U.S. Seventh Circuit - The FindLaw 7th Circuit Court of Appeals Opinion Summaries Blog

Break Plea, Flee to Mexico, Get Below-Guidelines Sentence, Appeal

Got all that?

Javier Munoz pled guilty in 2007 to possession and distribution of cocaine charges. As part of his pretrial release terms, he agreed to show up to court as needed. After entering his guilty plea pursuant to a plea agreement, but before actual sentencing, he fled to Mexico.

Five years later, U.S. Marshalls tracked him down, extradited him, and he faced sentencing. This time, however, the government wasn't feeling nearly as generous and recommended a higher sentence than the plea bargain provided for. The probation officer's presentence report added upward adjustments for additional drugs, obstruction of justice, and possession of a dangerous weapon. It also deleted credits for acceptance of responsibility.

In total, he faced a guideline range of 210 to 262 months. His counsel suggested 121 to 144 months, which included approximately three to five years more than his original deal. The government wanted something in the middle of the calculated guidelines range. In the end, the court sentenced Munoz to 121 months on the drugs and 60 months for fleeing the country, for a total of 181 months.

That's steep, but as the Seventh Circuit noted, it's still 29 months below the guidelines.

Plea Bargain is a Contract

Pleas are interpreted by contract law terms, with the parties' reasonable expectations governing and ambiguities construed against the drafter (the government).

Munoz argues that the government got what they bargained for -- they avoided trial. Also, the plea agreement didn't explicitly state that he couldn't flee the country, so doing so didn't amount to a breach.

This is where reasonable expectations govern. While ambiguities are ordinarily interpreted against the government, and the plea bargain didn't explicitly prohibit hiding out in Mexico, it is implied that a defendant has to actually show up in order to fulfill the terms of a plea bargain. The Seventh Circuit calls this "implied but obvious." 

Law and common sense. Once in a while, they can coexist.

Delacruz Controls

The government argues that Delacruz controls. That case, decided in 1998, is nearly indistinguishable. Delacruz pled guilty to a drug crime, fled to Mexico before sentencing, and was apprehended trying to make a lucrative marijuana deal years later. The government pushed for a more severe sentence than the plea provided for.

Delacruz argued that the government was breaching their deal. The Seventh Circuit laughed, and held, "the government did not breach the plea agreement; rather Delacruz did so by not appearing for sentencing and continuing his criminal activity."

Munoz tries to distinguish Delacruz by arguing that he is a changed man ever since he, ya know, fled from a felony charge. Plus, he wasn't caught in the midst of a drug deal.

"Regardless of whether a defendant commits additional crimes after absconding, his failure to appear ... violates ... one of the fundamental premises underlying any plea agreement: a willingness to face the consequences of admitted criminal conduct."

In other words, you can't breach, then try to benefit from the plea bargain contract.

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