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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