Thursday, October 9, 2014
Panel Castigates Prosecutors Over Plea-Bargain Breach
By a MetNews Staff Writer
A defendant who pled guilty to illegally reentering the United States following deportation is entitled to be resentenced by a different judge because prosecutors breached the plea agreement by effectively convincing the judge to impose a greater sentence than the one they agreed to recommend, the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled yesterday.
Judge Kim M. Wardlaw excoriated prosecutors for the approach they took in the case of Paul G. Morales Heredia, who is also known by several other names, and who has been deported on several occasions.
In his current case, prosecutors agreed to a “fast-track” plea agreement, designed to expedite the immediate disposition of the case. In exchange for an agreement that prosecutors would recommend a six-month sentence, the defendant agreed to plead guilty at his first court appearance, waiving all conceivable rights and defenses, except that he could withdraw the plea if the judge declined to impose the recommended sentence.
Such agreements are permitted by Rule 11(1)(C) of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure. The rule allows the parties to negotiate a specific sentence or to agree to apply or not apply a specific provision of the Sentencing Guidelines, subject to court approval.
In the case of Morales Heredia, Wardlaw explained, the government recommended the six-month sentence that had been agreed upon, but informed the court in writing that the defendant had a “20-year criminal history” and detailed the facts of some of his prior crimes, including his possession of more than nine grams of heroin and his violently choking the mother of his child.
It also said he had a “propensity for drug trafficking and theft-related offenses.”
District Judge Steven Wilson of the Central District of California rejected the defense argument that prosecutors had breached the plea agreement, noting that it was up to him to decide whether to approve the agreement. He concluded that he would not, and when the defendant declined to withdraw his plea, Wilson sentenced him to 21 months in prison.
Wardlaw said the judge erred in finding that the plea agreement had not been breached.
“Whether intentional or not, the government breached the plea agreement by implicitly recommending a higher sentence than agreed upon,” the judge said.
“The government breaches its agreement with the defendant if it promises to recommend a particular disposition of the case, and then either fails to recommend that disposition or recommends a different one,” the judge wrote. “…When it offers to recommend a specific sentence, the government induces the defendant to forfeit his constitutional rights in exchange for a ‘united front.’”
Under the circumstances, she said, the appropriate remedy would be to reverse, vacate the conviction, and send the case to a different district judge for new proceedings. In this case, however, the remedy would be limited to sending the case back for resentencing because that is all the defendant asked for.
The case is United States v. Morales Heredia, 12-50331.
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