When the Attorney General agrees with you

Respondents sometimes must concede minor points along the way while arguing that such points do not require reversal. But seldom does one see the respondent agree that a judgment is even partially reversible.

One is more likely to see it in a criminal appeal than in a civil appeal, especially when the criminal appeal involves errors in sentencing, as in People v. Frausto, case no. B212054 (2d Dist. Dec. 28, 2009), where the attorney general agreed that the trial court erred in imposing three cumulative 5-year sentencing enhancements under Penal Code section 667, subdivision (a)(1) for each of three prior serious felony convictions tried in a single proceeding and that the defendant had been awarded only 464 of the 466 days of presentence custody credits to which he was entitled. (Not that it did the defendant much good. The 2 extra days of presentence custody credits — 2 days — were applied against  a sentence of 214 years to life. Since the three 5-year enhancements were added consecutively to that sentence, the 10-year reduction in enhancements was likewise not much comfort to the defendant.)

The first (and, so far, only) time I got a brief from the attorney general agreeing with my position, I was stunned. I noticed it when I skimmed through the headings of the respondent’s brief, and thought to myself, “Must be a typo. They left out the word ‘not.'” Even when I read the argument under the heading, I had to read it three times just to make sure that I was reading it correctly!

Waiver of Appeal Rights in Plea Agreements

Plea agreements often waive the right to appeal, but they aren’t always what they seem, especially when it comes to how they define the scope of the waiver. For a lesson in how to determine whether a defendant has waived the right to bring a particular appeal, check out United States v. Cope, case no. 06-50441 (9th Cir. June 4, 2008).

Cope pled guilty to a single count of possession of child pornography and was sentenced to 120 months imprisonment and lifetime supervised release. His plea agreement stated that he waived appeal of his sentence so long as it met three criteria. On appeal, he challenged the length of his supervised release

The court walks you right through the steps, applying these rules:

  • The waiver of a statutory right to appeal is reviewed de novo.
  • A knowing and voluntary waiver of statutory rights to appeal a sentence is valid.
  • The scope of a waiver in a plea agreement is subject to the same rules of interpretation as used for any other contract (at least, “for the most part”).
  • Any ambiguity will be construed against the drafter (usually, the government).

It’s the last of these that allows Cope to reach the merits of his challenge to the length of his supervised release.  Because part of the language defining the scope of Cope’s waiver – which waived appeal of any sentence “within or below the range corresponding to the determined total offense level and criminal history category” – defines a non-appealable sentence in terms of criteria that apply only to the term of imprisonment, and not to the term of the supervised release, the court finds the provision ambiguous and construes it against the government:

As drafted, however, this provision cannot sensibly be applied to a term of supervised release. Under the Sentencing Guidelines, the offense level and criminal history category do not control the term of supervised release, as they do the term of imprisonment. Rather, the type of offense determines the length of the Guidelines range for the term of supervised release. See U.S.S.G. § 5D1.2(a) (Nov. 2002) (specifying supervised release range for Class C felonies); 18 U.S.C. § 3559(a)(3) (Class C felony defined as a crime with a maximum term of imprisonment between 10 and 25 years); 18 U.S.C. § 2252A(b)(2) (2003) (maximum term for Cope’s crime is 20 years). This ambiguity in the waiver provision makes it impossible for us to determine whether the prerequisites for waiver have been met with regard to Cope’s term of supervised release. Because we “steadfastly” apply the rule that “any lack of clarity” in a plea agreement should be construed against the government as drafter, [citation], we hold that this ambiguity in the waiver provision permits Cope to appeal the length of his term of supervised release.

It does Cope little good in the end, however.  While the court entertains his appeal, it affirms the lifetime supervised release.

Ninth Circuit Amends Garcia on Appellate Jurisdiction

According to Ninth Circuit Blog, the Ninth Circuit “came to its jurisdictional senses” with its amended opinion in U.S. v. Garcia, case no. 05-30356 (9th Cir. Nov. 19, 2007, amended Apr. 17, 2008). While I might have said that a little more gently, I agree with the sentiment.

I covered the relevant holding regarding appellate jurisdiction in my original coverage:

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.

The amended opinion holds that the court has jurisdiction to hear the appeal because a Rule 11 plea in itself deprive the court of appeals of jurisdiction and the defendants did not explicitly waive their appeal rights in their plea agreements.

