Rejection of C Plea Agreement held to be an abuse of discretion;
Case remanded for resentencing by different judge
In United States v. Cota-Luna, the parties agreed that the defendants (Mr. Cota-Luna and Mr. Navarro-Gaytan) played a small role in a drug conspiracy involving around 92 kilograms of cocaine. Under a Rule 11(c)(1)(C) plea agreement, the defendants agreed to plead guilty to a conspiracy charge involving that amount of drugs.
The base offense level was 34 but under the C plea agreement a variety of guideline adjustments were applied including the “Safety Valve” guideline (U.S.S.G §5C1.2). The result was a final offense level of 20 for each defendant. Mr. Cota-Luna would be sentenced to 36 months imprisonment and Mr. Navarro-Gaytan would be sentenced to 33 months imprisonment.
At the change of plea hearing, the district court rejected the plea agreement. In response to the parties’ question whether the court objected to the guideline calculations, the court indicated that the guidelines were advisory and “just the starting point.” The court noted that “90 plus kilograms of cocaine” were involved and there was “other relevant conduct that’s going to be part and parcel of the case.” The court said, “So the guideline computation may be accurate or may not, but my hands are not going to be tied when I look at all the various factors that I am required to consider.” The court made it clear that it would not accept a C plea agreement.
The parties then negotiated a Rule 11(c)(1)(B) plea agreement that contained the same guideline calculations as in the original plea agreement and was “nearly identical” to that agreement. The district court accepted the B plea agreement at a subsequent change of plea hearing.
With the exception of a single 2 level reduction, “the PSR’s offense-level calculations mirrored those in the plea agreements.” At sentencing, the district court expressed its view that the defendants probably did not satisfy the Safety Valve guideline because §5C1.2(a)(5) required them to discuss the offense at an in-person meeting with government officers and here they relied on their lawyers to convey information to the government. The sentencing was continued to enable the defendants to personally meet with government officers to discuss the offense.
The district court entered a presentencing order confirming its view that the defendants did not satisfy the requirements of the Safety Valve guideline because they did not personally meet with government officers before the first sentencing hearing. The order further indicated that the court rejected other adjustments that the parties agreed upon to reduce the base offense level.
At the second sentencing hearing, the district court followed the views expressed in its presentencing order. Since the defendants were deemed ineligible for the Safety Valve, their guideline range was 120 months (the mandatory minimum) to 135 months. Each defendant was sentenced to 120 months.
The Sixth Circuit vacated the convictions and sentences and remanded the case for the district court to reconsider whether to accept the original C plea agreement.
The majority opinion observed that a district court may defer acceptance of a C plea agreement until it has reviewed the PSR and that is the preferred practice. Here, the plea agreement was rejected before the PSRs were prepared and the district court was required to explain its rejection of the agreement.
The opinion noted that the district court had two concerns with the C plea agreement. One concern was that the proposed sentences were too lenient given the amount of drugs involved. The appellate court rejected that reason because the base offense level was predicated on the quantity of drugs. Consequently, that factor should have worked in the defendants’ favor in light of the small role they played in the crime. The defendants’ minor role was also a reason to reject the district court’s second concern - maintaining its sentencing discretion by considering relevant conduct connected to the case. Since the district court’s two concerns with the C plea agreement were not “sound reasons” for rejecting it, it was an abuse of discretion to reject the agreement.
The majority opinion also ordered that the case be reassigned to a different district court judge. Several factors warranted reassignment. First, by rejecting the C plea agreement before the PSRs were prepared and rejecting “on dubious grounds” nearly every guideline reduction specified in the plea agreement, the court appeared to be predisposed to impose a harsh sentence on the defendants.
Second, reassignment would “preserve the appearance of justice.” Among the reasons given in support of this factor, the majority opinion referred to the district court’s apparent predisposition to impose a harsh sentence on the defendants and its reliance on “legally erroneous interpretations of the guidelines.”
Lastly, reassignment would not waste judicial resources because the new judge would only have to review the C plea agreement, the PSRs, “and a few other documents.”
Judge Kethledge concurred in the judgment. He noted that the parties’ agreement on a particular sentence does not obligate a district court to provide reasons why that sentence is unreasonable. He also pointed out that when a district court rejects a C plea agreement Rule 11(c)(5) does not require an explanation of why the agreement was rejected. Nevertheless, the record must provide the appellate court with an adequate basis to determine if rejection of the plea agreement is an abuse of discretion.
Judge Kethledge concluded that the district court’s belief that the defendants were ineligible for safety valve relief was “legally mistaken” and thus rejection of the plea agreement was an abuse of discretion.