United States v. Lorenzo Martez Lewis, No. 09-4467 (4th. Cir. Feb. 2, 2011) (available here)
In a case decided this week, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit took issue with either mistakes made, or arguments advanced by all parties.
In the district court below, the defendant entered into a plea agreement with the government pursuant to Rule 11(c)(1)(C) (a “C” plea). Unlike most plea agreements entered in federal courts, a C plea is binding upon the judge — so long as the court accepts the plea and the terms of the agreement. Should the court reject any of the terms of the agreement, the defendant is given the opportunity to withdraw his plea of guilty.
In Lewis, the court below accepted the defendant’s plea of guilty, but refused to abide by the terms of the plea agreement — namely, that any sentence imposed would run concurrent to the state court sentence the defendant was already serving. While the court had discretion to reject the plea agreement, it had no discretion to alter the terms of the agreement without giving the defendant the opportunity to withdraw his plea. In the end, the court sentenced the defendant to a term of imprisonment to run consecutive to any other sentence the defendant was already serving.
On appeal, the defendant’s appellate counsel filed a brief pursuant to Anders v. California, essentially submitting that there were no meritorious issues for appeal, but requesting that the Court of Appeals consider whether the district court had erred in sentencing the defendant to a consecutive term of imprisonment. The defendant also submitted a pro se submission to the Court stating that the plea agreement was supposed to be binding on the Court, if the Court accepted it. The government’s appellate counsel argued that the parties never “intended or understood the concurrent sentence provision to be an agreement for a specific sentence under Rule 11(c)(1)(C).
The Court had little difficulty in analyzing the issue presented. The government and the defendant entered into a sort of contract which, if accepted by the district court, would be binding. The agreement specifically stated that “the sentence of imprisonment shall be served concurrent with the state sentence.” The district court in this case, however, never explicitly rejected (and tacitly accepted, albeit partially) the plea agreement. The defendant was not given an opportunity to withdraw his guilty plea. And notably, “the prosecutor failed to correct the court’s misunderstanding of the concurrent sentence provision.” The Court noted that the government’s failure to uphold its obligations under the agreement constituted a breach.
“The government’s contention that the parties actually intended and understood the concurrent sentence provision to be a mere recommendation is – put mildly – nearly frivolous.”
The Court vacated the defendant’s conviction and sentence, and remanded the case. The defendant himself is the only person that came out of this decision without drawing major criticism from the Court of Appeals.