Oral argument: Feb. 22, 2011
Appealed from: United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit (Nov. 20, 2009)
FAIR SENTENCING ACT, SENTENCING GUIDELINES, PLEA AGREEMENTS, RETROACTIVITY
In 2005, Petitioner William Freeman was indicted on multiple charges, including the possession of crack cocaine. Freeman pled guilty to all charges and received a 106-month sentence under a plea agreement. Following Freeman's sentencing, the United States Sentencing Commission amended the Sentencing Guidelines, reducing the sentencing range for crack cocaine possession to eliminate disparities between crack and powder cocaine offenses. Under 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(2), a court may alter a sentence after its imposition if the Sentencing Commission lowers the sentencing range. Both the District Court and the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals rejected Freeman's request for a sentence reduction. The Sixth Circuit held that Freeman was ineligible for a reduction because his sentence was imposed under a plea agreement, and was not calculated under the Sentencing Guidelines. The Supreme Court granted certiorari to determine whether an individual whose sentence is imposed under a plea agreement may seek a sentence reduction following amendments to the Sentencing Guidelines.
Section 3582(c)(2) of Tit1e 18 of the United States Code provides that a district court may reduce a term of imprisonment after it has been imposed if the defendant "has been sentenced to a term of imprisonment based on a sentencing range that has subsequently been lowered by the Sentencing Commission." Under Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 11(c)(1)(C), the government and the defendant may enter into a plea agreement in which they "agree that a specific sentence or sentencing range is the appropriate disposition of the case" and "such a recommendation or request binds the court once the court accepts the plea agreement. " The question presented is whether a defendant is ineligible for a sentence reduction under 18 U.S.C. §3582(c)(2) solely because the district court accepted a Rule 11(c)(1)(C) plea agreement.
Whether a defendant who accepted a plea agreement under Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 11(c)(1)(C) is ineligible for a sentence reduction under 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(2) when a Sentencing Guidelines range has been retroactively reduced through an amendment.
In January 2005, William Freeman was indicted for one count of crack cocaine possession, two counts of weapon possession, and one count of marijuana possession. Under the terms of a plea agreement, pursuant to Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 11(c)(1)(C), Freeman pled guilty to all charges in the indictment and received a sentence of 106 months. The agreement specified the amount of drugs possessed by Freeman, provided for a sentence reduction for acceptance of responsibility, and specified his sentencing offense level. The United States District Court for the Western District of Kentucky accepted Freeman's plea, binding him to the terms of the agreement.
After Freeman's sentencing, the United States Sentencing Commission amended the Sentencing Guidelines, reducing the sentencing range for crack cocaine possession to provide for an equal treatment of crack and powder cocaine offenses. These Sentencing Guideline amendments were retroactive, providing for sentence reductions for individuals sentenced under the former crack cocaine provisions. Accordingly, Freeman sought to have his sentence reduced. Under 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(2), a court may alter a sentence after its imposition if the Sentencing Commission lowers the sentencing range. The District Court denied Freeman's request, and he appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit.
The Sixth Circuit denied Freeman's appeal for a sentence reduction. The Sixth Circuit determined that under its holding in United States v. Peveler, Freeman was not entitled to a reduction because his sentence was imposed according to a plea agreement and was not calculated under the Sentencing Guidelines. The Sixth Circuit held that a court could only alter a sentence imposed through a plea agreement when necessary to avoid injustice. The court reasoned that Freeman's sentence did not fall within this exception as his sentence remained within the guideline range for his offenses. The new sentencing guidelines produced a range of 97 to 106 months for Freeman's offenses, with Freeman's sentence falling at the high end of the range. Before the amendments, Freeman's 106-month sentence was at the bottom of the guideline range. On September 28, 2010, the Supreme Court granted Freeman's petition for certiorari to determine whether an individual who accepts a plea agreement under Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 11(c)(1)(C) is eligible for a sentence reduction under 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(2) following an amendment to the Sentencing Guidelines.
The crux of this case turns on the Supreme Court's interpretation of 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(2) as the statute applies to plea agreements reached under Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 11. The Court will determine if individuals sentenced according to plea agreements are eligible for sentencing reductions following an amendment of the Sentencing Guidelines. Freeman asserts that his sentence and plea agreement were based upon the Sentencing Guideline range and that the court should not impose a total ban preventing individuals from receiving reductions when sentenced according to plea agreements. Alternatively, the United States argues that individuals sentenced pursuant to plea agreements should be ineligible for sentence reductions because the agreements are reached through independent bargaining between a defendant and the government and are not based on the Sentencing Guidelines.
