Tuesday, July 24, 2012

No plea agreement breach when government gets the statutory maximum wrong

US v. Davis:  The government indicted William Davis for unlawful possession of a firearm by a convicted felon under 18 U.S.C. sect. 922(g)(1). Davis had three prior state felony convictions. The government presented a plea agreement in which Davis was incorrectly advised that he faced a ten-year maximum sentence when in fact, he faced a fifteen-year mandatory minimum based on his criminal history. Davis entered the plea agreement; to make matters worse, the district court similarly misadvised Davis at the plea hearing about the actual extent of exposure to punishment he faced.

The probation officer who prepared the pre-sentence investigation report discovered the errors and concluded that Davis’ sentence should be fifteen years to life in prison. At sentencing, Davis objected on three grounds, none of which included a contention that the government breached his plea agreement or that he had been misadvised regarding the statutory maximum punishment. The district court overruled his objections and designated Davis an armed career criminal, and sentenced him to 180 months.

Nine months later, Davis filed a claim under 28 U.S.C. sect. 2255 to challenge his sentence, based in part on his counsel’s failure to file a direct appeal upon his request. Davis’ attorney had recently died, so the Court granted his petition and gave him 14 days to appeal his sentence. He raised two issues: the government breached the plea agreement and deprived him of the benefit of his bargain; and his qualification as an armed career criminal.

The Fourth Circuit found that Davis’ claim of breaching the plea agreement failed because he sought "the benefit of a promise that the government never made," as it did not promise a particular sentence and made only "non-binding" recommendations and "no representations" as to the final sentence. Also, the district court has no discretion to sentence an individual in contravention of a statute, so even if the government had breached an agreement with Davis, he would not have been entitled to "specific performance" of that promise.

There was an appeal waiver contained in Davis’ plea agreement, but the Fourth Circuit found that his waiver was invalid because he did not knowingly waive the right to appeal the sentence ultimately imposed. The Fourth Circuit did not agree with Davis that he did not qualify for an armed career criminal enhancement, and upheld his sentence against this claim of error.

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