Be Careful with those Plea Agreements

Be very, very careful with the language of your plea agreement. After all, it’s a contract, and deserves the same careful consideration before entering into it.

You might live to regret it, even if it takes 20 years for it to catch up with you, as happened to the defendant in People v. Paredes, case no. D050150 (4th Dist. Feb. 26, 2008). Paredes, a legally resident alien, pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter in 1987 in part because the prosecutor agreed to a “JRAD” — a judicial recommendation against deportation — that, under 1987 federal law, precluded the government from removing him from the country on the basis of the conviction. He received probation conditioned on serving 365 days in jail.

Flash forward roughly 17 years, to when Paredes applies for citizenship and, in response to this act of patriotism, has removal proceedings initiated against him by the Department of Homeland Security. The removal proceedings are instigated because federal law had since changed to make his conviction a basis for removal notwithstanding the JRAD. Perhaps the worst part: had he been sentenced to just one day less in jail, the conviction would not have subjected him to removal.

After running through a mill of immigration proceedings, Paredes sought relief in superior court. He sought to vacate his conviction, withdraw his guilty plea and enter a plea of not guilty or, alternatively to “enforce” the plea agreement, which he contended contained a “no deportation” promise.

The superior court granted relief by vacating the 20-year-old judgment and entering a new judgment nunc pro tunc that included a sentence of only 364 days in order to avoid a “miscarriage of justice” in light of the facts that Paredes relied on protection from deportation, neither party contemplated the change in federal law and, had they done so, would have agreed to a 364-day jail term as a condition of probation, and its finding that the plea agreement included a “promise of no deportation, embodied in the JRAD.”

The court of appeal reverses, finding no breach of the plea agreement and relying on precedent that so long as the defendant is adequately advised (as Paredes was) that his conviction may have immigration consequences, including deportation, later changes in immigration law do not warrant modification of the judgment.

I’m only disappointed in the result because it kept the court from reaching some interesting issues regarding judgment and jurisdiction. Specifically, whether judgment could be entered nunc pro tunc under the circumstances and whether the court acted in excess of its jurisdiction by modifying the terms of probation after probation was complete.

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.

Summary Rejection of Plea Agreement is Error

It’s not often that you see an opinion on a writ petition start with a statement that the trial court erred but the writ is denied. The reason for that sort of introduction in Morgan v. U.S. District Court (D.Ariz.), case no. 07-70201 (9th Cir. Oct. 9, 2007), is because the petitioner sought just a little more relief than he was entitled to.

Morgan accepted a plea agreement that included a sentencing term pursuant to Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 11(c)(1)(C). So far, so good.

The stipulated sentence was near the upper limit of the guidelines but the district court opined that an upward departure may be appropriate. This led the district court to express its disdain for sentencing agreements because the inclusion of the sentence left nothing for the court to do:

Reasoning that acceptance of stipulated sentences as a general matter renders a district court’s entry of judgment a mere formality, the [district] court concluded: “I don’t think that’s what Article III federal court should be reduced to. So for that reason, we’re going to reject the Rule 11(c)(1)(C) stipulated term in this agreement as being unreasonable as a matter of law, not necessarily unreasonable as a matter of fact.”

Faced with the options of (1) withdrawing his plea and going to trial or (2) pleading guilty and leaving sentencing to a court that had already expressed its opinion that an upward departure might be appropriate, Morgan sought mandamus to compel the district court to accept the plea agreement, including the sentence.

The Ninth refuses to compel the district court to do so, but holds that the district court erred in rejecting the plea without a particularized analysis. The court’s summary rejection of the plea was a failure to exercise its discretion, so the Ninth remands for the district court to “make an individualized assessment of the propriety of Morgan’s stipulated sentence, in light of the factual circumstances specific to his case.”

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The Limited Retroactivity of Cunningham

If you had been convicted of a crime and either exhausted or foregone your right of appeal, and then the United States Supreme Court decided a case that suggests your sentencing was error, you’d file a habeas petition, wouldn’t you?  Of course you would.

But you’d be out of luck in California if the U. S. Supreme Court case you were counting on was Cunningham v. California (2007), ____ U.S. ____ [127 S.Ct. 856], in which the Supreme Court held that upper term sentences may not be imposed based on facts found by the court rather than the jury beyond a reasonable doubt.  In In re Gomez, case no. B197980 (2d Dist. August 7, 2007), the Court of Appeal holds that Cunningham does not apply retroactively on collateral review to cases that were already final when it was decided.