Uniformity, Consistency, and the Independent Nature of the Plea Agreement
Freeman argues that many circumstances exist in which courts have discretion to alter sentences imposed under a plea agreement and the Court should extend this ability to the case of Sentencing Guideline amendments. Freeman maintains that the court may alter the agreement where a defendant provides assistance to an investigation, where the prosecution engages in misconduct, or where the Director of the Bureau of Prisons finds that there are compelling reasons. Moreover, Freeman maintains that a holding preventing sentencing reductions would contravene Congressional intent because the retroactive nature of the Sentencing Guideline amendments indicates that Congress intended for the amendments to apply to all penalties imposed under overly harsh standards.
Alternatively, the United States argues that courts should not have the authority to reduce individuals' sentences made according to plea agreements following amendments to the Sentencing Guidelines. The United States asserts that granting such authority to the courts would cause an inconsistent application of Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 11 because courts do not have discretion to alter plea bargains under other circumstances. The United States maintains that plea agreements arise separately from the Sentencing Guidelines and allowing courts to alter these agreements would create inconsistencies because of the agreements' independent nature. Furthermore, the United States contends that the majority of the Circuit Courts have reached this holding and a decision for Freeman would upset this uniformity.
Fairness Concerns Associated with Sentence Reduction
Freeman argues that the courts should decide on an individual basis whether a defendant is eligible for a sentence reduction. Freeman insists that in some cases, plea agreements are established in accordance with the Sentencing Guidelines and a court can easily determine whether this occurred by examining the sentencing transcript in each case. Freeman also maintains that a case-by-case approach would best ensure that a defendant's rights were respected during the sentencing process; an individual must waive his or her right to have a sentence imposed by the court under the Guidelines to accept a guilty plea. Moreover, Freeman asserts that a bright line rule will not produce the most equitable results, especially in the context of criminal sentencing where each case has unique facts and the defendant's procedural rights are of great concern.
In contrast, the United States contends that it would be unfair to allow the court to reduce Freeman's sentence. The United States argues that plea agreements are reached as the result of bargaining between a defendant and the government, and a defendant often avoids longer sentences than if a court sentenced a defendant considering only the Sentencing Guidelines. The United States asserts that allowing an individual sentenced under a plea agreement to have his sentence reduced would prevent the government from obtaining benefits gained through concessions during bargaining while allowing defendants to make considerable gains without risk. Moreover, Freeman's sentence falls within the acceptable guideline range for his offenses when calculated according to the amendments, and the United States suggests that his sentence is fair in that respect.
Petitioner William Freeman argues that a plea agreement made under Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 11(c)(1)(C) does not categorically preclude a defendant from seeking a retroactively amended sentence reduction under 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(2). Freeman states that his plea agreement was “based on” a sentencing range that was subsequently lowered and that his sentence should, in turn, reflect this. Furthermore, Freeman states that § 3582(c)(2) allows a court to retroactively modify a previously-imposed sentence “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.” The United States, however, argues that Freeman is ineligible for a sentence reduction because his original sentence was “based on” the terms of his binding Rule 11(c)(1)(C) plea agreement and not on the Sentencing Guidelines that were subsequently reduced.
What is the Proper Interpretation of “Based on”?
Though the statute does not define “based on,” Freeman argues that the phrase should be given its plain meaning according to the rules of statutory construction. Because common dictionaries define the verb “base” as to “to make, form, or serve as a base for,” or “to make lay, or form a foundation for,” Freeman contends that the statute only requires that the appropriate retroactively-reduced Guideline was the “foundation for” or “point of development” for the court-imposed sentence. Accordingly, Freeman argues that his sentence was intended to be and was in fact “based on” the Sentencing Guidelines because his plea agreement expressly provided that “Defendant agrees to have his sentence determined pursuant to the Sentencing Guidelines.” Freeman, moreover, states that the Guidelines were applied since the court adopted a plea that incorporated a probation officer’s independent application of the Guidelines to his case and noted that the final sentence was within the range of the Guidelines. Thus, Freeman argues that since his sentence was “based on” a subsequently lowered Guideline range, he is eligible for relief.
The United States contends that a claim can only be “based on” its most fundamental elements, and that something that is only a “point of development” is insufficient. In the context of Section 3582(c)(2), the United States argues that a sentence is “based on” the element that “was of binding legal consequence in its imposition,” which sanctions the defendant to a certain sentence. Moreover, the United States insists that a plea agreement made under Rule 11(c)(1)(C) of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure (hereinafter “Rule C Plea Agreement”) binds a court to impose a sentence that is “based on” an agreement between the parties, not on the Guidelines. Specifically, the United States asserts that Rule C Plea Agreements allow a government and defense attorney to “agree that a specific sentence or sentencing range is the appropriate disposition of the case, or that a particular provision of the Sentencing Guidelines . . . does or does not apply.” Thus, the United States argues that when a defendant pleads guilty pursuant to a Rule C Plea Agreement, the sentence agreed upon by both the defendant and the government is what a court is later bound to impose and from which it cannot deviate. Accordingly, the United States contends that the agreement is the legal basis for Freeman’s sentence, regardless of whether this sentence ultimately follows the Guidelines range.
