Third Circuit precludes § 3582(c) sentence reduction where sentence is stipulated in Rule 11 binding plea agreement.
In United States v. Sanchez, No. 08-1847 (3d Cir. April 3, 2009), a panel majority affirmed the District Court’s denial of Sanchez’s motion to reduce his sentence under 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c). Although the District Court's denial was based on determining that the offense of conviction carried a mandatory minimum sentence, the Court of Appeals affirmed the denial on an alternative ground that the District Court did not address: that Sanchez's sentence was the result of a Rule 11 binding plea agreement. Circuit Judge Roth dissented, reasoning that a defendant who agrees to a stipulated sentence in a binding plea agreement should – like a defendant sentenced after a jury verdict – be eligible for a sentence reduction.
Sanchez went to trial on a seven-count indictment alleging drug trafficking and firearm possession charges. During trial, Sanchez and the Government entered into an oral binding plea agreement in which Sanchez agreed to plead guilty to one count of criminal conspiracy to distribute drugs, under 21 U.S.C. § 846. In the change of plea hearing, counsel represented that this plea agreement included three key stipulations: (1) that the quantity of drugs was "between 35 and 50 grams of crack cocaine"; (2) that Sanchez had no prior criminal record, and that no "enhancements . . . would apply to this particular sentence"; and (3) that the sentence would be 120 months.
Under the then-applicable 2001 edition of the Sentencing Guidelines manual, the stipulated drug quantity of "at least 35 grams but less than 50 grams of cocaine base" led to a base offense level of 30; with the agreed criminal history category I, Sanchez’s Guidelines sentencing range would have been 97-121 months – encompassing the stipulated sentence of 120 months. But despite the plea agreement’s stipulation as to drug weight, the Probation Office found a drug weight of 50 or more grams of crack cocaine, which led the Probation Office to conclude: (1) the Guidelines sentencing range was 121-151 months; and (2) 21 U.S.C. § 846, for that drug weight, carried a mandatory minimum sentence of 120 months.
At sentencing, the District Court accepted the Probation Office’s factual findings and Guidelines calculations. Based on counsels’ oral representations of the terms of the binding plea agreement, the District Court accepted the oral plea agreement as binding under Rule 11, and imposed the stipulated prison sentence of 120 months.
Then, in 2008 – after the Sentencing Commission retroactively amended U.S.S.G. § 2D1.1 to reduce the base offense levels for crack cocaine offenses by two offense levels – Sanchez filed a motion for sentence reduction under 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c). The District Court denied the motion on the ground that because Sanchez’s conviction was for distributing 50 grams or more of cocaine, which carried a mandatory minimum sentence of 120 months, he was not eligible for sentence reduction under §3582(c).
On appeal, the Court of Appeals applied the de novo standard of review to the District Court’s ruling that it lacked authority to reduce Sanchez’s sentence.
The Court of Appeals considered, first, Sanchez’s argument that the District Court erred because Sanchez’s conviction did not carry a mandatory minimum sentence, since the plea agreement stipulated drug weight as under 50 grams. The Court of Appeals acknowledged that Sanchez’s argument had "some logical force" and factual support in the record, noting specifically that the Government’s brief had conceded that it was "unclear . . . whether Sanchez was subject to a [ten]-year mandatory minimum sentence . . . ." But the Court chose not to rule on this argument, instead affirming the District Court’s denial on an alternative ground.
Citing decisions in the Sixth, Seventh, and Tenth Circuits – and explicitly noting a Fourth Circuit decision to the contrary, United States v. Dews, 551 F.3d 204 (4th Cir. 2008) – the Court of Appeals ruled that the 120-month stipulated sentence precluded relief under § 3582(c). Circuit Judge Jordan’s opinion considered but rejected Sanchez’s argument that the stipulated sentence was "based on" the Sentencing Guidelines for purposes of a § 3582(c) motion, as the parties agreed to – and the District Court accepted – the 120-month sentence specifically because it fell within the properly calculated Guidelines range. In a concurrence, Circuit Judge Rendell opined that considering whether the stipulated sentence was "based on" the Guidelines was unnecessary: "[t]he agreement is the agreement, binding on the District Court without exception applicable here."
Circuit Judge Roth dissented, observing that the majority’s decision permitted the logical inconsistency of allowing resentencing under § 3582(c) for criminal defendants who go to trial and are convicted by a binding jury verdict, but not those who save judicial and governmental resources by entering into a binding plea agreement. Judge Roth, finding the Fourth Circuit’s decision in Dews persuasive, would permit defendants sentenced under binding plea agreements to move for resentencing based on a Guidelines change, as a binding plea agreement "does not necessarily include the waiver of a defendant’s right to seek resentencing . . . . if at some point in the future the Guideline on which his sentence is based changes. Such a waiver must be specifically bargained for, just like the waiver of a defendant’s right of appeal . . . ."
According to Judge Roth, eligibility for § 3582(c) relief is especially compelling if the Guidelines change would – as here – "affect the basic elements that led up to the final plea agreed upon." Judge Roth credited Sanchez’s argument that, based on a fair reading of the record, "it strains credulity to imagine that [Sanchez’s] plea was not based on the Guidelines." Judge Roth noted that when a defendant considers pleading guilty, "the sentencing consequences, including the impact of the Sentencing Guidelines, are a crucial element in reaching the bargain," and that "[i]t requires only the smallest inference to determine [that the] . . . Guidelines sentence range provided the boundaries of what would be acceptable to both the Government and Sanchez, resulting in their selection of 120 months in their plea agreement."