Monday, November 11, 2013

Ignored Plea Agreement Prompts Partial Reversal and Dismissal

United States v. Hughes, No. 12-60005 (Aug. 8, 2013) (King, Higginbotham, Clement)

            Hughes contested his convictions and sentence in this distribution conspiracy case. The panel affirmed in part and reversed in part the judgment of the district court.
            On the morning of trial, Hughes decided to plead guilty. The Government informed the court of an oral agreement for Hughes to plead guilty to the conspiracy count and continue the other four counts until sentencing at which time the Government would move to dismiss those counts. Without addressing this oral agreement, the court took Hughes’ guilty plea to all five of the counts. Hughes tried to withdraw his guilty pleas later, but the court denied that request. At sentencing, the Government moved to dismiss all but the conspiracy count, but the court denied that request and handed down sentences on all five counts of Hughes’ indictment.
            Hughes raised three main arguments on his appeal: (1) his change-of-plea hearing was procedurally deficient under Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 11, (2) the district court abused its discretion in denying his motion to withdraw his guilty pleas, and (3) the district court abused its discretion in not dismissing the telephone counts on the Government’s motion.
            In regards to Hughes’ first argument, the panel found it to be unavailing since Hughes failed to show a reasonable probability that he would not have pleaded guilty. In regards to Hughes’ second concern, the panel held that the district court did not abuse its discretion when it denied Hughes’ motion to withdraw his guilty pleas. According to the Carr test, the district court’s decision was justified. Finally, the panel found that the district court failed to supply reasoning for sentencing Hughes to the substantive counts, so the refusal to dismiss Counts 2-5 was an abuse of discretion. The panel affirmed the judgment of the court with respect to Hughes’ conspiracy count, but reversed the denial of the motion to dismiss Counts 2-5. The panel then dismissed Counts 2-5.
            Judge Higginbotham concurred with the judgment handed down by the district court because neither Hughes nor the government clarified whether the plea deal was still in effect as of sentencing.
            Judge King dissented. She argued that Hughes should have been given notification as to whether the plea agreement concerning Counts 2-5 was accepted or declined. Furthermore, since Hughes was denied his right to withdraw his guilty plea, she would have vacated the convictions and sentence and remanded the matter to the district court to clarify its stance on accepting or rejecting the plea agreement.

Thanks to FPD Intern Matthew Gonzalez for this blog post.

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