Academic journal article Harvard Law Review

Criminal Law - Plea Agreements - Third Circuit Holds That Government Appeals of Alleged Plea Agreement Breaches by Defendants Are Reviewed De Novo. - United States V. Williams

Academic journal article Harvard Law Review

Criminal Law - Plea Agreements - Third Circuit Holds That Government Appeals of Alleged Plea Agreement Breaches by Defendants Are Reviewed De Novo. - United States V. Williams

Article excerpt

Plea agreements are unquestionably crucial to the justice system. (1) In a recent year, nearly eighty-six percent of all charged federal offenses were resolved by guilty pleas, and over 72,000 federal defendants pled either guilty or nolo contendere. (2) To promote justice and maintain legitimacy, courts must preserve the fairness of the plea bargain system. Systematic protection of defendants in this context, where the government has much greater bargaining power and defendants relinquish numerous constitutional rights, is thus imperative. The Third Circuit has previously recognized this principle, breaking with some of its sister circuits by adopting a de novo, as opposed to a clear error, standard (3) for reviewing defendants' appeals of government breaches of plea agreements--even when defendants fail to properly preserve the objection in the district court (4) and other circuits would thus find the issue waived. (5) Recently, in United States v. Williams, (6) the Third Circuit held that the de novo standard should also be applied to government appeals of defendants' alleged breaches of plea agreements, even when the government has not properly preserved the objection in the court below. (7) In declining to find waiver by the government, the Third Circuit ignored the substantially different policy implications surrounding alleged breaches of plea agreements by defendants as compared to those by the government, and set a standard that will hinder judicial efficiency, accuracy, and fairness.

Oyton Williams was arrested for drug and gun possession in April 2004 and in March 2005 acceded to a written plea agreement whereby he would plead guilty to one count of possession of cocaine with intent to distribute, and the government would forgo bringing additional charges. (8) The parties stipulated to the appropriate "total [Sentencing] Guidelines offense level," (9) and agreed that "neither party w[ould] argue for the imposition of a sentence outside the Guidelines range that results from the agreed total Guidelines offense level" (10) or "for any upward or downward departure" not set forth in the agreement. (11)

Williams pled guilty on April 13, 2005. (12) At sentencing, the district court granted Williams's motion to downgrade his criminal history category, (13) concluding that the issue was "not addressed in a plea agreement," and thus was properly open to argument. (14) The court then "recognized that Williams was 'seeking other downward departures,' and acknowledged that the plea agreement" might be implicated. (15) Defense counsel pointed out that under United States v. Booker, (16) courts must analyze reasonableness and may depart from sentencing guidelines regardless of parties' stipulations in plea agreements. (17) The court agreed and "invited and allowed the [defendant's departure] argument," (18) subsequently exercising its discretion under the Federal Sentencing Guidelines (19) to sentence Williams to 120 months' imprisonment. (20) The government noted its objection to the sentence, but failed to specifically object that the plea agreement had been violated, or request that it be set aside. (21)

The Third Circuit vacated and remanded for resentencing. Writing for the panel, Judge Sloviter (22) observed that the appropriate standard of review for evaluating an alleged breach of a sentencing agreement by the defendant, and the appropriate remedy for such a breach, were issues of first impression in the circuit. (23) Judge Sloviter then noted the Third Circuit's prior decision to apply de novo review in evaluating whether the government had breached a plea agreement. (24) Pointing to the importance of the plea bargain process to the workability of the criminal justice system, and invoking principles of contract law, Judge Sloviter emphasized the necessity of holding defendants to their plea agreements. (25) The Williams court thus held that government appeals would receive the same de novo review employed to evaluate defendants' appeals of plea agreement breaches. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.