Monday, June 22, 2015

District Court Abused Its Discretion When It Rejected Plea Agreement Because It Contained Appeal Waiver

US v. Vanderwerff, No. 13-1227 (10th Cir. 2015): District court abused its discretion in rejecting defendant's first plea agreement because it included an appeal waiver. Defendant was charged with child pornography offenses. His first plea agreement limited defendant's sentencing exposure to 5-10 years. It included an appeal waiver and the other usual waivers. The district court rejected the plea agreement because it included the appeal waiver, reasoning appeal waivers should be included only when justified by the circumstances and facts of the particular case, and such circumstances were not present here. Subsequently, the parties negotiated a new agreement, that did not include the appellate waiver and that was otherwise worse for the defendant, especially in that his sentencing exposure was now five to 20 years. He ended up with a sentence of 108 months. On appeal, the parties and court-appointed amicus counsel all agreed the district court abused its discretion. The Tenth agreed. The district court misread Laffler and Booker when it concluded those cases to justify rejection of the appellate waiver. 18 USC 3553 is also inapplicable; it applies to imposition of sentence and not to the entry of guilty plea. The district court failed to properly defer to the government's prosecutorial discretion in fashioning plea agreements. And the Tenth reminded everyone that it and the Supreme Court likes and approves of plea bargaining and appellate waivers. No one asked for harmless error analysis, so the Tenth did not go there. The Court vacated the judgment and remanded to allow the defendant to withdraw his guilty plea, and (presumably) get back his original plea offer (thought the Court did not specifically order that result).