Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Sentencing Judge Off the Sentencing Reservation

I am somewhat behind on this item out of the Second Circuit, United States v. Woltmann, 610 F.3d 37 (2d Cir. 2010), decided July 6. The case is bizarre because of the trial level sentencing. The Second Circuit reverses the sentence for one count of tax evasion which had been set at the low end of the Guidelines range as calculated in the plea agreement which also stated that the defendant would not appeal a sentence in that range. The problem was that, after the plea agreement was reached, the defendant gave substantial assistance to the Government and, as the plea agreement contemplated, the Government made the appropriate 5K.1 request by letter. The sentencing judge refused to give any effect to the 5K.1 request or other Section 3553(a) factors outside the plea agreement on the notion that the parties had agreed to everything in the plea agreement and the 5K.1 request was an improper attempt to change the plea agreement.

I think those interested in this topic should read the Second Circuit's opinion. Suffice it to say that the defendant's cooperation and the 5K.1 request often come after the plea agreement (otherwise the parameters of the 5K.1 factors would be set forth in the plea agreement )-- and thus adds an element for a more defendant-friendly sentence than would have been contemplated by the plea agreement. Furthermore, and in any event, the court has to determine the sentence not just on the factors enumerated in the plea agreement but based on all of the Section 3553(a) factors in context for the defendant before the court, whether or not they are part of the plea agreement. For the judge to behave in the way he did is just bizarre.

Despite the waiver of right to appeal, the Second Circuit reversed the sentence and remanded for new sentencing by a different judge not hampered by the bizarre sentencing notion articulated by the original sentencing judge. The Court summarized:

Applying these principles, we hold that vacatur is required because the district court: (1) improperly "relied" on the Agreement to the exclusion of the 5K1.1 letter and the § 3553(a) factors; and (2) misread the Agreement as manifesting Woltmann's enforceable concession that any sentence at or below 27 months obviated the need to consider the 5K1.1 letter and the § 3553(a) factors. In so doing, the district court failed to give effect to the parties' expectations and deprived Woltmann of the benefit that he (and the government) agreed he would receive from signing the Agreement (i.e., a weighing of the 5K1.1 letter and the § 3553 factors). At the same time, the court also "abdicated" its judicial responsibility in the way posited by Gomez-Perez, 215 F.3d at 319.
Surprisingly, the Second Circuit was not particularly polite in its expressions of disappointment with the original sentencing judge.  \

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