Is a Sentence within the Range Stipulated in a Plea Agreement Appealable?

UPDATE (4/23/08): The holding described in this post was changed by the court’s amended opinion of April 17, 2008).  See my coverage.

The Ninth Circuit rejects such a challenge in U.S. v. Garcia, case no. 05-30356 (9th Cir. Nov. 19, 2007), at least where the plea agreement was not contingent on the sentencing guidelines and the only error asserted was a miscalculation of the guidelines or failure to properly consider the factors in Title 18 United States Code section 3553.

The two defendants challenging their sentences in this case claimed that the trial court erred even though the sentences imposed were within the ranges stipulated in their respective plea agreements made under Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 11(c)(1)(C). Both defendants contended that the trial court’s miscalculation under the sentencing guidelines and its failure to consider all section 3553 factors led it to impose higher sentences than it otherwise should have, and thus the sentences, even though they were within the ranges stipulated in the plea agreements, were “in violation of law,” which would make them appealable under Title 18 United States Code section 3742(a)(1).

The Ninth disagrees, holding that even if the trial court miscalculated the guidelines or erred in applying section 3553, section 3742 does not confer appellate jurisdiction over an appeal from a sentence that is within the range stipulated in a Rule 11 plea agreement. The court points out that the agreements permitted the trial court “full discretion to impose a sentence” within the stipulated range, and thus the defendants received the benefit of their bargains regardless of where in that range they were sentenced.

The Ninth has previously held that a sentence within the statutory guidelines may be reviewed if it is challenged as “unreasonable” under application of section 3553 factors. However, the court refuses to apply the same rule to sentences within the stipulated guidelines of a plea agreement, effectively holding that section 3553 does not apply to stipulated sentencing ranges, at least where the plea agreement does not explicitly require it.

Garcia leaves open the possibility of getting around its holding with a properly crafted plea agreement. If the plea agreement makes a properly calculated guideline or application of section 3553 an explicit condition of the plea, a defendant may be able to appeal a sentence even if it is within the range stipulated in the agreement. The Ninth Circuit Blog post referenced below offers this advice, along with this caution: “Of course, good luck getting another 11(c)(1)(C) deal that doesn’t include explicit appellate waivers.”

The “Case o’ the Week” post at Ninth Circuit Blog starts by discussing Garcia but transitions to a discussion of the “mess” in the Ninth Circuit regarding jurisdiction to hear sentencing appeals and links to a number of helpful posts on other recent decisions on this topic. Follow the links, and by the time you’re done, you will be eagerly awaiting the Ninth’s en banc opinion in U.S. v. Carty.