Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Valid appeal waiver prevents appeal of Rule 35(b) motion denial

US v. Thornsbury:  In this appeal, the Fourth Circuit determined that the appellant, Thornsbury, waived his right to appeal a district court’s denial of a Rule 35(b) motion filed by the Government to reward his substantial assistance in a separate case (prison assault in which he was the victim). While the district court considered "non-assistance factors" in reaching its decision, the Fourth Circuit did not reach the merits of the district court’s decision; instead, it found dispositive the issue whether Thornsbury waived his right to appeal the denial of the Rule 35(b) motion and dismissed Thornsbury’s appeal.

Thornsbury’s plea agreement contained the following waiver: as long as his sentence fell within the advisory guidelines range, he "knowingly and voluntarily waives his right to seek appellate review of any sentence of imprisonment or fine imposed by the District Court, or the manner in which the sentence was determined, on any other ground whatsoever including any ground set forth in 18 U.S.C. § 3742..."

Thornsbury argued that Rule 35(b) proceedings were not part of the plea agreement, so he could not have intelligently or knowingly waived his rights related to them; and secondly, that his challenge was outside the normal purview of valid appeal waivers. The Fourth Circuit found that to agree with Thornsbury’s arguments would be to undermine the value of appellate waivers. Moreover, Thornsbury’s sentence was not so "illegal," not more than just "touched by a legal error," to warrant disregarding the appellate waiver. Arguments against such "illegal" sentences may include challenging a district court’s exceeding its authority, a district court’s consideration of a constitutionally impermissible factor (e.g., race), or a post-plea violation of the right to counsel.

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