This result is reached via the rule that:

[A]n old rule applies both on direct and collateral review.  A new rule applies retroactively in a collateral proceeding only if (1) the rule is substantive or (2) the rule is a “‘watershed rul[e] of criminal procedure’ implicating the fundamental fairness and accuracy of the criminal proceeding.”

(Citations omitted.)

Here, the court finds Cunningham is not a new rule.  Hence, Gomez’s habeas petition is denied.

This is a nice, short opinion worth reading for a good lesson in applying the old rule/new rule test for retroactivity. 

Grandstanding Does Not Equal Intent

I watched the movie Minority Report last night.  It’s about a “precrime” department of the Washington, D.C. police department around 50 years in the future that, through the use of visions recorded from three gifted “precognitive” individuals, arrests persons for future murders they were going to commit.  The murder rate in D.C. drops to zero.  I recommend the movie, especially if you’re a sci-fi fan.

Coincidentally, today the Ninth Circuit issues United States v. Jimison, case no. 06-30417 (July 16, 2007), in which Judge Kozinski frames the issue as “when a defendant can be subject to a sentencing enhancement” under U.S. Sentencing Guidelines “for possessing a firearm in connection with an offense that he never commits.”  Specifically, the issue in this case is whether the evidence was sufficient to support an enhancement to felony firearms possession where the possession by the defendant is “with knowledge, intent, or reason to believe that [the firearms] would be used or possessed in connection with another felony offense.”  U.S.S.G. § 2K2.1(b)(6) (formerly § 2K2.1(b)(5)). 

The defendant, after beating up his girlfriend, stole her car.  He “stumbled upon” an unlocked ranch house from which he stole some guns, then went to a friend’s home.  Clearly distraught, he told is friend he thought he had killed his girlfriend and that he was “going to go Rambo.”  (Link added.)  Is this enough for the sentencing enhancement?

The Ninth Circuit (without benefit of precognitives, of course) says it is not enough.  The defendant’s “Rambo” remark is “an offhand comment” that “lacks sufficient specificity to establish that [defendant] formed a firm intent to shoot it out with the police.”  The court finds that lacking any evidence of context to the contrary, the defendant’s remark is the equivalent of a parent who says “I’m going to wring his neck” upon learning that is child his in trouble at school again.

It also didn’t hurt that the defendant called the owner of the guns, apologized and arranged to return them!  Why can’t all criminals be so polite?

Ninth Circuit Allows 35-Year-Old Conduct to Enhance Child Porn Conviction

The decision begins: “This appeal tests the temporal and relational limits of prior conduct as a sentencing enhancement.”  That seems to be putting it mildly.  In U.S. v. Garner, case no. 06-10417 (June 18, 2007), the Ninth Circuit allows the defendant’s sexual abuse of his children more than 35 years ago to be considered in enhancing his sentence for attempted receipt and distribution of child pornography.  The court finds no time or relationship limitations built into the “pattern of activity involving the sexual abuse or exploitation of a minor” requirement for enhancement under section 2G2.2(b)(5) of the Sentencing Guidelines.

Nothing from Ninth Circuit Blog yet (which is almost certain to weigh in on this), but Professor Martin notes that the 22-year sentence means Garner will die in prison.

One wonders if this has to be some sort of record.  The oldest conduct utilized for enhancement in any of the cases cited by the court was 26 years before the conviction.

Ninth Circuit: Prior Conviction of Any Age May be Used to Enhance Sentence for Illegal Entry

Joining the Tenth and Eleventh Circuits, the Ninth Circuit holds that there is no limit on the age of convictions that may be used under section 2L.1.2 of the 2003 Sentencing Guidelines to enhance a sentence on a conviction for entering or remaining in the United States illegally. The defendant in this case was apprehended in 2003 and the trial court correctly considered convictions from 1972 and 1976. The case is United States v. Olmos-Esparza, Ninth Circuit case no. 06-50276 (April 24, 2007).

UPDATE: Jon Sands at Ninth Circuit Blog gives his detailed take on the case here.

CORRECTION: The author at Ninth Circuit Blog is Steve Kalar, posting here.