Supreme Court Reverses Sixth Circuit: Amended Crack Guideline Relief Is (Probably) Available in (C) Pleas

Yesterday, in a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court reversed the Sixth Circuit in Freeman v. United States, holding that Petitioner William Freeman could move for a sentence reduction because of retroactive amendments to the crack guidelines.

In United States v. Goins, 355 Fed. App'x 1 (6th Cir. Nov. 20, 2009), the Sixth Circuit (Boggs, Rogers, White) had found that Freeman was not eligible for a sentence reduction because he had plead guilty pursuant to an agreement under Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 11(c)(1)(C), known colloquially as a "(C) plea." In a (C) plea, the defendant and the prosecutor agree on a sentence and that sentence binds the court if the court accepts the plea.

William Freeman and his prosecutor had agreed in 2005 that Freeman would serve 106 months in prison for possession of crack cocaine and a firearm. The agreement recognized that Freeman's Guidelines range for the crack possession was 46-57 months. The court accepted the (C) plea.

Three years later, the Sentencing Commission issued a retroactive Guidelines amendment to attempt to remedy the crack/powder sentencing disparity. This amendment lowered Freeman's range on the crack count to 37-46 months. Freeman moved to have his sentence reduced under the proper the statutory mechanism. The Sixth Circuit reasoned that a sentence predicated upon a (C) plea was the result of a bargain between prosecution and defense, not the Guidelines. In a strong concurrence, however, Judge White argued that, were she not bound by precedent, she would remand the case with instructions to determine whether the original sentence was based on the Guidelines.

The Supreme Court ultimately vindicated Judge White. Four Justices (Kennedy, Ginsburg, Breyer, and Kagan) found that defendants with (C) pleas can move for sentence reductions. Four Justices (Roberts, Alito, Thomas, and Scalia) held that they cannot. The controlling opinion, however, is Justice Sotomayor's currence. She pragmatically held that a petitioner with a (C) plea could move for a sentence reduction if his plea expressly used the now-amended Sentencing Guidelines range as part of the calculus of his sentence.

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