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The legal system incentivizes plea bargaining. A defendant typically gets a lighter sentence for accepting responsibility for his actions.
But a recent decision from the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals could make plea bargains much more specific.
In 2009, David Duvall was arrested and indicted for conspiracy to distribute crack cocaine. Duvall pleaded guilty pursuant to a Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 11(c)(1)(C) plea agreement.
A Rule 11(c)(1)(C) plea agreement generally specifies an agreed-upon sentence or sentencing range. In Duvall's case, the district court accepted the plea agreement and sentenced him accordingly. On appeal, however, Duvall argued that he was entitled to a sentence reduction because the advisory Sentencing Guidelines governing crack-related offenses were retroactively lowered after he was sentenced.
Federal law allows sentence reductions when a defendant "has been sentenced to a term of imprisonment based on a sentencing range that has subsequently been lowered by the Sentencing Commission." But Duvall's sentence wasn't based on a Guidelines sentencing range; it was based on a plea agreement made under the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure. And that makes a difference.
In Freeman v. U.S., the Supreme Court was pretty divided regarding whether the sentence in a Rule 11(c)(1)(C) case was based on the plea agreement, the Guidelines or both. Four Justices concluded that sentences under Rule 11(c)(1)(C) plea agreements are "based on" the Guidelines sentencing range calculated by the judge; four Justices concluded that the sentences are "based on" the plea agreement, and not "based on" a Guidelines sentencing range; and Justice Sonia Sotomayor concluded that the sentences are "based on" the plea agreement, but in a specific subset of cases are also "based on" a Guidelines sentencing range.
Justice Sotomayor's opinion sets forth two possible ways in which a Rule 11(c)(1)(C) plea agreement may be "based on" a Guidelines sentencing range, thereby making the defendant eligible for a sentence reduction if the relevant Guidelines sentencing range is later amended.
First, the plea agreement may not provide for a specific term of imprisonment, but instead may explicitly provide "for the defendant to be sentenced within a particular Guidelines sentencing range." In that situation, the defendant has been sentenced "based on" the specified Guidelines sentencing range, and may be eligible for a sentence reduction if the relevant Guidelines sentencing range is later amended.
Second, the plea agreement may provide for a specific term of imprisonment but may still "make clear that the basis for the specified term is a Guidelines sentencing range applicable to the offense to which the defendant pleaded guilty." In those circumstances, it can be "evident from the agreement itself" that the sentence is based on a Guidelines sentencing range.
Applying Justice Sotomayor's opinion, the D.C. Circuit noted that Duvall's plea agreement neither expressly specified the Guidelines sentencing range nor expressly specified the offense level or criminal history category. Therefore, the appellate court concluded that Duvall's sentence was not based on a Guidelines sentencing range and he wasn't eligible for a sentence reduction.