Criminal law - Fourth Circuit allows (section) 3582(c) (2) sentence modification under Rule 11 plea agreement to specific term - United States v. Dews.

Author:Patwardhan, Kimberly L.

Criminal Law--Fourth Circuit Allows [section] 3582(c)(2) Sentence Modification Under Rule 11 Plea Agreement to Specific Term--United States v. Dews, 551 F.3d 204 (4th Cir. 2008), reh 'g en banc granted, No. 08-6458 (4th Cir. Feb. 20, 2009), reh'g dismissed as moot, No. 08-6458 (4th Cir. May 4, 2009)

Although their application is no longer mandatory, the United States Sentencing Guidelines (USSG) still serve an important role in determining a defendant's sentence after conviction and whether a trial judge will accept a negotiated plea agreement. (1) Once imposed, a judge can only reduce a defendant's sentence for "extraordinary and compelling reasons," including the subsequent lowering of the USSG range upon which the sentence was based, as per 18 U.S.C. [section] 3582(c)(2). (2) In United States v. Dews, (3) the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit considered whether a sentence to a term of months imposed pursuant to a Rule 11 plea agreement is based on a USSG range for purposes of qualifying for reduction under [section] 3582(c)(2). (4) The Fourth Circuit held that when a Rule 11 plea to a term of imprisonment is negotiated by the parties and accepted by the court because it is within the applicable USSG range, a defendant may receive a sentence reduction in accordance with [section] 3582(c)(2). (5)

In April of 1998, Darrell Dews entered into a plea agreement to plead guilty to two crack cocaine related offenses. (6) Pursuant to Rule 11 of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure and in accordance with the sentencing guidelines, the parties agreed to a term of imprisonment of 168 months followed by five years of supervised release. (7) The agreement recognized that the court would independently calculate a sentence consistent with the sentencing guidelines, and Dews could withdraw his guilty plea only if the court imposed a sentence other than 168 months. (8) After accepting Dews's guilty plea, the court emphasized that the sentence would be "determined by reference to the sentencing guidelines." (9) Based on its independent calculations and the report of the probation officer, the court accepted the 168-month sentence specifically because it was within the applicable USSG range. (10)

Ten years later, the Sentencing Commission retroactively lowered the sentencing guideline ranges for offenses involving crack cocaine. (11) Dews moved for a sentence reduction under 18 U.S.C. [section] 3582(c)(2) because the USSG amendment reduced the applicable guidelines range for the crimes for which he was sentenced. (12) The district court denied the motion because it concluded that sentences imposed pursuant to a plea agreement are not eligible for reduction under the statute. (13)

Prior to 1984, federal trial judges had broad, practically unfettered discretion in imposing and modifying sentences of criminal defendants. (14) Concerns over sentence disparity prompted Congress to enact the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984 (SRA), abolishing the prior system and authorizing the newly formed Sentencing Commission to devise sentencing guidelines that would accomplish uniformity in sentencing. (15) Under the new SRA, sentences may only be modified in accordance with 18 U.S.C. [section] 3582(c). (16) Section 3582(c)(2) permits and authorizes, but does not mandate, a sentence reduction when a "term of imprisonment based on a sentencing range . . . has subsequently been lowered by the Sentencing Commission pursuant to 28 U.S.C. 994(o)." (17) A proceeding under [section] 3582(c)(2) is not a "do over" of the original sentencing proceeding with full constitutional protections, and has been characterized as a mechanism for equitable sentencing relief to promote the congressional purpose of sentence parity. (18) Sentence reduction, however, is a statutory mechanism, and defendants may only invoke it when they fall within the ambit of the statute. (19)

Each year, federal courts sentence approximately ninety-five percent of all defendants pursuant to Rule 11 plea agreements. (20) Although the Supreme Court has never specifically held that commercial contract law applies to criminal plea agreements, the Court has used contract principles to interpret plea agreements. (21) A plea agreement, however, is not just a "contract between two parties" because a plea agreement involves the constitutional rights of the defendant. (22) The court's involvement in plea agreement proceedings serves many purposes, including enforcement of the contract's plain language, ensuring that each party receives the benefit of the bargain, and protecting the integrity of the criminal justice system. (23)

Several circuits have addressed the intersection of Rule 11 plea agreements and sentence reductions under [section] 3582(c)(2). (24) The majority of courts have held that a sentence imposed pursuant to a Rule 11 plea is not based on a guidelines range because the sentence actually is based on the arrangement of the parties, as embodied in the plea agreement. (25) In United States v. Sanchez, (26) the Third Circuit reasoned that a binding plea agreement has no meaning if it can be changed by the discretionary possibility of a different sentence pursuant to [section] 3582(c). (27) The consensus is that when a judge imposes a sentence pursuant to a Rule 11 plea agreement, that sentence is not based on a sentencing range and will never qualify for a sentence reduction. (28)

In United States v. Dews, however, the Fourth Circuit determined that a sentence imposed pursuant to a plea agreement qualifies as a sentence "based on a sentencing range" pursuant to 18 U.S.C. [section] 3582(c)(2). (29) The majority considered the agreement itself, the negotiations between the parties, and the consideration given to the USSG when the trial judge accepted the plea agreement, and determined that the trial court based Dews's sentence on a guidelines range. (30) The majority distinguished previous cases, reasoning that although the parties' agreement bound the court, the agreement did not prohibit Dews from seeking sentencing relief if the Sentencing Commission retroactively lowered a relevant guideline. (31) The majority concluded that the requirements of [section] 3582(c)(2) were satisfied--the sentence was based on a sentencing guidelines range that was subsequently lowered--and...

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