea after a federal judge admitted to making a mistake in the case.
In an order issued this week, U.S. District Paul Cassell said he should not have advised Michael John Nikols of the amount of prison time he faced if he did not accept a prosecution plea deal and proceeded with a trial.
Nikols pleaded guilty in October 2005, agreeing to a four-year sentence and agreeing to pay the federal government $200,000 to remove forfeiture liens placed on his family's restaurant and several property lots.
The case came to light in December 2002, when police served a search warrant on the Coachman's Dinner and Pancake House on the corner of 1300 South and State Street. Federal prosecutors claimed that Michael Nikols had been running a major cocaine trafficking operation out of the restaurant, directing restaurant employees and their friends who actually did the dealing.
Police said that in an intercepted phone call between Nikols and a drug dealer in Texas, a code word "girl" was used to refer to a kilo of cocaine. Nikols was heard arranging to send someone to Texas to complete the deal and that the drugs would be sent to Utah via Federal Express. Nikols was arrested arriving at a Federal Express station to pick up the package.
After his sentencing, Nikols filed a motion to withdraw his guilty plea, saying he felt like his defense attorney and Cassell had "coerced him into pleading guilty."
According to an affidavit filed in federal court, Nikols said he told his defense attorneys, David Chesnoff and Scott Williams, that he did not want to "admit to actions that I did not do." He claims his attorneys told him "sometimes you have to lie to get what you want."
Cassell, not privy to what Nikols' attorneys told him, said he pointed out to Nikols during a hearing that if he took his case to trial and was convicted, he faced around 27 years in prison, calling that "basically a life sentence given his age."
In his order issued this week, Cassell said in light of a recent 10th Circuit decision, which restricts what a federal judge can tell a defendant in terms of possible sentences, the judge said he has little choice but to set aside the sentence and allow Nikols to take the case to trial.
"Because the statement had implications for Mr. Nikols' decision to plead guilty, it appears to transgress the boundaries that the Tenth Circuit has staked out," Cassell wrote. "The court, therefore, has no choice but to set his plea aside."
U.S. Attorney for Utah spokeswoman Melodie Rydalch said her office is still reviewing their options in the case and have not made any decisions as to any other possible plea deal or trial.Cassell did note that although Nikols wants to take the case to trial, given what appears to be an "overwhelming case" against him, "Mr. Nikols' decision to withdraw his plea and go to trial appears likely to produce nothing other than a quadrupling of his time in prison."