Court Upholds Broad Appellate Waiver Provision...Again


Binding plea agreements are increasingly rare today, which leaves many defendants to the district court's discretion at sentencing. The converse is true for appellate waivers. In the author's experience, the Government is seeking appellate waivers, either fully or in part, at an increasing rate in plea negotiations.

In United States v. Hollins-Johnson, the Sixth Circuit again considered the scope of an appellate waiver in a written plea agreement. In this case, the district court accepted Ms. Hollins-Johnson's written plea agreement wherein she agreed to plead guilty to a multi-count indictment. In her plea agreement, she agreed to waive her right to appeal her sentence so long as it did not exceed the statutory maximum. 

At sentencing, the district court sentenced Ms. Hollins-Johnson below the applicable statutory maximums for each of her offenses. She subsequently appealed her sentence, arguing the district court erred in denying her request for home confinement and her request to arrange her sentence so she and her husband (who was apparently also indicted) would not face incarceration at the same time.

After Ms. Hollins-Johnson filed her initial brief, the Government moved to dismiss her appeal, citing the appellate waiver from her plea agreement. Ms. Hollins-Johnson responded by arguing that the waiver was ambiguous and that she did not waive her right to challenge the means in which she had to serve her sentence. The Court disagreed, noting that the waiver provision was not ambiguous, and, since the district court did not sentence her in excess of the applicable statutory maximums for her offenses, the plea agreement's appellate waiver provision barred her appeal.

The Court likewise held the Government did not forfeit its dismissal argument for filing it after Ms. Hollins-Johnson filed her initial brief. An appellate waiver, the Court held, was merely a "claim-processing rule."

Absent binding plea agreements, defendants place their sentences squarely in the hands of district judges. In doing so, they should carefully evaluate whether they also wish to waive their ability to appeal the judges' decisions, as Ms. Hollins-Johnson did.


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