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February 17, 2011

Timely student note on 11(c)(1)(C) pleas and sentence modifications

Next wednesday, the Supreme Court will hear argument in Freeman v. USconcerning whether a defendant sentenced pursuant to 11(c)(1)(C) plea may be able to get a sentence modification based on new retroactive guidelines. And, just in time for the argument, I see that there is this new student note by Joshua Asher on this topic available via SSRN titled "Unbinding the Bound: Reframing the Availability of Sentence Modifications for Offenders Who Entered into 11(c)(1)(C) Plea Agreements." Here is the abstract:

On March 3, 2008, the United States Sentencing Commission retroactively amended U.S.S.G. § 2D1.1, reducing the base offense level for most crack cocaine offenses. Accordingly, defendants who had been sentenced under the old guidelines could now seek to have their sentences modified under the amended guidelines.  In order for a court to even consider granting such a motion, however, defendants must meet the requirements described in 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(2), which permits modifications of prison terms “in the case of a defendant who has been sentenced to a term of imprisonment based on a sentencing range that has subsequently been lowered by the Sentencing Commission.”

Although the terms of the statute appear straightforward, courts have not always agreed on whether a defendant’s term of imprisonment was based on a guidelines sentencing range.  The problem has proved particularly acute in cases involving plea agreements formed pursuant to Rule 11(c)(1)( C) of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure. Under this type of agreement, the parties include the proposed sentence in the written plea presented to the judge.  Then, if the judge accepts the guilty plea, she may not alter the sentence as she could in cases in which the prosecutor simply recommends a particular sentence to the court.  As a result, many courts have denied motions for sentence modifications under the amended crack cocaine guidelines, relying on a per se rule that a district court lacks subject matter jurisdiction to consider a § 3582(c)(2) motion if the sentence was imposed pursuant to a binding plea agreement.  These courts hold that the plea agreement, rather than the Guidelines, constituted the basis for the sentence, thus making such defendants ineligible for a reduction.

Contrary to the majority of circuit court precedent, this Note argues that a per se rule denying such motions misinterprets the relevant statute, undervalues the effects the Guidelines had in transferring sentencing discretion away from judges, and undermines Sentencing Commission policies.  Finding that courts should not employ a per se denial rule, however, does not mean that any defendant who entered into a binding plea agreement will meet the jurisdictional requirement for a sentence reduction.  Rather, district courts should exercise jurisdiction over the § 3582(c)(2) motions of defendants who entered into binding plea agreements only when the Guidelines played a determinative role in the ultimate sentence agreed upon by the parties as evidenced by the plea agreement.

February 17, 2011 at 01:36 PM | Permalink


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Novel suggestion: When you make an agreement, keep it.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Feb 17, 2011 2:58:22 PM

I have always understood Rule 11(c)(1)(C) to cap the maximum sentence that a judge although the judge is free to go lower.

Posted by: Clint Broden | Feb 17, 2011 8:02:54 PM


The judge is also free to reject the agreement, as happened with the Pennsylvania judges who were willing to plead to some charge of official misconduct. I don't know whether that agreement was proposed under 11(c)(1)(C) though.

Here's a question I'd be interested in hearing the answer to. When a judge does reject a plea agreement for not serving justice is that judge then disqualified from handling a trial on the same matter? I would think when such a plea has been rejected a strong argument could be made that the judge has already come to a strong conclusion and that could influence the judgment call rulings on objections and such.

Posted by: Soronel Haetir | Feb 17, 2011 9:26:48 PM

Soronel, the answer is no - it is going on in LA right now. District judges are not supposed "engage in plea negotiations" - but they often reject binding plea agreements in fed court, decribe their objection to it, and then the parties return with the same agreement without the problematic provision - or proceed to trial -- and, yes, that trial is before that same judge who will decide judgment notwithstanding the verdict (JNOV) motions under Rule 29 and sentence the defendant.

Posted by: Wes Porter | Jan 17, 2012 9:53:22 PM

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