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Media Alerts - USA v. Long - Fifth Circuit
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July 2, 2013
  USA v. Long - Fifth Circuit
Headline: Fifth Circuit Allows Government to Seek Enhanced Sentence, Rejecting Defendant's Reliance on Alleged Promises Not Reflected in His Formal Plea Agreement.

Area of Law: Federal Sentencing, Plea Agreements.

Issue Presented: Whether a court, when considering which terms are included in a plea agreement, can consider extrinsic evidence in the form of an email exchange between the Government and defense counsel.

Brief Summary: In 2011 Scott Long pled guilty to a federal criminal charge pursuant to a written plea agreement containing a merger clause. Long contended that the Government agreed in a prior email exchange that it would not seek a leader/organizer sentencing enhancement pursuant to U.S.S.G. § 3B1.1(a), but the written plea agreement itself made no mention of this. The presentence report ("PSR") recommended the leader/organizer enhancement. The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas denied Long's motion to enforce the plea agreement on the basis that the email exchange did not represent an extra promise precluding the Government from seeking a leader/organizer enhancement, and the court adopted the PSR's recommendations. Long appealed, asserting that the Government breached the plea agreement by supporting the leader/organizer sentencing enhancement recommended in the PSR. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed Long's sentence, holding that under general principles of contract law when an agreement is unambiguous the courts will not look beyond the four corners of the document, and that Long did not rely on the emails in pleading guilty.

Extended Summary: In 2011 Scott Long pled guilty to a federal criminal charge, pursuant to a written plea agreement containing a merger clause. Long contended that the Government agreed in a prior email exchange that it would not seek a leader/organizer sentencing enhancement pursuant to U.S.S.G. § 3B1.1(a), but the written plea agreement itself made no mention of the Government's stance as to a leader/organizer enhancement. The PSR included the enhancement. Long's counsel filed objections to the leader/organizer sentencing enhancement recommended in the PSR prior to sentencing. The Government stated in response that the PSR was accurate and that it had no objections. Long's counsel then filed a motion to enforce the agreement. At sentencing the Government stated that the written plea agreement represented the complete terms of the governing plea deal. Long's counsel conceded that the written plea agreement did not contain language precluding the Government from seeking a leader/organizer enhancement but contended that the actual wording in the plea agreement did not govern the issue. The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas denied Long's motion to enforce the plea agreement on the basis that the email exchange did not represent an extra promise precluding the Government from seeking a leader/organizer enhancement. Before accepting Long's plea, the district court had asked Long whether there were any other promises or assurances that were made in an effort to persuade him to plead guilty that did not get written down in the plea agreement, or whether there was any "secret agreement out there someplace?" Long had responded in the negative. Consequently, the district court adopted the PSR's recommendations.

Long appealed, contending that the Government breached the plea agreement by supporting the leader/organizer sentencing enhancement recommended in the PSR and supporting it at sentencing. Long asserted that the email exchange was part of the plea agreement because it reasonably induced him to plead guilty. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed Long's sentence, holding that under general principles of contract law when an agreement is unambiguous the courts will not look beyond the four corners of the document. Long's case is distinguished from prior cases in which a cover letter attached to the plea agreement was incorporated into the plea. There are no cases in which a court has looked beyond a cover letter attached to a plea agreement. The record also demonstrates, through Long's statements in court at the sentencing, that Long did not rely on the email exchange in pleading guilty.

For the full opinion, please see:
http://www.ca5.uscourts.gov/op...1/11-20726-CR0.wpd.pdf.

Panel: Chief Judge Stewart and Circuit Judges Smith and Wiener

Argument Date: 03/05/2013

Date of Issued Opinion: 07/02/2013

Docket Number: No. 11-20726

Decided: Affirmed

Case Alert Author: Kirsty Davis

Counsel: Amy Howell Alaniz for Plaintiff-Appellee United States of America; David Adler for Defendant-Appellant Long.

Author of Opinion: Chief Judge Stewart

Case Alert Circuit Supervisor: Aaron-Andrew P. Bruhl

    Posted By: Aaron Bruhl @ 07/02/2013 10:06 PM     5th Circuit  

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