Guilty Pleas/Prosecutorial Misconduct – The Government breaches a plea agreement if it argues for a sentence within the Guidelines range determined by the sentencing court if that range is higher than the Guidelines range anticipated by the stipulations in the plea agreement.
Marshyia Ligon pleaded guilty to making a false in acquiring a firearm and entered into a written plea agreement with the Government. The agreement stipulated that the base offense level was 14, that no sentencing enhancements would apply, and that the parties would both recommend a within-Guidelines sentence “in accordance with the computations and stipulations in the agreement.”
At the sentencing hearing, the probation officer recommended applying a four-level enhancement under U.S.S.G. § 2K2.1(b)(6)(B) based on Ligon’s knowledge that the firearm would be used in connection with another felony offense. Ligon objected to the enhancement, the Government was initially silent, and the court applied the enhancement, which resulted in a higher range than anticipated in the plea agreement.
Citing the nature of the offense, Counsel for the Government requested that the Court impose a sentence within the Guidelines range the Court had calculated based on its application of the enhancement. Ligon’s counsel noted that the government was bound by the plea agreement to recommend a lower range that didn’t include the four-level enhancement. The court sentenced Ligon to a term of imprisonment within the Guidelines it had calculated.
After the sentence was imposed, Ligon reiterated her objection to the enhancement, and the district court asked the government “to explicitly state its objection for the record.” The AUSA responded that they were “not sure” if the Government had an objection, noting that the stipulations in the plea agreement was “still the government’s position” but also that the defendant “deserved” a sentence within the Guidelines range calculated by the court. The court prompted the AUSA to object to the enhancement, which they did, and the court overruled the objection.
On appeal, the Court held that the Government breached the plea agreement when it argued for a sentence in the Guidelines range calculated by the sentencing court. Specifically, the plea agreement had called for a specific Guidelines range based on specific stipulations on the base offense level, a lack of sentencing enhancements, and a reduction for acceptance of responsibility. The Court also chastised the Government for emphasizing the “egregious” nature of the offense and the defendant’s criminal history to argue for a sentence within the district court’s higher-than-anticipated range.
The Court also rejected the Government’s argument that it had “cured” its breach of the plea agreement by acknowledging its obligations after the sentence was imposed. While punting on the question of whether “curing” a breach of a plea agreement is permissible in the Sixth Circuit, the Court noted that a “cure” requires an “unequivocal retraction” by the Government and that, instead, the Government had doubled down by stating the defendant “deserved” the “lengthy” sentence imposed by the judge.
Choosing between allowing the defendant to withdraw his plea or to eb resentenced by a different judge, the Court held that the appropriate remedy in this case would be resentencing in front of a different judge. Rejecting the Government’s objections to having a new judge for resentencing, the Court responded that resentencing before a different judge “is necessary for defendants to get the benefit of the bargain, and to preserve the appearance of an impartial judiciary—one that is not influenced by the prosecutor’s previous breach.”
From the Northern District of Ohio
Opinion by Cole, joined by Griffin and Bush