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Media Alerts - United States v. Williams et al. -- Fourth Circuit
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February 24, 2016
  United States v. Williams et al. -- Fourth Circuit
Stick to the Sentencing Guidelines for Best Chance of Review

Areas of Law: Criminal Procedure

Issues Presented: Whether the district court complied with Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 11 when accepting the defendants guilty pleas; and whether one of the sentences was reasonable.

Brief Summary: Defendants David James Williams and Kristin Deantanetta Williams each pled guilty to one count of conspiracy to possess and distribute cocaine and cocaine base. Both stipulated to a sentence of 120 months of imprisonment under Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure Rule 11 (c)(1)(c) in their plea agreements. The district court sentenced them accordingly. The defendants appealed their convictions to the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit. The Fourth Circuit found no error with the convictions and affirmed. Appellant Kristin Williams also challenged her sentence on appeal.

Before accepting a plea, the district court is required to engage in a colloquy with the defendant to make sure the defendant understands the nature of the charges for which the plea is offered, any mandatory minimum and maximum penalties, and the rights the defendant is giving up by pleading guilty. A plea colloquy is reviewed for plain error, as opposed to harmless error, if the defendant does not ask to withdraw her guilty plea in the district court. Applying these rules to the cases before it, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit concluded that the district court complied with Rule 11's requirements and rejected the challenges.

With respect to Kristin Williams sentencing challenges, an appellate court may only review a defendant's sentence if: (1) it was imposed in violation of law; (2) it was imposed as a result of an incorrect application of the sentencing guidelines; (3) it is greater than the sentence specified in the applicable guideline range; or (4) it was imposed for an offense for which there is no sentencing guideline and is plainly unreasonable. However, a defendant who is sentenced pursuant to a stipulated plea agreement cannot appeal under (3) or (4) above unless the sentence imposed is greater than the sentence in the agreement.

In the instant case, the 120-month sentence Kristin Williams received was exactly what she stipulated to in the plea agreement. Therefore, the sentence did not run afoul of appellate review options (1), (3), or (4), described above. The only option the Fourth Circuit had for reviewing Williams' sentence was if her sentence had been imposed as a result of an incorrect application of the sentencing guidelines.

In previous opinions the Fourth Circuit has suggested that a sentence imposed pursuant to a Rule 11(c)(1)(c) plea agreement is not imposed as a result of an incorrect application of the Sentencing Guidelines because it is based on the parties' agreement--not on the district court's calculation of the Guidelines. Other circuits treat sentences imposed pursuant to Rule 11(c)(1)(c) differently. The court looked to the Supreme Court case Freeman v. United States to clarify its position. In Freeman, the Supreme Court held that a sentence imposed pursuant to a Rule 11(c)(1)(c) plea agreement is generally based on the agreement and not the Sentencing Guidelines. An exception exists where the "...agreement uses a Guideline sentencing range applicable to the charged offense to establish the term of imprisonment." Thus the Fourth Circuit clarified that a sentence imposed pursuant to a Rule 11(c)(1)(c) plea agreement may be reviewed only if the "agreement expressly uses a Guidelines sentencing range applicable to the charged offense to establish the term of imprisonment."

This clarification of the rule allows appeals of sentences that are imposed as a result of incorrect application of the Sentencing Guidelines. It also will allow review of some stipulated plea sentences. Appellant Kristin Williams, however, was not helped by the clarified rule because her plea agreement did not use the Sentencing Guidelines to calculate her sentence. Her sentence was not imposed as a result of an incorrect application of the Sentencing Guidelines and the Fourth Circuit could not review the reasonableness of the sentence. Therefore, the Fourth Circuit dismissed Williams' appeal of her sentence.

Panel: Judges Wilkinson, Shedd, and Wynn

Argument Date: 10/29/2015

Date of Issued Opinion: 1/28/2016

Docket Number: No. 14-4680, No. 14-4689

Decided: Affirmed in part, dismissed in part by published opinion.

Case Alert Author: Diamond Martin, Univ. of Maryland Carey School of Law

Counsel: Melvin Wayne Cockrell, III, THE COCKRELL LAW FIRM, PC, Chesterfield, South Carolina; Kathy Price Elmore, ORR, ELMORE & ERVIN, LLC, Florence, South Carolina, for Appellants. Robert Frank Daley, Jr., OFFICE OF THE UNITED STATES ATTORNEY, Columbia, South Carolina, for Appellee. ON BRIEF: William N. Nettles, United States Attorney, OFFICE OF THE UNITED STATES ATTORNEY, Columbia, South Carolina, for Appellee.

Author of Opinion: Judge Wynn

Case Alert Supervisor: Professor Renée Hutchins

    Posted By: Renee Hutchins @ 02/24/2016 11:22 AM     4th Circuit  

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