Are Rule C Plea Agreements Banned from Section 3582(c)(2) Sentence Reductions?
Freeman argues that the plain meaning of Section 3582(c)(2) and the context and purpose of the statute do not implicitly or explicitly exclude Rule C Plea Agreements. Moreover, Freeman asserts that the recent amendment to Rule 11 acknowledges the impact that the Guidelines have on guilty pleas and that although courts are bound to follow Rule C Plea Agreements, this does not preclude the imposed sentence from being “based on” the Guidelines as required in Section 3582(c)(2). Here, Freeman maintains that the court approved his sentence after it determined that the bargained sentence was within the appropriate Guideline range. Freeman states that a case-by-case approach, which would examine the agreement terms and sentencing transcript, would correctly determine whether a sentence was “based on” a subsequently reduced guideline, as Section 3582(c)(2) requires. He also argues that the courts have the ability to carry out this analysis and that since the Guidelines act as a starting point in initial plea negotiations, this approach would reflect actual practice. Freeman further insists that a categorical ban “would undermine the plea bargaining process” because it would wrongly infer that no Rule C Plea Agreements are based on the Guidelines.
The United States, however, states that Congress could have explicitly included defendants who agreed to particular sentences under Rule C Plea Agreements when it passed Section 3582(c)(2). The government claims that by choosing not to, Congress acknowledged that a stipulated sentence made under a Rule C Plea Agreement, regardless of whether it follows or deviates from the Guidelines, cannot be changed since it binds the sentencing court once the agreement is adopted. Moreover, the United States argues that a court may only substitute the retroactively amended Guidelines that were previously used when the defendant was sentenced. Accordingly, the United States asserts that at the time of sentencing under Rule C Plea Agreements there is no application of the Guidelines because the court is bound to impose the particular sentence decided on by the parries. Thus, the United States contends that a Rule C Plea Agreement, once accepted, is ineligible for a Section 3582(c)(2) retroactive sentence reduction because the sentence agreed upon between the parties to the plea agreement is the basis for the sentence, not the Guidelines.
Should Rule C Plea Agreements be Interpreted as Waivers to Section 3582(c)(2) Retroactive Sentence Reductions?
Freeman argues that a Section 3582(c)(2) waiver could only be made explicitly and that, in accord with constitutional guarantees, it “cannot be presumed, implied, or read into the plea agreement.” Moreover, Freeman asserts that since a waiver cannot be implied from silence under ordinary contract law, a waiver was not made here when he agreed to his Rule C Plea Agreement. He also argues that his particular plea agreement contains an integration clause that states that all terms and conditions are contained in the document. Since the document does not contain any provision that would waive any further consideration of a Section 3582(c)(2) sentence reduction, Freeman claims it would be constitutionally unsound to infer a waiver.
The United States, however, argues that the parties to a plea agreement should be held to the settled terms and conditions of the document due to the contractual nature of plea agreements. Thus, in accordance with the binding nature of Rule C Plea Agreements, the United States asserts that defendants must accept the risk of a favorable change in law that occurs after a court has accepted their plea. To allow otherwise, the United States argues, would unjustly benefit defendants at the government’s expense by allowing defendants to reduce their stipulated sentences while maintaining all the advantages of their plea agreements. Accordingly, the United States contends that by entering a Rule C Plea Agreement, Freeman has “already bargained away the possibility of a lower sentence.”
This case will determine whether a defendant who accepted a specific sentence under a Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 11(c)(1)(C) plea agreement is ineligible for a reduction of that sentence under 18 U.S.C § 3582(c)(2) after a retroactive reduction of a Sentencing Guidelines range. Freeman argues that he is eligible for sentence reduction because his original sentence was “based on” a sentencing range that has been subsequently lowered. The United States contends that Freeman in not eligible for a sentence reduction because his plea agreement, once accepted by the court, required the court to impose a particular sentence agreed on by the government and defense. Thus, the United States argues that his sentence was only “based on” the binding plea agreement, not any Sentencing Guidelines. This decision will affect the ability of individuals sentenced according to plea agreements reached under Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 11(c)(1)(C) to seek reductions to their sentences following amendments to the Sentencing Guidelines.
Edited by: Sarah Chon
· Washington Post: The Fair Sentencing Act Corrects a Long-Time Wrong in Cocaine Cases (Aug. 3, 2010)
· Office of Defender Services: Crack Cocaine Sentencing
· Congressional Research Service, Brian T. Yeh: Federal Cocaine Sentencing Disparity: Sentencing Guidelines, Jurisprudence, and Legislation (Aug. 5, 2010)