Eighth Circuit Affirms Imposition of Lengthy Sentences Despite Erroneous Estimates in Plea Agreements
Mar 23rd, 2014
Time and again, the issue on appeal involves a defendant whose presentence report estimated a guideline range far higher than that in his plea agreement – sometimes triggering three-strikes laws and mandatory minimum sentences. Two recent cases, United States v. Ruacho, issued on March 11, 2014 (published), and United Haubrich, issued on March 3, 2014 (published), exemplify the problem, and are reminders to defense counsel to analyze the defendant’s rap sheet carefully prior to advising entry of a guilty plea (and when in doubt, call the excellent Sentencing Resource Counsel of the Federal Defenders).
United States v. Ruacho
Ruacho pled guilty to distribution of meth, cocaine and marijuana, under a plea agreement that stated the parties believed Ruacho’s criminal history category (CHC) was I, which would render Ruacho eligible for the safety valve that would eliminate the applicable 120-month mandatory minimum sentence. In fact, two prior misdemeanor marijuana convictions placed Ruacho in CHC II, and he was ineligible for the safety valve. The district court “reluctantly” sentenced Ruacho to 10 years, noting that the statutory minimum sentence that it was “forced” to impose was “grossly excessive,” “grossly unfair” and “unjust.” But for the mandatory minimum sentence, the district court would have imposed a sentence of 60 months. The Eighth Circuit affirmed, finding that Ruacho’s two marijuana convictions were indeed prior sentences that catapulted Ruacho into CHC II and beyond the reach of the safety valve.
United States v. Haubrich
Haubrich pled to burglary and distribution of a controlled substance. It is not clear what (if any) guideline estimate was in his plea agreement. He claimed at one point that his defense attorney promised him a sentence of five years. In fact, his presentence report determined he was a career offender, with a guideline range of 360 months to life. The district court, after denying his two motions to withdraw his guilty plea, sentenced him to 360 months. The Eighth Circuit affirmed, finding there was no abuse of discretion in denying the motions to withdraw the guilty plea on grounds of ineffective assistance, where the defendant “acknowledged that his counsel’s performance was reasonable at the change-of plea hearing,” and, despite any promises made by his counsel, Haubrich was advised of the 20-year maximum sentences for four of his counts. Of course, Haubrich was hardly in a position to know at his change-of-plea hearing that his lawyer had apparently grossly miscalculated his sentencing exposure. The question – not answered in this decision – is whether Haubrich was told in advance of his guilty plea that he was a career offender, and that this plea would subject him to the kind of sentence usually reserved for murderers?
Notably, neither Ruacho nor Haubrich makes any mention of the Supreme Court’s 2012 cases in Frye and Lafler, which held that a defendant had a constitutional right to effective representation in the plea bargaining stage. Surely, an elementary requirement of this right is that the client’s counsel makes an accurate assessment of the sentencing implications of the client’s criminal history?
In an ironic development, two days after the Court issued Ruacho, A.G. Holder testified before the U.S. Sentencing Commission regarding proposed changes to the drug guidelines. A little too late for Ruacho, he noted:
Among the key changes I mandated as part of this [smart on crime] initiative is a modification of the Justice Department’s charging policies – to ensure that people convicted of certain low-level, nonviolent federal drug crimes will face sentences appropriate to their individual conduct – rather than stringent mandatory minimums, which will now be applied only to the most serious criminals. The Commission’s proposed amendment to the Federal Sentencing Guidelines would help to further advance and institutionalize this work, controlling the federal prison population and ensuring just and proportional sentences.
Another recent similar case:
United States v. Hernandez Rodriguez, issued January 31, 2014, (affirming district court’s sentencing calculation and sentence as well as its denial of the defendant’s motion to withdraw his guilty plea where the defendant his defense counsel had been ineffective in exposing him to an enhancement for an aggravating role under U.S.S.G. § 3B1.1, which made him ineligible for a safety valve reduction under U.S.S.G. § 2D1.1(b)(16)).