June 23, 2011

Supreme Court Decides Freeman v. United States

On June 23, 2011, the Supreme Court decided Freeman v. United States, No. 09-10245, holding that a defendant who enters into a plea agreement under Fed. R. Crim. P. 11(c)(1)(C) that specifies a particular sentence as a condition of the guilty plea may be eligible for relief under 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(2) if the Sentencing Commission later issues a retroactive amendment that reduces the sentence for the offense to which the defendant pled guilty.

Freeman was indicted for various crimes, including possessing with intent to distribute cocaine base under 21 U.S.C. § 841(a)(1). He entered into a plea agreement under Fed. R. Crim. P. 11(c)(1)(C) under which he agreed to plead guilty conditioned on receiving a specific sentence or sentencing range. The trial court accepted the plea agreement.

Three years later, the U.S. Sentencing Commission issued a retroactive amendment to the Guidelines that reduced Freeman's applicable sentencing range. Federal courts are generally prohibited under 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c) from modifying a sentence once it has been imposed. But Section 3582(c)(2) is an exception for defendants who have been sentenced based on a sentencing range that is subsequently lowered by the Sentencing Commission. Freeman moved the trial court for a sentence reduction under 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(2), but the court denied the motion and the Sixth Circuit affirmed on the ground that defendants who were sentenced after a plea agreement under Rule 11(c)(1)(C) were not eligible for relief under Section 3582(c)(2), absent a miscarriage of justice or mutual mistake.

The Supreme Court reversed. In a plurality opinion for four Justices, Justice Kennedy held that Section 3582(c)(2) does not impose a categorical bar on reducing the sentence of a defendant who entered a guilty plea under Rule 11(c)(1)(C) on the condition of receiving a specific sentence or sentencing range when the Sentencing Commission later retroactively amends the Guidelines to reduce the range for the crime. District judges always have discretion to impose an appropriate sentence, although that discretion should be framed by the Guidelines, whether the case involves a conviction after trial or a plea agreement under Rule 11. Section 3582(c)(2) gives district judges the power to correct sentences that depended on plea frameworks that later prove unjustified. In this case, the plurality held, Freeman's original sentence was based on the Guidelines, as the district court calculated the sentencing range under the Guidelines and  considered the Guidelines in deciding on the appropriate sentence. The plurality rejected the government's argument that sentences based on a plea under Rule 11 are based only on the agreement, and not on the Guidelines, so defendants sentenced under such pleas are not eligible for relief under Section 3582(c)(2).

Justice Sotomayor disagreed with the plurality that sentences following an agreement under Rule 11(c)(1)(C) are based on the Guidelines, and agreed with the dissenters that such sentences are based on the agreement itself, and not the Guidelines, so that relief under Section 3582(c)(2) is not available in the typical case. But Justice Sotomayor would permit defendants to seek a sentence reduction under Section 3582(c)(2) when the recommended sentence in the plea agreement is expressly tied to the Guidelines sentencing range. In that case, she opined, the sentence is "based on" the range employed and the defendant is eligible to seek relief under Section 3582(c)(2).

Because Justice Sotomayor's opinion was the fifth vote on both of the issues on which she opined, it is the operative opinion of the Court. See Marks v. United States, 430 U.S. 188, 193 (1977) (when there is no majority opinion, the narrowest opinion that commands the assent of five votes is the opinion of the Court).

Justice Kennedy delivered a plurality opinion in which Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, and Kagan joined. Justice Sotomayor filed an opinion concurring in the judgment. Chief Justice Roberts filed a dissenting opinion in which Justices Scalia, Thomas, and Alito joined. 

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